Olga Grushin’s wonderful debut novel is set during the beginnings of glasnost in the Soviet Union but its examination of that point in history is focused on one man’s coming to terms with his past. The eponymous Sukhanov is an art critic with, at first glance, an enviable life. The son-in-law of a famous artist, he edits the prestigious Art of the World magazine, lives in a comfortable apartment with his wife and two children, and also owns a house in the country. In the novel’s opening scene he is invited by the Minister for Culture to a “get together” at his dacha, but it is at this moment that things begin to go wrong: he notices his chauffeur-driven car is missing and cannot concentrate on the conversation, so missing the invitation. Shortly after he is challenged by a young journalist, a friend of his daughter’s, on his admiration for his father-in-law’s paintings:
“No, I don’t believe you really think that…His paintings are so fake everyone must see it, they’re just afraid to say it.”
On leaving the party in search of his car he meets an old friend from his student days, Lev Belkin, who has continued to paint in a style disapproved of by the authorities, and so remained poor. Sukhanov is embarrassed to be seen with him and glad when he leaves, but the meeting has its effect:
“…all at once, this stray little thought released in him some echo of the past, a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”
From that point on, Sukhanov’s life in the present disintegrates as we learn about, and he reacquaints himself with, his past. We discover that in his youth he was painter of real talent whose admiration of surrealism and abstract painting led to him being at odds with the authorities. When he is finally allowed to exhibit one of his paintings it is immediately withdrawn on Kruschev’s orders and, as a result, he loses his job as a lecturer. His wife, Nina’s, father, previously dismissed by Sukhanov for his Soviet realist style, offers him the chance to earn money by writing art criticism denouncing the painters he admires. He takes up the offer, believing he is doing the best thing for his wife, and soon stops painting all together. Wealth and happiness seem to follow, but now that life seems to be falling apart. Nina is increasingly withdrawn – indeed, it might be argued that his problems begin when he loans her portrait to her father’s retrospective. His daughter and son seem to have become polarised aspects of his own personality: the daughter is involved with a rock singer and performance artist; the son is a self-seeking social climber who is now using his grandfather to get ahead.
Grushin handles Sukhanov’s breakdown very skilfully, in particular by creating an atmosphere of madness which draws on the supernatural tradition in Russian literature in the form of a distant cousin, Fydor Dalevich, who visits unannounced:
“His pleasant middle-aged face sported a neat little beard, and his blue eyes shown with a mild, harmless, near-sighted friendliness behind his glasses.”
Dalevich usurps Sukhanov’s place in his bed and in his magazine, being the author of an article on Dali that is published in place of the one Sukhanov can never finish. Ultimately, Sukhanov comes to believe he is a character from a Dali painting, a clever touch as he one of a number of surreal elements in the novel, all of which can also be explained rationally.
Grushin also neatly links the past with the present, often using a piece of dialogue. This is helped by many of Sukhanov’s memories resurfacing when he returns to the place where the memory occurred. As Sukhanov moves from the present into the past, so the narrative moves form third person to first person, making his memories seem more real to Sukhanov than the present. As the novel progresses, this dream life of Sukhanov’s takes precedent over his real life. Equally, Sukhanov must face the fact that his life is not the one he once dreamed of.
The novel offers no neat conclusions. A superficial reading may suggest that Sukhanov is man who betrays his own dreams and lives to regret it. However, Belkin also has regrets over remaining true to his dream, describing his paintings as:
“…self-indulgent exercises in passing time, pathetic imitations of fashions the West tried and discarded decades ago.”
The imagery of flight that reoccurs throughout the novel is also ambiguous. Sukhanov’s father, who tells him not to let anyone clip his wings, dies when he jumps from a building believing he can fly. Even at the end, when he chooses to returns to art, he is momentarily overwhelmed with happy memories of his family.
This is an extremely impressive first novel, a meditation on art and life, truth and compromise. Grushin’s second novel, which arrives shortly, is to be anticipated.