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Your young men shall see visions
on 18 January 2006
And your old men shall dream dreams.
This biblical prophecy plays out with a vengeance in Olga Grushin's extraordinary first novel, "The Dream Life of Sukhanov".
"Sukhanov" has received glowing reviews from some highly respected publications. Such advance praise often leaves me with heightened expectations that almost invariably lead to disappointment. In this instance my expectations were not only met but exceeded. The book's publishers claim it is "steeped in the tradition of Gogol, Bulgakov, and Nabokov." To be sure, Grushin has not (yet) attained the mastery of a Bulgakov or Nabokov but it is no small achievement to have the comparison made with a straight face, even if one hasn't quite reached that stature. The fact that English is not Grushin's first language also calls Joseph Conrad to mind.
The protagonist of the novel is Anatoly Sukhanov, known as Tolya to his friends and family. It is 1985; Tolya is 56 and an apparatchik (a mid-level party-functionary entitled to many of the benefits of the ruling class) of the first rank. An artist in his youth, Tolya is now the editor in chief of the USSR's leading art magazine, "Art of the World." Tolya's career consists of writing articles praising `socialist realism' (paintings of heroes of labor working in factories and the like) and condemning Western art, be it cubism or surrealism and the like as decadent work of no value to a progressive society. He is seemingly content, has a nice Moscow apartment, a beautiful wife, two children, and a chauffeur to drive him to and from his job and to his dacha outside Moscow. The story opens with Tolya and his wife attending a state-sponsored birthday party for his father-in-law an artist of limited talent but high rank. It is at this party that Tolya's life begins to unravel.
Tolya runs into Lev, formerly his best friend back in the days when Tolya was still painting. This encounter sets off some long submerged memories for Tolya. Later, a casual remark by Tolya's mother serves as another pinprick that unleashes another submerged memory. In short order the floodgates have been opened and Tolya's past begins to overwhelm him. We see a childhood where Tolya's father was taken away, presumably a victim of Stalin's purges. We see Tolya develop his skills as an artist in his young adulthood, from 1957 until 1962. Those years are important because they were known in the USSR as "the Thaw", a time when Khrushchev lifted some of the strictures on Soviet art and literature. Solzhenitsyn and Yevtushenko, among others were published and the art world was abuzz with new activity. The thaw ended in 1962 and it was then that Tolya was forced to make the life choice that forms the central event of the novel.
Grushin does a tremendous job showing us Tolya's envelopment in dreams of his past. The transformation between his present (the dreams of a middle aged man) and his past (when he was a young man with the vision of an artist) evolve from jarring to seamless as Tolya descends into something approaching a hallucinatory state (It is here that the comparisons to Bulgakov become most apt.) Grushin makes a reference in the book to Dostoyevsky's story "The Double", in which a man's life is taken over by his own ghost and that synopsis sums up Tolya's current predicament.
Party functionaries such as the older Tolya are often the subject of withering scorn in Soviet fiction (Voinovich's Fur Hat comes to mind) but Grushin paints a portrait of Tolya that is both insightful and nuanced. He is not the subject of a parody but a human faced with choices in a society that did its best to make ones choices as predictable as possible. The contrast between the lives of Tolya and his old friend Lev creates a framework for the final third of the book and the final exposure of those lives is both compelling and emotionally charge. The reader cannot but help think of the choices they have made in their own lives and think about how those choices, once set in motion, become twig and branches that when put together can change the course of the rivers of our lives.
Langston Hughes once wrote, "Hold on to dreams, for when dream go, life is like a barren field covered with snow." Grushin takes this concept and asks whether dreams, once dead, can be resurrected. It is a question that remains open long after the last page is read and the book is closed.
The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a treasure.