“In anyone’s life there can be only a few such moments – moments when a long, ringing hush fills your hearing, the world stands still as if under a magic spell, and thoughts and feelings course freely through your being, traversing the whole of eternity in the duration of a minute, so that when time resumes and you return from whatever nameless, dazzling void you briefly inhabited, you find yourself changed, changed irrevocably, and from then on, whether you want it or not, your life flows in a different direction. This was such a moment for me.”
Sometimes, when you’re browsing in the dusty depths of a second-hand bookstore, a glimpse of a cover catches your eye and you feel compelled to reach for the book in question, driven by curiosity and the desire to become complicit in a story. That happened to me with Olga Grushin’s thought-provoking novel. I liked the cover immediately, and the title stirred my imagination – I wanted to know more.
Set in a rapidly changing Russia, the book tells the story of an increasingly redundant and forgetful middle-aged man named Anatoly Sukhanov. Throughout the story there’s a tension between old and new, between memory and being forced to forget, between duty and passion and a clash of mighty idealisms. This is played out in many ways, but perhaps, most interestingly in Grushin’s delving into the art movements of socialist-realism and surrealism: the battle between the visions of the state and the flighty dreams of Chagall. Sukhanov started life as man with talent; an artist with vision. His rebellious hand dripped bright splatters of imaginative colour onto canvases intended to represent the real, resisting repression with uncontrolled creative flights of the mind. When we meet him he has utterly abandoned this life.
He has chosen a path of forced amnesia, choosing to follow the rules to achieve success, and suffering from spontaneous bouts of painful remembering as a consequence. His forgetfulness extends to his perfect family, and we see him as a two-dimensional, unlikable and absent figure, on the precipice of losing everything he sacrificed the most important part of himself to gain. We watch the man unravel as the regime that built him changes – everything he relied on falls away and the world around him becomes increasingly unstable as he falls into progressively more poignant fits of fantasy. His wife, who married him for his potential, leaves him for failing to live up to it. His children, both irreverent vessels of change, can’t relate to him. And he becomes haunted by Dali and Chagall, the ticking voices of his secret subconscious.
It’s an excellent read. The characters are a little flat, especially Nina, whom there was much latent potential to develop further. However, as a historical account it’s exquisite, with fascinating conversations uncovering the links between art and society and how art is used to expose the aching fragments in society itself. It’s also an interesting commentary on memory, that most painful and misunderstood monster of the human psyche.