- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006


By Olga Grushin

Putnam, $24.95, 354 pages


Olga Grushin is a writer with an interesting back story. Born in Moscow, she did her early schooling in Prague, returned to Moscow to study journalism and art history, and later became the first Russian citizen to complete an undergraduate degree in America. This she accomplished at Emory University — graduating summa cum laude, no less.

It may sound like the kind of thing concocted by a team of publicists, but it is true, all of it. And there is more. Ms. Grushin has even found time to write an impressive debut novel in her second language, English. No small feat, given that for her first 18 years she had known only Russian and a smattering of Czech.

Before comparing her to Conrad and Nabokov, let’s remember that one of Ms. Grushin’s contemporaries, Lara Vapnyar, has managed the same feat. Also a Russian transplanted to the United States, Ms. Vapnyar learned English by reading Jane Austen and watching American television. Her 2003 debut work of fiction, “There Are Jews in My House,” was a marvel of clear, pure English prose.

There is a notion that thorny and verbose prose is difficult to write, but writing clear, brisk English is harder. While Ms. Grushin’s prose in her second language is impressive, she has not yet mastered the ability to write with brevity. Nonetheless, her debut novel, “The Dream Life of Sukhanov,” displays plenty of other virtues — among them a mastery of character and plot.

Set in Moscow in the late days of the Soviet Union, the novel tells the story of 56-year-old Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, a man whose comfortable existence has been won at the expense of his integrity. Once a brilliant underground artist, Sukhanov now censors art for a living.

As editor-in-chief of leading magazine Art of the World, Sukhanov is little more than a tool of the party, with a job that consists of “deleting every avoidable reference to God and lowercasing all the unavoidable ones, ferreting out the names of all the blacklisted artists, always sticking these Lenin quotes everywhere.”

On the rare occasions he contributes one of his own articles, it is invariably a poisonous piece of ideology — Surrealism denounced as a “manifestation of capitalist insolvency,” for instance.

Dishonest as this job may be, it has brought Sukhanov and his family a life of comfort. In the supposedly classless, equitable Soviet Union, he lives in a spacious apartment in the Zamoskvorechie, owns a dacha, has close ties to influential and important members of society.

In the opening scene of the novel, Ms. Grushin shows us Sukhanov hobnobbing with that society. He is attending the birthday party of his father-in-law, Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin, a painter whose patriotic canvases are on full display at the exhibition hall where the party is being hosted (“sturdy girls beamed as they strode through the fields, proudly carrying sacks of potatoes” runs the description of one work).

With his beautiful wife Nina at his side, surrounded by celebrated artists and fellow critics, Sukhanov should be perfectly at home at this party. Yet we know right from the beginning that something is amiss. In the middle of a conversation with a high-ranking minister who’s hinting at a possible match between his daughter and Sukhanov’s son Vasily, Sukhanov becomes distracted and fails to hold up his end of the chat. A bad fauxpas, and the beginning of an extraordinary series of events that will change Sukhanov’s life.

As in Tolstoy’s novel “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “The Dream Life of Sukhanov” begins with an incident that at first seems merely unpleasant and awkward, but leads unstoppably to a terrifying conclusion. In Tolstoy’s great work, Ivan Ilych’s accidental fall from a ladder is the beginning of a death that arrives in middle age; in Ms. Grushin’s tale, Sukhanov’s faux pas at his father-in-law’s birthday party ultimately will result in Sukhanov’s complete exclusion from both his family and society as a whole.

Shifting seamlessly from past to present, from reality to dream sequence, Ms. Grushin artfully reveals a character whose past has come back to haunt him, to the total exclusion of the present. At the most inopportune times, Sukhanov must relive the memories he has buried for years. He remembers his first glimpse of Western art (Botticelli’s “La Primavera”), and how the professor who showed him a print of the painting was arrested by Soviet authorities and never heard from again.

He remembers the death of his father, another dissident who left the young Sukhanov a haunting note saying, “Never let them clip your wings.” He remembers his courtship of Nina, back when he was a brilliant underground artist cavorting with Moscow’s bohemians. And he painfully recalls the time when, to please his wife, he threw away his ambition to become a painter, becoming instead a hack critic at Art of the World.

So powerfully is Sukhanov attacked by these visions of the past, he is unable to engage the present, where his place at the head of his prosperous family is slipping. His son has grown to hate him, his daughter runs away with an underground poet, his wife retires to their dacha in the countryside, claiming she needs time alone.

Sukhanov even loses his editorial position, as Russia is undergoing swift changes (an unnamed leader — assuredly Mikael Gorbachev — has come to power).

Though Ms. Grushin powerfully evokes both Sukhanov’s past and present life, her prose occasionally spills over into excess, as in the passage that begins, “And brilliant fireworks erupted in glowing glory, and radiant skies melted with purple sunrises and green sunsets … .”

About character she is never erring though. In the figure of Sukhanov, she has created a sympathetic character far removed from the clichs surrounding Soviet apparatchiks. Prone to weakness and at times cowardly, Sukhanov is nonetheless a man with complex motivations and moments of genuine nobility.

When the deceitful life he’s maintained for over 20 years crumbles around him, it is almost a moment of joy and liberation. Sukhanov is artist again, ready to paint the canvases he left idle for years, and it is just possible to see his redemption on the horizon.

Stephen Barbara is a writer in Hoboken, N.J. He has written for the Wall Streeet Journal and other publications.

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