Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Dreamy Read

The Dream life of Sukhanov / Olga Grushin
Toronto: Penguin, c2007.
368 p.

I read this novel very slowly. Not because it was hard going, or at all boring, but because the uses of language and imagery were so striking that I had to give myself time to savour each example. I was completely won over by this book - it's the first this year to which I would give an unreserved 5 star rating.
It details the life of Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, a well-placed bureaucrat in Soviet Russia. He is the editor of 'Art World', and a respected art critic, who has stifled all the Western artistic impulses of his youth to become a proponent of Soviet Realism.

The story opens with

"Stop here", said Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov from the backseat, addressing the pair of suede gloves on the steering wheel.

He and his wife are attending a retrospective exhibition for his father-in-law's 80th birthday. It was on his father-in-law's advice years ago that he shifted allegiance to the Party line, and now he is part of the celebration of pictures of "tractors in wheatfields" and "rosy-cheeked girls with cabbages". When Sukhanov is leaving, however, he bumps into a decrepit old friend from his young, idealistic days. This encounter sets off a chain reaction of memories, which begin invading Sukhanov's dreams, unsettling him. These memories become more and more insistent, until he is awash in a haze of dreamy recollection both while sleeping and awake.

The story is hypnotic, as Sukhanov begins to lose everything he has denied his soul to gain: his son leaves home, his daughter moves in with her married boyfriend, he is fired, his wife wants to live, alone, at their country home. Piece by piece his carefully constructed persona is being dismantled. He began as an artist, and early in the book he has to write - as a respected Soviet art critic - acceptable essays on corrupt Western artists, like Dali or the Impressionists. The early contrast between Soviet Realism and Dali is especially telling, as Sukhanov's life slowly descends into a surrealist nightmare. The novel raises large questions: what is art for? Can true art (or artists) exist within a stifling political culture?
Grushin is an astonishing writer, who has produced a breathtaking first novel. Not only is her subject ambitious in scope, her technique is flawless. The imagery is strong and original, perfectly suited to an artist as protagonist. Her metaphors are fresh and serve to reinvigorate our perceptions. I especially like the way that the point of view shifts suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, from third-person narrative to first person as Sukhanov falls into his past. It is very effective, and shows Sukhanov's decline as it becomes more frequent. Some examples of her imagery at work:
Below, the Moscow River moved its slow, dense, brown waters, and from their depths emerged a flimsy upside-down city that existed only at night, created by a thousand shimmering intertwinings of streetlights, headlights, floodlights. The walls, the churches, the bell towers of the underwater city trembled with a desire to break free, to float away with the current, to leave the oppressing, crowded, dangerous Moscow far, far behind; but the night held them firmly, and they stayed forever tethered to their places by infinite golden chains of reflections.
...gradually, as Moscow slid back faster and faster, the spaces between the buildings widened until precipitately, without so much as a comma, they changed
into fields bracketed by fire-tipped rowan trees and punctuated here and there by the exclamation point of a leaning bell tower or an ellipsis of dilapidated log houses -- and Sukhanov envisioned the whole drive as one endless, unstructured, rambling sentence, and thinking of Nina, of the girl she had been once, of the woman she was now, was barely able to follow all of its clauses, until, veering from yet another unpaved turn in the local road, they arrived quite suddenly at the long-sought period of his country home.
I don't usually enjoy stories in which the main character loses touch and the narrative becomes disjointed; it often feels as if the plot has overtaken the author. In this case, however, it succeeds due to the author's mastery of her craft. It is perfectly reasonable that Sukhanov should descend from the heights of emotionless Soviet Realism to a reverie of perception nearly Impressionistic, and finally to a world of Surrealism. Read it slowly to savour her skill. Her sparkling technique is matched by her ability to make us care about a middle-aged Soviet apparatchnik in an existential crisis. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I am putting this on my trb list. Thank you for reviewing it.


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