The Line / Olga Grushin
New York: Penguin, c2011.
Olga Grushin and I were born in the same year. But that's pretty much where our similarities end. She was born in Moscow, moved to the US for graduate school, and now lives in Washington. She's also a talented writer, with themes of Russian life, stagnation, boredom, and individual integrity running through her work.
Her first book, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, detailed the life of an artist who sold out to the system willingly; this one deals more with the way that regular people's dreams are stymied by their surroundings. I absolutely loved Sukhanov, and still recommend it strongly. The Line has its appeal but I didn't love it quite so effusively.
In this book, we meet a family in decay. Father Sergei plays tuba in a state band that gets trotted out for patriotic marches, despite his longing as a young man to play the violin and become a composer. Mother Anna is a stolid, long-suffering schoolteacher, who is beginning to feel that she really, really needs a change. Son Alexander, who is just turning 17, is a disengaged, rather naive teen who gets involved with the wrong sorts. Added to this is Anna's mother Maya, a silent woman who drifts around their apartment dreaming of life before "the change".
Grushin found inspiration in a true story: when Igor Stravinsky was to return to Russia to play a concert in 1962, a line for tickets existed for a year. She's taken this event and added a little bit from many eras of Russian communist life, to create a stiflingly grey, authoritarian, hopeless society. Into this grey, dull sameness comes The Line -- Anna stumbles across a kiosk at the end of a nearby street, and although at first she doesn't know what is being sold (nobody in line does know) she stays in line. Then, as this becomes a kind of quest, she cooperates with Sergei and eventually Alexander too, to maintain their place in line for months, until they finally discover that they are waiting for the chance to buy a ticket for a concert to be given by exiled composer Selinksky (a barely disguised Stravinsky). The possibility of this concert creates hopes full of colour and joy in each of them, providing a vision of art as a survival strategy for the soul.
In line they get to know their compatriots who are also waiting hopefully for some colour and excitement. All of their lives intertwine, and we hear more about each person's reasons for waiting, and their own sad home lives. I did find this book fairly depressing; everyone is sad, repressed, tragic, violent, hopeless, neglected and so on. There is a lifting of this sense near the conclusion, when we see that human connection can overcome even this kind of societal repression. And it really is all about the characters in this novel; Grushin has such a sense of compassion and understanding for each of them. Her writing is also just as exquisite as in her first novel -- her images and metaphors create a surreal landscape that feels very much part of a Russian tradition to me. It's a literary read that conveys a sense of place, and how that place affects the personalities of the increasingly large cast of characters. Perfect for a wintery, leisurely read.
**(this book also reminded me of another Russian novel I read fairly recently, Vladimir Sorokin's The Queue -- all that waiting!)