Sunday, May 30, 2010

#22: The Dream Life of Sukhanov

It had been awhile since I'd read a Russian novel. In fact, I believe the last such book I'd read until now was Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov. Even after having read only a scant few of the major works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I suppose I still should have realized that not all Russian books -- or Russian authors, for that matter -- are alike. And yet somehow I was persuaded by the name Olga Grushin and the intriguing title of her book, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, into presuming literary greatness.

As it turns out, not all stereotypes are inaccurate. Beautiful novels are as Russian as vodka consumption and chess. But where the last two are respectively vulgar or elite, the Russian novel is a format accessible to all, at least to those for whom 700-page sagas are not too forbidding. Grushin's is no different (except considerably shorter). As several reviewers have noted, her writing does contain a slight foreign twang, as when she uses overly lengthy strings of adjectives to describe mundane settings. But her English is considerably better than my Russian, so judge I shall not.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov opens with the the protagonist and sometime antihero, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, arriving with his wife, Nina, at a birthday celebration for a renowned Soviet painter named Pyotr Alekseevich Malenin. (Do not fear an endless litany of names for each person; either Grushin has graciously spared her anglophone readers the consternation of rote name memorization, or I have subconsciously grown accustomed to the practice. And I'm quite confident it's not the latter.) Malinin is a product of the Soviet machine, an "artist" whose works traffic in ideological and political cliche, stripped of their creative meaning even as they enjoy the public notoriety afforded by an official stamp of approval.

Malinin is also Nina's father. Sukhanov, while privately musing that "the main quality uniting all [of Malinin's] works...was the inherent ease with which they slid into oblivion the moment one's back was turned," was nevertheless duty-bound to pay the man his patriotic dues. Anyway, as editor in chief of Art of the World, the nation's (and thus the state-approved) premier art magazine, Sukhanov was in no position to evaluate the integrity of others' choices.

What he cannot stop himself from doing, however, is reassessing his own decisions, ad nauseum. As Sukhanov constantly travels in thought from the present to his past, the narrative voice switches from third to first. He is once again a small child, then a young man in love with both art and his future wife. Surrealism is his passion, but the Kruschev Thaw all too soon evaporated and, with it, the sacred luxury of maintaining artistic creativity without forfeiting all professional (and certainly political) ambition. Sukhanov confronted a life-altering decision: to rebel, or choose the safety of the ideological mainstream.

Choosing the latter, Sukhanov eventually soared to career success. When the time came, however, he was unable or unwilling to comprehend the realities of glasnost and perestroika, even as they rendered his suppressive voice cartoonish and his fears of a crackdown anachronistic. When a student journalist accosts him at Malinin's birthday event, demanding that he acknowledge the innate dishonesty in the great man's paintings, Sukhanov condescendingly responds, "A piece of friendly advice...Those artistic ideas of yours, I wouldn't advertise them so openly if I were you -- you never know who might hear you." To which she replies, presciently, "I don't care who hears me...The times are changing."

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, in chronicling a unique world event -- the twilight of the Soviet era -- evokes a surrealist universe of its own, neatly meshing with the artistic chaos of the genre that first captured Sukhanov's heart as a child. Olga Grushin, Russian by birth and now American via naturalization, has experienced first-hand the decline of Russian communism, both from within and without the country; and this personal touch lends her already sterling writing an entirely believable hue. Sukhanov as a character is difficult to be admired, and yet a decent helping of contextual pity is always present nonetheless. Upon hearing (but not heeding) the student's retort about changing times, Sukhanov concludes the terse conversation: "The times are always changing, my dear Lida...But it would serve you well to remember that certain things always stay the same." In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of 1985, those "certain things" were nonexistent. For Sukhanov, then, as for the rest of the country and the world at large, the only question was whether to accept the inevitable.


  1. I finished reading this novel on May 30th and very much doubt I will be able to review it as concisely and well as here! A powerful and shocking denouement.

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