Andreï Makine: The Woman Who Waited
If the unnamed narrator of Andreï Makine’s The Woman Who Waited (2004) was of the same era as the titular woman he would have been packed up and sent off to war and learnt a bit about the harsh realities of life. But the war was thirty years ago and in the Russia of the 1970s, under Brehznev, this young man has instead been packed up and sent off to university, only to have his disdain for the government shaped by the enclave of of writers, artists, and other liberals he finds himself amongst.
That’s all backstory, however, to The Woman Who Waited, which begins years later, looking back at those years and, for the narrator, the event that lingers on in his memory. Back then he was an arrogant young writer who takes up an opportunity to head out from Leningrad to a desolate village in the rural north – where a handful of old woman and just enough childen to run a single room school live – to research the folklore of the people.
The village, however, has little folklore to share, any tradition it once had now in ruins due to the war:
For it was this that had erased all other legends from the popular memory. To these elderly inhabitants of Mirnoe it was becoming the one remaining myth, a vivid and personal one, and one in which the immortals, both good and evil, were their own husbands and sons, the Germans, the Russian soldiers, Stalin, Hitler. And more specifically, the soldier Vera was waiting for.
Vera, a woman in her mid-forties, is the woman our narrator becomes fixated by. Thirty years before her husband-to-be went off to war and never returned. Through all this time there’s little in her loss to suggest she has given up the ghost or that her unflinching hope has slipped into ritual:
At this crossroads there was a small sign fixed to a post bearing the name of the village, Mirnoe. A little below this a mailbox had been nailed to it, empty for most of the time but occasionally harbouring a local newspaper. Vera went up to the post, lifted the box’s tin flap, thrust her hand inside it. Even from a long way off I sensed that the gesture was not automatic, that it had still not become automatic.
To our narrator, she’s a simple person. Indeed all these village types are. While Vera continues the wait for her husband, she spends her time teaching the children, looking after the women of Mirnoe, and, when she allows herself time, taking off to the train station to wait once more. There’s nothing in their lives, from what he can intuit, that makes them his equal. On first meeting Vera, having heard about her story, he stupidly assumes that there is nothing about her that can surprise him:
I followed her with my eyes for a long time, struck by a simple notion that made all other thoughts about her destiny pointless: ‘There goes a woman,’ I said to myself, ‘about whom I know everything. Her whole life is there before me, concentrated in that distant figure walking beside the lake. She’s a woman who’s waiting for the man she loves for thirty years, that is, from time immemorial.’
But as the two spend more time together Vera continues to surprise our narrator, consistently challenging his every preconceived idea about village life, village people, and herself. When it was once thought fit for satire , it becomes clear that “these villages were quite simply abandoned or dying, reduced to a mode of survival not very different from the stone age”. He even finds himself, in relation to the world in which he grew up, coming to understand how irrelevant some things are:
‘I also realized that up here in Mirnoe all those debates we had in Leningrad, whether anti-Soviet or pro-Soviet, meant nothing. Coming here, I found half a dozen very old women who’d lost their families in the war and were going to die. As simple as that. Human beings getting ready to die alone, not complaining, not seeking someone to blame.’
Makine’s telling of the story is beautifully translated and eminently readable, the prose often lyrical, always engaging, the lightness of its meditations hiding the weight of their message which, like its haunting tone, echo long after the last page has been turned. To the narrator, by capturing Vera in prose “a kind of murder occurs” in the way that his attempt to portray her words prove a barrier to “this being of infinite and inexhaustible potential” – but it’s Vera who is able to move on by burying her past, while the reader just sits there, reflecting.
January 31, 2008