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 Wilber