The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin.
What happens if you reach a certain age, and realise the path you chose was all sham, that what you put aside in youth, was your life. Anatoly Sukhanov is 56 years old and is in charge of the USSR’s premier art magazine, to all, including himself, he’s made it, his job is to edit the magazine’s content so that it reflects the official party line. This allows a really privileged lifestyle for him and his family, an exquisitely decorated large apartment in the right part of Moscow, and a beautiful Dacha in the countryside a couple of hours outside the city. His future is golden and secure. Yet, as this story begins cracks start appearing in his life, like vine shoots slowly growing into all aspects of his world. The story starts with Sukhanov stepping out of a chauffeured limousine, with his gorgeous wife to attend an exhibition, a retrospective of his father-in-law’s work. Whilst at this event, he makes a faux pas in a conversation with a culture minister, he goes outside for some air, and bumps into an old friend, a painter and former rival for his wife's affection, who still believes in the ideals they shared in youth.
It’s from this point that his world implodes, he starts to experience intense hallucinations, and finds his cherished family life collapsing, then with a slowly gathering inevitability everything he once held firm spirals, further and further out of his control. Everything he had repressed, now reappears, all those memories, beliefs, faith, now surface, not merely to haunt him, but to split open wide the carapace he’d built around himself, sending him sprawling into a surrealist nightmare, constantly attacked by his repressed memories until punch-drunk, Sukhanov ends up alone in a darkened old and ruined chapel.
“It was perfect, just as he knew it would be. Here, then on these ancient walls, he would deposit the riches of his life – here he would paint his own angels and saints and gods, and perhaps a self-portrait or two – here he would live, eternally free, triumphantly unencumbered by the muddle of tedious obligations, the shame of daily compromises, the chaos of ordinary life…….”
In the title I've called this “A proper Russian Novel” and by this I mean that Olga Grushin has invested in the character of Sukhanov, all the angst and pathos, all the weakness and hubris that I remember reading in all those great Russian novels. Sukhanov goes on an epic journey of rediscovery, he is constantly assailed by images from his past, haunted by all those ideals he repressed for the sake of a career in the USSR. Yet things change, and it’s in this change, Sukhanov is left to question his choices….
The Independent described this as “So good, I felt like buying 10 copies & sending them to friends…….Grushin reminds us of what makes the best of Russian culture soar to fantastic heights”. This is a fantastic heart-breaking novel, about the price paid for denying your self, about a mans descent into madness, about a brilliant underground artist who settled for security and comfort, and lost it all to end up alone, some holy fool.
This book was shortlisted for the “Orange award for new writers 2006” and I can understand why, it’s just a wonderful tale, beautifully written, you follow Sukhanov on his journey, laughing at points, astonished by the wonderful prose, and heartbroken by this pompous ass, who becomes a human being.
Olga Grushin (Wiki)