Thursday, November 29, 2007

book review: A Hero's Daughter

After reading a couple of Makine books over the last couple of weeks there are some clear themes that emerge from Andrei Makine’s work that are all in evidence in A Hero’s Daughter.

The first theme is the Second World War that devastated a generation of Russians and at the same time left the survivors with a clear sense of their importance to the world for the sacrifice the country made and to the state they were trapped by. This story starts in the war with the hero of the Soviet Union Ivan being saved by a nurse who has the foresight to hold a mirror up to his mouth to see if he is breathing.

But before too long the story moves away from the nurse and her hero and settles down to one of disappointment and living in the past remembering past glories. The story could easily stagnate there but Makine introduces a daughter who becomes a perfect way of juxtaposing the present with the past.

She also introduces the second theme, which is one of disappointment and disgust with the way Russia’s fortunes have turned out since the war ended. The daughter is a translator but ends up working for the KGB by sleeping with foreign businessmen and helping sort through their luggage while they sleep. She dreams of escaping by saving up enough hard currency to dress and move in the sort of circles that would attract someone from Russia’s intelligentsia.

She almost pulls it off but the two worlds collide with her father, who is now a widower and a drunkard, arriving in Moscow to discover not only does his daughter appear along with everyone else to ignore the past but she is also enslaved into prostitution by the state.

The shock of that discovery kills him over time and she is left realising not only the level of indifference over her father’s sacrifice as a solider all those years ago as she struggles to get anyone to bury him, but also how trapped she is. In the end she pawns his hero’s medal to pay for the funeral but returns to the job of state prostitution to help raise the money she needs to try and get the medal and a hope of her freedom back.

It is written in a way that in places is almost cinematic with sweeping battlefields and moments when you can feel the chill as the snow and wind creep in. As a method of looking at the past and at the present the idea of having a single generation works well and the relationship between father and daughter reflects that of the young and the old veterans throughout the book.

All the might be brighter and modern is not necessarily better if those behind the system are still rotten.

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