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RUSSIAN DREAMS–The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

I have this hankering to learn languages. Problem is, I’m not so good at it. It’s a little like Salieri in Amadeus, born with the desire and some ability to compose music, but unable to reach the moutaintops he can see so clearly and forced to watch an unworthy twit scramble up easily ahead of him. So I’m even more in awe of writers who not only author fine works of literature in English, but do so in English as their second or third language. Conrad and Nabakov are the only two that pop into my mind, but now we have a third candidate–Olga Grushin, a young lady of enormous promise, whose early schooling was in Czechoslovakia, so English may well be a third language for her, yet The Dream Life Of Sukhanov became a 2006 New York Times notable. Maybe if I started writing in French. . .  Grushin has great command of her imagery:

The [street] lamps glowed like tangerine baloons let loose in the soft haze, and in their light the eithteenth-century facade of the old Moscow university shown brightly, as dramatic an familiar as the stage sset of some stately, stale play. 

And on the same page. . .

…the elegant perfume of tonight…numerous layers of other fading scents which had accumulated over time in the backseat…like so many sweet, barely discernible ghosts of past outings. 

   This last passage indicates how important olfactory matters are to Grushin. The text is full of the smells of her characters and their surroundings. Probably no one I’ve read outside of Louise Erdrich creates environments so full of smells.

The novel as whole is a fascinating exploration of the disintegration of a man and a system of thought, politics and art. Without giving too much of the plot away, I can say that the protagonist’s career parallels the rise and fall of socialistic realism in Russia. There’s a great deal of talk about the corruption of surrealistic art, about the necessity of art to serve society rather than mock or alienate it. The action of the book centers around the betrayal of passion and principle–both for an artist and for a society–that such attitudes involve.

As the title announces, we’re inside the protagonist’s mind a great deal, some of the time in memory, some in dreams. Grushin deftly slips back and forth from third to first person so that we’re carried from observing a fantasy or memory to participating in it. Sometimes, it gets tedious. Oh, now we’ve had the present action which we predictably will trigger a memory, which just as predictably will trigger a dream. Yet, sequences build revelations and discoveries which create significant impact for the denouement. As the dream life builds, Sukhanov’s outer life deteriorates. It would be unkind to reveal the ways and reasons for the disintegration to those who might want to read the novel, so I’ll just state the fact of it and let be.

Skillful as Sukhanov is, however, it added up to a disappointment for me. For one thing it took some effort to stick with it. Nothing that I would call a crisis occurred until after the first 150 pages. I don’t think I’m limited to shoot ‘em up’s, but I do like things to happen in a book. Also, the process of event-to-memory-to-dream sequence got transparent after a while. Too, Sukhanov is not a sympathetic character. He’s unlikable be design, which is fine, but I often didn’t even find him interesting. I was often more interested in his family than him and glad for interludes that included them so I could get out his mind.

All in all, a good try at a tough task, but without thrilling results.

Sitting up

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