book review – A Life’s Music

This book by Andrei Makine qualifies as a novella because of its length but it is also a tight story around a tale told by a pianist to a fellow traveller on a train.

Just as with other Makine novels the landscape of Russia plays a key part as does the history and politics of the country. Things start in the Urals with a snow-covered wind whipped station and passengers waiting for the delayed Moscow train. The narrator moves from room to room until he finds a man playing the piano who is also waiting for the train.

The pianist helps the narrator get a seat on the packed train and then starts telling him his life story. The son of parents who were victims of Stalin’s purges he ran away to an Aunt in the Ukraine just in time to be caught up in the German invasion of 1941. He steals the identity of a dead Russian solider and manages to get through the war with a fair amount of bravery – echoes of Ivan in A Hero’s Daughter – before ending up as a general’s driver.

That position continues after the war and he meets the general’s daughter who is also a pianist and there is a crush then the bitter realisation of what could have been an awful mistake leaving the pianist in a corner playing the part of the fool. He almost plays it until the end but cannot resist showing off what he can do at the piano and then he disappears out of the daughter’s life and the narrative skips over his ten year in the camps and the wilderness of the frozen north.

He returns to Moscow with the narrator being brought up to speed discovering that the general’s daughter has had a son that he helps support. They then head off to a concert where history repeats itself as the pianist who had never been able to perform on stage because of his parents arrest now watches his protégé come out and fulfil a dream on his behalf.

There is plenty of tragedy here. Not only about the random pointlessness of the arrests in the Stalin years, the brutality of the war and the class system that continued to exist even in the communist system. But there is also something about the power of music and its ability to transcend class and age barriers and live on through the years.

There is also a hidden moral which is never to forget that each passenger on each journey sitting next to you could have an amazing story to tell if you are prepared to stop and listen.

Version read – Sceptre paperback

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