Olga Arbyelina is a princess who fled Russia during the revolution; now she lives in a town near Paris tending to her hemophiliac son, keeping ghosts at bay-an existence hollowed out by history. The town gossips obsess over her, making her into the prime character in their "game of a thousand voices." They "had a fleeting dream of figuring in a poignant melodrama called The Exiled Princess." When she is found lying next to a dead man on the local riverbank, her fame only increases. The Crime of Olga Arbyelina begins with this grim discovery and moves backward, trying to find the erotic transgressions and terrible secrets that separate this exile from the tired and ordinary world.
Andrei Makine resembles his heroine in that he is a kind of runaway; born in 1958, he fled the Soviet Union for France. There he wrote about his homeland in his adopted tongue. The well-received novels Once Upon the River Love and Dreams of My Russian Summers first appeared in French and have since been translated widely. Perhaps it is all these layers of language and memory that make his prose so thick and difficult; clearly there is a great clumsiness in this particular translation, which is rife with sentences like "She was breathing jerkily," and "A thought struck her with the painfulness and beauty of its truth." Ultimately, such writing sabotages The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, fogging up the book's exotic landscape. Translations can work two ways: they can transport you into a world of strange new music, or they can feel like schoolwork. This book is definitely the latter: you know it's supposed to be a learning experience, but the difficult, self-serious prose makes you want to resist, stare at the clock, play hooky.