Russian or French? Makine's Dual Identity as a Problem of Translation

Adrian Wanner, Pennsylvania State University

Much of Andr╚ Makine's 1995 novel Le testament fran┴ais concerns the narrator's attempts to negotiate a problematic Franco-Russian identity. This paper will investigate the crucial role of translation in this attempt at national synthesis. Similar to Walter Benjamin, Makine claims that translation attains a "universal language" which transcends the post-babelian boundaries. First presented as an impossibility because of the allegedly unbridgeable gap between the Russian and French languages, translation is later shown to be possible in the transposition of poetic texts. Makine's utopia of an "in-between" realm where binary opposites and borders are abolished in favor of an ideal of transnational, translinguistic "eternal beauty" is reminiscent of the spiritual quests of the Russian Silver Age.

In this sense, despite his proclaimed "Frenchness," Makine reveals himself as an author who is steeped in the Russian tradition. The longing for France in itself is an old tradition of Russian cultural history. Interestingly enough, the nickname given to the narrator by his classmates, "Francuz," was also the school nickname of Russia's national poet, Aleksandr Pushkin. When he is dreaming about writing a book that could remake the world with its beauty, the narrator seems to echo Dostoevskij's claim that beauty will save the world, which is in its turn rooted in the Orthodox ideal of the transfiguration of earthly reality.

By writing his novel in French, Makine translates his own experience of being Russian into the language of French literature, as he translates the story of his life into a work of verbal art. One could argue that any type of literary writing, even the most exclusively monolingual, involves an act of translation: the passage from ontological to verbal (or semiotic) reality. According to Makine, this process does not entail a loss of meaning. On the contrary, the translation lifts the text into a higher realm of "pure" language and artistic permanence.