Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov

“..his tranquil daily life gave way to a dream full of ominous forebodings, and his mind began a tortured slide towards insanity…Were all these strange occurrences in the story merely the result of the hero’s unbalanced mind – his private hallucinations – or did he lose his sanity as a result of strange occurrences that were indeed real but that, thanks to some dark gift of clairvoyance not unlike the artistic intuition of genius, he alone of all his friends and family could perceive?”

– Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov

It is one of many sublime joys of Olga Grushin’s debut novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, that everything you need to understand the book, everything that can be said about it, in fact, is already contained within its pages. Like a good crime novelist, Grushin holds nothing back, but still manages to keep you guessing. And indeed, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, is, in a sense, a suspense novel, a quest for someone who has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, except that the person the protagonist is looking for is himself.

This protagonist is one Sukhanov, a former artist and now editor of the Art of the World (a Russian art journal), husband to the still beautiful Nina and father to two grown up children. Subject to state censorship, Sukhanov’s job is to ensure that his journal conforms strictly to the official Soviet line: ‘uplifting’ portraits of tractors and peasants are to be exalted, morally bankrupt Western artists such as Dali, Picasso, Chagall and Kandinsky are to be decried. Sukhanov’s ability to advance this official point of view, irrespective of his own views on the matter, makes him a brilliant success in the world of Soviet criticism. It also makes him a sell-out.

That betrayal is what returns to haunt Sukhanov in the course of the novel, precipitating a crisis that will destroy the safe but entirely artificial life he has built for himself. Sukhanov is being “assailed by his past”. A chance meeting with an old friend, the arrival of a distant relative from the country – little by little old memories are beginning to trickle their way past Sukhanov’s iron-clad denial of his own history. Images from his childhood are returning to him, events that he hasn’t thought about for years, that he has consciously avoided thinking about, are flooding back. As these memories begin to flow faster and faster, the cracks in Sukhanov’s present life begin to widen. Like a dyke giving way, everything he treasured in the world crumbles. His career is in trouble, his children have turned out to be strangers, his relationship with his beloved wife is under strain.

Slowly this other, buried life, this rip-tide of forgotten dreams and unforgivable betrayals will sweep away everything that Sukhanov has become, will take over his existence completely – to the point where it’s no longer clear which was the ‘dream’ life and which the real one.

That sense of deterioration, first gradual, then rapid, is mirrored perfectly in Grishin’s prose. In the beginning the novel is staid and formal, even to the point of being awkward. Gradually, however, the narrative begins to break down. Soon the line between the past and the present is starting to blur, one image flows into another, third person switches to first person in the middle of a paragraph. To read this book is to experience the dislocation that Sukhanov is feeling. By the end, the story has collapsed into a procession of barely coherent images, a labyrinth of perception and memory. And yet Grushin’s prose soars over this confusion, attaining, towards the end, a sort of visionary flamboyance, a flaring and hallucinatory tone that Chagall himself would have been proud of.

Part of what makes this book so brilliant is Grushin’s ability to keep you consistently off balance. Just when you think you’ve figured out what’s going on, she manages to throw another surprise. Plot lines are built to shocking conclusions, and then suddenly deflected. Red herrings abound. The line between reality and illusion is almost impossible to keep straight. Is the cousin who comes visiting Sukhanov a figment of his imagination or a real person? Is the tramp he meets in an abandoned church a genuine derelict, a god / angel / demon in disguise, or a hallucination brought on by the sight of an icon? No one can say. In this novel, even ideology is open to debate. Sukhanov betrays ‘Art’ by lauding the simple realism of Soviet painting over the great artistic movements of the 20th century. But isn’t it also true that these simple paintings were what the people wanted? And which after all, is better: to ruin one’s life in the name of some half-baked ideal, or to betray one’s aesthetic principles to build a comfortable life for one’s family? Is it nobler to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

Overall then, The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a fascinating read – like reading Dostoyevsky’s The Double on speed, with generous handfuls of art and politics thrown in for good measure. It is a book that is both an exciting human story and an engaging novel of ideas. This is Grushin’s first novel, and there are parts of it where the inexperience tells – every now and then she tries to be too clever, tries to belabor a point too much (having Sukhanov’s two children be embodiments of two different sides of his personality is clunky enough – do we really need to have this fact spelled out for us in so many words?). But on the whole this is a stunning debut, one that leaves me committed to reading whatever Grushin comes out with next.

[originally posted at Hafta]