The French literary world was agog last year with the news of the awarding of two prestigious prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, to a novel called Le Testament Français, by a writer called André Makine. The unusual nature of the novel is that it was written in the most beautiful, yet freshly distinctive French by a man whose maternal tongue is not French at all, but Russian.
Makine has only lived in France for eight years, although he has known French for much longer; yet his novel appears to epitomise France in a way which is quite extraordinary. At least, so say the critics, but to me it is much more extraordinary than that, for more than any other novel, in French or English, that I can remember reading, it expresses perfectly that ‘langue d’étonnement’, that ‘tongue of wonders’, which is created by the bilingual writer who is at home as much in two languages as it is possible to be. For Makine, French is as much a part of his soul as Russian; being of both, of neither, all at the same time, gives him a life in that gap between cultures, between languages, which is what he calls the ‘langue d’étonnement’. Something composed of gaps, of silences, as much as of difference: in its very nature, something which seems to speak the universe both more clearly, more truthfully, yet also less comprehensibly, than is found within the work of someone steeped in only one language from birth.