“The Dream Life of Sukhanov”
Russian and Eastern European culture fascinate me; particularly the 20th century. With the advent of Communism and the Soviet Union, artists were forced to be marginalized and in many cases prosecuted, or conform to communist ideology and produce state-approved art. What was state-approved changed from time to time as well. A style or an artist, could fall out of favor. It was a tricky line to see and avoid crossing for many artists. Clearly, the more interesting cases are those who defied the soviet conventions. Whether they left the Soviet Union to live in exile or continued to produce their art at home, they found themselves expressing their art in allegorical and/or absurdist manners to escape the censorship. (Czeslaw Milosz’s book “The Captive Mind” brilliantly explains how the mind of a person must contort under a totalitarian regime). “The Dream Life of Sukhanov” starts from the opposite side of the spectrum towing the party line and works its way to the artist at heart at odds with the Soviet system.
In Olga Grushin’s book, the non-hero Anatoly Sukhanov is an art critic who toes the old Soviet line on art, decrying the western imperialist values that so debases these bourgeois works. He is well-positioned in the communist party in the mid-1908s when this story takes place, but changes are afoot and he finds himself in an environment of shifting contexts. The reader is not overly fond of him at the beginning; he is alienated from him family and smug in his cloistered, privileged position as the director of the leading Soviet art magazine.
As the story unfolds in dramatic and beautiful detail, our sympathies grow for Sukhanov as we learn more about his wife, children, mother, a cousin and friends. He had sold his soul and he begins to realize this through a series of increasingly hallucinatory experiences he has. His façade of firm belief in the soviet ideologies begin to crumble as his cousin Pyotr discusses art with him. Paintings by Chagall and one by his best friend from his art institute days figures prominently in the story. The painting leads to reflections on the past when Anatoly, a gifted painter, was excited to produce art at all costs.
From there Sukhanov’s personal history in revealed from the strange circumstances of his father’s death to the alienation from his family and children. Anatoly’s recollections of the past increasingly blur with the present. This hallucinatory effect reminds me of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” as the protagonist slips deeper and deeper into an alcohol-fuel inferno. Sukhanov wanders in the Moscow of his youth and of the present interchangeably, and slowly begins to peel away the layers of memories he intentionally buried in the deepest recesses of his memories until they slowly re-surface, driving him to clarity and madness simultaneously.
The vividness of the descriptive detail Grushin has put into this book is astounding. I was at once delighted to read slowly to savor the lushness of the story unfolding and faster to find out how the fraying strands of Sukhanov’s unconsciousness and memories would play out. I am already eagerly waiting Olga Grushin’s next novel. Since she lives here in DC, I hope I’ll get to see her at a book reading soon.