Beauty and the beast

In preparation for a visit to Paris, I wanted something to read to revive my half-forgotten French, and among the dozen or so things in French abandoned by tourists in our public library in Carboneras, I found this little bomb of a book. Very short (87 pp.) and very intense, the story of a monster of the civil wars in Russia, 1917-18, how he got that way and the girl who (at least partly and at least for a moment) transformed him.

Kessel, Joseph. Makhno et sa juive. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1987. See my note in Fiction Readings.

Nestor Ivanovich Makhno was a real anarchist guerrilla chieftain and there are those who defend his reputation and denounce Kessel for the bloody, horrific portrait. His defenders see him more or less the way Sonia, the Jewish girl in the novel, does -- "un homme dévoué au peuple, le sauveur des moujiks, le martyr de Sibérie que vengeait sur les riches et les seigneurs les souffrances que lui et ses frères avaient subies." (A man devoted to the people the savior of the muzhiks, the martyr of Siberia who was taking revenge on the rich and the lords of the land for the sufferings that he and his brothers had undergone.)

But this is a novel, not history or biography, and we know the writer has made up stuff. Whether or not the real Makhno was such a monster as Kessel's narrator claims (and the narrator is nearly hysterical and certainly unreliable), it's a terrific story and a very effectively written one. It is also a very old story, going back to Enkidu and the maiden in the Epic of Gilgamesh. But this is an especially vivid telling. And good practice in reading French.

For something about the historical Makhno, here's a socialist take, The Makhno Myth from the International Socialist Review.

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