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The Dream Life of Sukhanov

by Olga Grushin
304 pages,
ISBN: 0399152989


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A Russian Novelist's Debut
by Patricia Robertson

In Olga Grushin's remarkably poised first novel, Anatoly Sukhanov is a fifty-six-year-old member of the Soviet nomenklatura in the pre-perestroika years of the mid-1980s. Editor of the prestigious magazine Art of the World, he enjoys all the marks of outward success¨opulent apartment, chauffeured car, country dacha¨not to mention a beautiful wife who's the daughter of one of the country's most lauded establishment artists. But his enviable lifestyle has come at a price: the abandonment of his younger artistic self. Now, it seems, that abandonment is catching up with him as he finds himself descending into a private hell of dreamlike and nightmarish visions from the very past he's been so adept at ignoring.
That brief summary suggests a dark story, yet the genius presiding over The Dream Life of Sukhanov is Marc Chagall, he of the cows, violins and lovers flying through starry skies. Grushin studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and the novel sometimes feels like the literary equivalent of one of Chagall's whimsical, dreamlike paintings. Grushin manages the tricky feat of moving between dream and reality without undermining her novel's realistic political and social setting, achieving her effects partly through language and partly through structure. She is very good, for example, at using impressionistic techniques to evoke character. In the opening paragraphs, Sukhanov sees his chauffeur purely as a function¨"the pair of suede gloves on the steering wheel"¨while his wife Nina is described in terms of her makeup¨a "peach-colored pillar of lipstick," a compact that is a "small convex pool of glittering blackness."
These early scenes suggest both the opulence and the superficiality of Sukhanov's marriage and world. But this glitter is quickly undermined. Sukhanov is attending the opening of a retrospective show in honour of the eightieth birthday of his father-in-law, the famous painter Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin, whose social-realist works Sukhanov privately despises. A painting of Nina done by her father that has always hung in Sukhanov's study (reassuring him, though it's a bad painting, that his choices in life have been correct) has been loaned for the show. Sukhanov knows he's going to miss the painting; he doesn't know that its departure foreshadows the loss of all of his cherished assumptions about his family, his work, and his status. As in a fairytale, three confrontations¨with a critical young journalism student, a former friend who's remained an impoverished artist, and a young man who seems to be a mugger but turns out to be harmless¨suggest that Sukhanov's carefully constructed life is about to come crashing down.
It's then that Grushin does something audacious with structure. Sukhanov's mother's acquisition of a canary leads to a chance comment about birds¨his mother tells Sukhanov he was interested in birds as a child¨and as Sukhanov subsequently wanders through the neighbourhood of his childhood, he sees a flock of pigeons fluttering above a statue of Gogol. Here, as the pigeons remind Sukhanov of an earlier flight of birds, Grushin switches from a third to first-person point of view: ". . . barely reaching the sad man's feet on the pedestal, I stand with my head tipped back¨a three-year-old who has just chased a flock of pigeons and is now watching their circling flight in open-mouthed fascination." Yet, significantly, the statue of Gogol seen by that three-year-old was a different one; the mournful appearance of that other statue was declared "misrepresent[ative of] Soviet reality" and was replaced in 1952 by a more appropriately confident Gogol. The child's reality has been literally substituted, just as the old statue was replaced by the new, false one.
The birds' flight is significant for another reason; the dream of flying without machines, we discover, obsessed Sukhanov's father to the point of madness, and the father's early disappearance left a huge void in Sukhanov's young life. Later it's Nina herself whom Sukhanov imagines flying when her portrait is replaced by a painting of Leda and the swan, given to them as a wedding present by their impoverished artist friend. "With a startled cry, he rushed toward her, to prevent, to stop, to catch . . . He was too late. Already, with that maddening fluid grace she possessed, she glided into the black translucence of the night, leaving behind a solitary feather fluttering slowly to the floor¨and although he wanted to shout, to protest, to implore, no words came to him, none at all, and silently, knowing she would never return, he watched as she flew farther and farther away, melting amidst the cold stars above the fairy-tale city of Moscow. . . " It's only towards the end of the novel that Sukhanov understands his own destiny in terms of flight, realising that he's a man who "obligingly shed his own wings and then spent decades listlessly watching ugly, atavistic stubs sprout in their stead."
Again and again Grushin uses the device of an actual event in the present to tip Sukhanov into a vividly relived memory of a similar event in the past, while characters from the past turn up in the present and vice versa. A man claiming to be a long-lost cousin appears, although his mission seems to be, in league with Sukhanov's colleagues at the magazine, to undermine Sukhanov's authority, apparently on orders from high up in the Ministry of Culture. Struggling to deal with the erosion of his work life, Sukhanov also begins to realise that his cosy vision of his family is completely false. After losing his wife to what looks like permanent residence at their dacha, his corrupt and conniving son to life with Nina's equally corrupt father, and his daughter to her married rock-star boyfriend, Sukhanov embarks on a nightmare train journey back to Moscow, a journey that forces him into a still-closer examination of his past. He discovers that he has made the same choice as the father-in-law he despises¨to make those around him happy rather than pursue artistic immortality. "I was still certain of the road I myself would take if offered the choice between comfort and immortality," he remembers thinking at age thirty, "even happiness and immortality¨but did I have the right to choose it for others, for those I loved?"
Sukhanov's journey turns out to be a redemptive one, although the final vision leaves unanswered the question as to whether Sukhanov can, after all, become the great artist that his wife and friend always believed he could be. Grushin has a tendency at times to overexplain, reiterating links and connections rather than trusting the reader's ability to make them, and she relies too heavily on certain favourite tropes ("stars" is one of them). Yet these are quibbles. Although English is not her first language, Grushin seems surprisingly at home in it while making liberal use of the non-naturalistic techniques shared with fellow Russian writers such as Gogol and, more recently, Tatyana Tolstaya. Her magical, inventive novel has brought its author fully justified acclaim, and makes this reader's mouth water in anticipation of her next. ˛

Patricia Robertson's new short story collection, The Goldfish Dancer, will be released in 2007. Her previous collection, City of Orphans, was shortlisted for B.C.'s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.
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