Andreï Makine My Armenian Friend Review

andrei makine my armenian friend bookblast review

My Armenian Friend is a gentle narrative about a grim place by the Russian-born French author, Andreï Makine, who grew up during the Soviet era and emigrated to France in the late 1980s.

My Armenian Friend is autobiographical and lightly-fictionalized, set in a nameless town whose principal building is a prison. Details of time and location stay vague, but this is brutal, poverty-stricken corner of Siberia in the declining years of the Soviet Union, probably in the 1970s. The dominant sense of time is formed by the turning-points of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Second World War and the mass violence which followed.

Life in the little town is ugly. The local people have been crushed by history: they retain the ‘granite silence’ of those who survived the Stalin years.  The town is marked by ‘the routine of daily, almost carefree violence’. Gangs patrol the outlying streets, picking on anyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths.

Communism remains the dominant ideology, but it has been reduced to an empty, boastful display. Posters cover the outer walls of the prison. They show: ‘…a female [collective farm worker], laden with sheaves of corn, a metal worker, pouring out a scarlet stream of molten steel, a scientist, surrounded by microscopes and great gleaming glass vessels [and]…a cosmonaut gazing up towards a starry sky, his helmet reflecting the light from a sun outside the galaxy.’

A Childhood Friendship

Mount Ararat from the plain wikipedia free encyclopaedia

The 13-year-old narrator lives in an orphanage in which fights ending in murder are regular occurrences. He converts his belt into a weapon and learns to defend himself. He is required to attend school and so meets Vardan, a 14-year-old Armenian who is shorter and weaker than himself. The other boys pick on Vardan, but he is so frail that he’s not considered worth attacking.

It was the way they might have treated a defenceless animal, one not strong enough to fight back but one whose peculiar appearance made them want to shake it, pinch its ears, frighten it.’

The narrator intervenes to protect Vardan and so comes into contact with the small Armenian colony who live in the zone known as Devil’s Corner. They are 4,000 miles away from Armenia. They have moved to this corner of Siberia in order to support fellow Armenians in prison, who are being held while awaiting their sentence.

Pain and Prejudice

A few years previously, down there in remote and mysterious Armenia, they had been commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of a monstruous massacre, a national tragedy, and on this occasion some bold young spirits had taken it into their heads to form a clandestine organisation and embark on a struggle to regain the independence of their historic native land. The authorities had not been slow to react, very serious accusations came thundering out . . .

These few Armenian families give the narrator a glimpse of another way of living. While they are poor, they prize a few beautiful objects, such as a decorative silver and black coffee pot. They dress carefully. And they come with a sense of a glorious history which seems more exciting than the tired, monotonous propaganda of the Communist Party. Despite their pride in Armenian culture, they avoid boasting or showing antagonism to other ethnicities and nationalities. (They do not dwell on the massacre of 1915-16, presumably to avoid turning their history lessons into political polemics.) These Armenians represent not so much an oppressed nationality as a caring, humanitarian ethic: something which the narrator hadn’t encountered before.

Vardan, the Armenian friend, is capable of moments of wisdom, sometimes playful, but sometimes also genuinely thought-provoking. Here’s how he evaluates the diminished state of Armenia. ‘Look, Mount Ararat, the Armenians’ sacred mountain, is in Turkey these days. We’ve lost it . . . But, in fact, not having it makes it all the more dear to us. That’s the real choice: possessing or dreaming. I prefer dreaming.’ The narrator is struck by his expression of a ‘bitter elegance of loss’.

Towards the end of the novel, the narrator revisits the town, presumably in the 1990s. He finds the old Communist propaganda posters have been replaced by ‘advertising slogans [which] enjoined the multitudes to endlessly consume, to satisfy a myriad of instant desires, to be forever relocating, to blend all cultures together in one brew, to celebrate all things exotic.’ While he had no love of Communism, he cannot accept post-Communist consumerism.

Autobiographical details are not spelled out in My Armenian Friend, for Makine writes in a delicate, impressionistic style. His story floats over prisons, bullies and violence to settle on the precious community of friendly Armenians. But, reading between the lines, one understands that it was due to the meeting with the Armenians that Makine’s imagination and literary capacity was aroused.

Without really being able to define it, he [Vardan] was talking about a whole new mode of existence, one in which our thoughts escaped from the rules of this world, one that offered us another way of living and seeing. Our reason, with all its brutal realism, was opposed to this, but within us there was a mysterious will that asked no more than to be able to explore the volatility of this sky that had just opened up beneath our feet.’ (p.21)

My Armenian Friend is a touching story of a tender friendship in an unlikely space. It is a reminder of what went wrong with Communism and a celebration of humane ethics and affection.

Makine’s writing bridges Russian and French literary traditions as he intertwines history, the complexities of life under totalitarianism, the search for personal and cultural identity, and the enduring power of memory and imagination. He has a Solzhenitsyn-like commitment to his writing.

BUY My Armenian Friend

Reviewed by Sharif Gemie for BookBlast.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 381 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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