One of my cherished keepsakes is a small, handmade kaleidoscope purchased years ago from an artisan’s shop in Colorado. It’s a simple affair, a roughly imperfect and very bubbly green marble tethered by a thin wire to the end of a triangular, glass-lined tube. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much…
Months and even years may pass between the moments when I pick up the kaleidoscope for a short visit. Always of course, I hold the scope into light and manipulate the marble to create new patterns; this makes me smile because after all, the purpose of a kaleidoscope is nothing but a glimpse back at the viewer’s unique and private eyeful. The only thing a kaleidoscope can produce is reaction, either the dismissal or delight of such minuscule events.
A good novel brings much the same effect, that of holding a slice of life in mutable relief, inviting the reader to turn the marble of perception and consider the patterns that are revealed. The French writer Andreï Makine’s 2004 work, La Femme qui attendait or The Woman Who Waited, casts this kaleidoscope effect brilliantly.
Outwardly, The Woman Who Waited might appear to be an overly romanticized story, that of a young man who sets forth to write a satire about the lives and customs of small town folk and finds himself in thrall to a middle-aged woman who has placed herself on the shelf waiting for…someone, or is it something?
The narrator, a young man of sardonic disposition, begins to closely follow the life of Vera, a middle-aged woman of no apparent exception save the one, as she dwells within the northern Russian village of Mirnoe. There she teaches children by day while in her spare time she befriends, cares for, and buries the old, forgotten women sprinkled in poverty throughout the village and surrounding woodlands. Vera is bound to her life amid the thatched roofs and tree-darkened doorways of her village. Makine uses the forest imagery to distinguish Vera’s environ from the cynicism of Brezhnev’s Moscow and the harsh world of the young sophisticate who finds himself drawn into the physical and emotional thicket of village living.
In Leningrad, at the Wigwam, we were forever making clear-cut distinctions between good and evil in the world. I knew the evil that had laid waste to these villages in the North was boundless. And yet never had the world appeared so beautiful to me…
Within this deceptively simple premise, Makine wields muscular, clear language as translated by Geoffrey Strachan, vibrant prose that holds up and turns around for a look-see the lovely marble which is the emotional contradiction found in the act and art of waiting. The Woman Who Waited reveals the great variegation within what would appear to be a lonely woman’s existence, and it constantly surprises with challenges to the notion of waiting as simply a state of forbearance. The expressions of delicacy and exoticism in Vera’s suspended animation along with those of the narrator, himself yielding to knowledge of his new friend, cart-wheel before the reader in an athletic display that welcomes the incongruity of slow, close reading. Yet Makine never plows the reader with sentiment.
But life, easy-going life, caring little for elegance, is nothing more than a constant mixture of genres.
Makine’s ability to access the fluctuating inner life of his characters is profound. He writes into and around Vera and her nameless friend, charging them equally with the sense of both the quiescence and the purpose found in waiting.
In the boat she took one oar, leaving the other for me… Our rhythms were quickly matched. Each effort made by the other felt like a response to one’s own, down to the slightest tensing of the muscles. We touched shoulders but our real closeness was in this slow, rhythmic action, the care we took to wait for each other, pulling together once more after too powerful a stroke or the skipping of a blade over the crest of a wave…We were quite simply there, side by side, amid the somnolent hissing of the rain, in a dusk as cool as fish scales…
The French philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote, “Waiting is directed at nothing: any object that could gratify it would only efface it. Still, it is not confined to one place, it is not a resigned immobility; it has the endurance of a movement that will never end and would never promise itself the reward of rest…”
The Woman Who Waited is like that beautiful, rough marble at the end of the long tube. Read the book, turn the marble, let the kaleidoscope come in.