Music of a Life

Written by Andrei Makine Geoffrey Strachan (trans.)

In this densely written novella, Russian author Andrei Makine evokes the grim, gray, repressive atmosphere of Soviet Russia from the early 1940s to the 1950s: a lot of ground to cover in just over one hundred pages. The protagonist, Alexei Berg, narrates the story of his life to a chance acquaintance in a desolate railway station in the Urals. Alexei had been a promising young concert pianist in Moscow in 1941, but, on the eve of his concert debut, his parents are arrested by the secret police, and Alexei flees in disguise, ending up at the farmhouse of a distant relative in the Ukraine. As the Germans overrun the country, he steals the uniform and identity papers of a dead Russian soldier and fights bravely through to the end of the war. But always he is just one step ahead of being exposed as the son of political prisoners. After the war, he becomes a general’s driver and is befriended by the general’s pretty, flirtatious 17-year-old daughter. In scenes of painful irony, she offers to teach him to play simple tunes on the piano and Alexei must force himself to play like a clumsy beginner. I won’t give away the ending, but it isn’t pretty. A depressing read—like anything about the Soviet Unionbut, if you’re in the mood for it very affecting.