In this paper, I propose to address the theme of history in Makine's novel, using Roland Barthes's theory of mythology as a critical framework.
Like all his previous works, Andrei Makine's sixth novel (Requiem pour l'Est, 2000) is a retrospective narrative that uses a peculiar concoction of genres, from fictional autobiography to memoirs and the spy novel, to create a multifaceted portrait of the Soviet period in Russian history. The leitmotif of the novel is the need to tell the truth about life in the Soviet empire before it disappears into complete oblivion ("Un jour, il faudra pouvoir dire la verite ..."). Trying to fulfill this daunting task, the protagonist must confront ideological and political myths disseminated both by the Soviets and their Western antagonists. Although opposed in their evaluation of Russian history, these myths turn out to be equally false, crude and de-humanized travesties of reality.
In his seminal study, Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes stated that the main function of myth is not to hide or eliminate reality but to deform it to convey a particular message. As a result, myths cancel out historical memory about events, replacing it with fiction. Therefore, to restore the truth, one must restore memory. Makine's protagonist challenges the official versions of history precisely by way of painful acts of remembering unique individual experience. By providing three main narrative voices, those of the protagonist, his father, and grandfather, the author encompasses the entire Soviet period, in turn de-mythologizing the Revolution, the Civil War, collectivization, World War II, the Stalinist repressions, and the cynical geopolitical wars recently fought in the Third World by the Soviet Union and the United States. All three characters are free of ideological dogmatism, they maintain an ambivalent attitude to such grand campaigns, which allows them to perceive the absurdity of official policies.
The primary narrator's intuitive knowledge of historical truth stems from a kind of Proustian involuntary memory that periodically catapults him into the past, not only his own but also that of his father and grandfather. In this past, he relives the experience of individual agents of history, and it is only this experience that can undermine the official versions of events created for mass consumption. The discrepancy between the official and the individual perception of history, which lies at the very core of Makine's novel, echoes an important current in Russian classical literature (particularly, Lev Tolstoj). Among other narrative strategies employed to reveal the absurdity of official historical myths is the frequent use of defamiliarization.
Barthes wrote that myths are created through language. Makine proves that it is also through language that myths can be debunked. Through the act of narrating his memories, the protagonist gives life to those who died as victims of ideologies, manipulative and indifferent to the value of the individual. The novel itself becomes a lyrical requiem for the entire Soviet era, stripped of its mythological aura and revealed in its paradoxical qualities of cruelty, absurdity, and occasional spirited humanism. Ultimately, this narrative becomes a requiem for the protagonist as well, who is confined to the past by perpetual self-reflection, recollection, and an inability to act--in the best tradition of the "superfluous man" of Russian literature.