The Dream Life of Sukhanov
By: Olga Grushin
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Olga Grushin’s astonishing literary debut has won her comparisons with everyone from Gogol to Nabokov. A virtuoso study in betrayal and its consequences, it explores – really, colonizes – the consciousness of Anatoly Sukhanov, who many years before abandoned the precarious existence of an underground artist for the perks of a Soviet apparatchik. But, at the age of 56, his perfect life is suddenly disintegrating. Buried dreams return to haunt him. New political alignments threaten to undo him.
Vaulting effortlessly from the real to the surreal and from privilege to paranoia, The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a darkly funny, demonically entertaining novel.
As some of you may know, I studied Soviet Russian history for my MA. More specifically, Russian national identity through art and literature in the late Stalinist period. No easy feat, but I point this out because despite switching tracks, my interest in these topics have not waned. So imagine my surprise, joy and interest when I stumbled across this book a few years ago on GoodReads; it sounded totally up my alley. Yet for some reason, I never got around to picking it up until now…
The following will contain some SPOILERS ahead! (may also not make sense as it is rather late and I am sleepy but I needed to type down my thoughts before I forget)
The more I think about this novel, both while I was reading it and afterwards, the more I am convinced that it is, if it possible, quite a perfect book. The nuances, the subtle way that Soviet society and the internal drama of both the self and of everyday life play a role in the reality of his life and how he’s come to be where he’s at. At times the novel veers into surrealism as his dreams, his memories and his waking moments collide with no scene breaks. At first I found it odd that the narrative switched from third person to first, only to realise later that this narrative switch represented Sukhanov’s attempts at reconnecting with his past and his true self.
The dialogue about art and its role both in connection to its audience, to the Russian people, and its role in the Soviet state was both fascinating and very much in keeping with the ideologies and the times. The historian in me was very thrilled that it played such a major role in the story, with the different epochs and trends expressed throughout and how it played a role in shaping Sukhanov’s life. From cubism to Socialist Realism to church iconography, if I didn’t know any better I’d say that this novel was a tour de force of Russia’s national identity, still searching, still trying to make sense of who they are as a people 😉 It’s not heavy-handed, though Sukhanov’s mechanical responses to Western art and our unacceptable experimentations will come off as dry and authoritarian (but there’s no use, it does keep Sukhanov firmly grounded in the time period that this novel is set in), and there’s an on-going debate, whether it be Lev vs. Anatoly or Anatoly vs. Fyodor his cousin, about the uses and approaches to art.
The consequences of the Soviet state’s culture and dogma, while not in you face and in the open, nonetheless remains very much present throughout the novel. As Anatoly begins to open up and allowing the memories he’s long suppressed surface, the reader learns that he is very much a product of the Soviet system. The Great Terror, the Great Fatherland War, the experimental period under Krushchev and the stifling churn of the reactionary old guard of the 1970s all contributed to Anatoly’s experiences and development and the overarching ideals and customs of the Soviet state encouraged a society of fear and laying low. While Anatoly had a brief period of courage under Krushchev and the possibility of new horizons and expressions of creativity, he was ultimately forced to repress his ideals and his dreams in order to survive, to make his wife happy, to raise his children. His repression and integration into the rest of “acceptable” Soviet society was so complete that he really came off as rather drab early on in the novel. Is Anatoly essentially a representation of Soviet society? He’s even suppressed his own past.
In the end, this novel is about a middle-aged man coming to terms with himself and the decisions he’s made over the course of his life, and finding himself re-discovering the man he truly is. Disappointment, fear, tragedy and the goings on his society all prodded him to the member of the apparatchik that he became: the company man, cold and disciplined and devoid of any colour. His contemplations over the course of the novel, reluctant as they were at first, not only shows the various ways that we as humans approach our decisions and our past but brings him full circle with who he ultimately is and the dreams and gifts that he has. In the end it serves as a cautionary tale at what happens when you suppress your dreams and who you are. Anatoly’s character is very reminiscence of John Edward Williams’ Stoner (review), though until Stoner, Anatoly is far more active and reactive when his life starts unravelling.
But following Anatoly, I felt so bad for him all throughout. Here is a man who ultimately “sold out” to the apparatchik for the sake of a future only to have everyone around him desert him. I half-expected his son to pull a Young Pioneer and devise his own father’s downfall. His daughter is very much part of the new, underground, dispossessed generation (last I checked there was some research looking into this social group) and perhaps would have had far more in common with her father had they been closer. And his wife slowly slips away from him as well while his mother is lost in her own thoughts. There’s the best friend he left behind when he moved up in the Soviet hierarchy and then there’s the relative from the country that he can’t quite understand…poor Anatoly just oculd not catch a break here.
And yet in the end The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a strangely hopeful novel. The ending itself was rather ambiguous but the message seemed pretty clear: that it’s never too late to get back in touch with your dreams, to live a fulfilling life while you still can. There’s a melancholy for the past, for what was lost and for his regrets, but reading Anatoly’s rediscovery of art and beauty was joyous and beautiful. All in all, I cannot believe it took me this long to get around to reading it after having in on my wishlist for years, it was well worth the read! I cannot recommend it enough, I <3 it so much #feels Edit to add: The writing, by the way, was superb; I have too many favourite quotes from this novel 🙂