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After taking the Trans-Siberian train to Leningrad to see a film starring the French matinee idol, Jean-Paul Belmondo, three teenaged boys from a remote part of Russia dream of love, adventure, and another world.
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Readers of Andrei Makine's previous novel, Dreams of My Russian Summers, will recognize similar themes in Once upon the River Love: characters living in the vast isolation of the Siberian steppes; an elderly woman with memories of Paris, and, most of all, the power of imagination in young children's lives. In Makine's second novel, three adolescents come of age in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s. The narrator, Alyosha, and his two friends, Samurai and Utkin, live in Svetlaya, a remote village "reduced to three essential matters: timber, gold, and the chill shadow of the camp. It was beyond us to imagine our futures unfolding outside these three prime elements." Impossible to imagine, that is, until the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo enters their lives.
Into a wintry world of snow and ice, of spiritual paucity, loveless coupling, and quiet despair Belmondo flashes his insouciant smile, vanquishes enemies, seduces willing beauties, and faces every danger with panache. The effect is earth-shattering. "On the whole, we understood little of the universe of Belmondo.... But we perceived the essential: the surprising freedom of this multiple world, where people seemed to escape those implacable laws that ruled our own lives, from the humblest workers' canteen to the imperial hall of the Kremlin, not forgetting the silhouettes of the watchtowers fixed over the camp." What would be an imminently forgettable film in the West becomes a beacon to the three boys; suddenly, the world is much bigger than the frozen Siberian taiga and each boy sees some part of Belmondo in himself: Alyosha the lover, Samurai the warrior, Utkin the poet.
Makine's novel is framed with short sections at beginning and end that are set in Brighton Beach, New York, 20 years later. We learn, briefly, what has happened to these young men--and in the disparity between the reality of their destinies and the heroism of their youthful imaginings lies both the irony and the heartbreak of Once upon the River Love --Alix WilberAbout the Author:
Born in the Soviet Union in 1957, Makine grew up in Penza, an isolated town about 200 miles from Moscow. Acquiring familiarity with France and its language from his French-born grandmother, he wrote poems in both French and his native Russian as a boy.
In 1987, he was granted political asylum and moved to France, determined to make a living as a writer-in French. However, Makine had to present his first manuscripts as translations from the Russian to overcome publishers' skepticism that a newly arrived exile could write so fluently in a second language. After disappointing reactions to his first two novels, it took eight months to find a publisher for his third, Le testament français. Finally published in 1995 in France, the novel became the first in history to win both of France's most prestigious book awards, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. Published in the United States in 1997 as Dreams of My Russian Summers, the novel garnered enthusiastic book reviews and a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Once Upon the River Love, which was originally published a year before Dreams of My Russian Summers, has met with similar acclaim, including as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 1998. Makine's latest novel, The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, will be published in the fall of 1999.
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