Country Focus: Russia (Rossiya in Russian)
The Dream Life of Sukhanov
By Olga Grushin
Originally published by Putnam, 2005. My edition: Penguin, 2007.
Time period: 1930s – 1985
It’s the year 1985, and 56-year-old Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, esteemed editor of the communist-sanctioned, premier Soviet art magazine Art of the World, feels utterly satisfied with his life. He lives in a finely-decorated high-rise apartment in the heart of Moscow with his beautiful wife Nina and his two grown children, Vasily and Ksenya, who are poised on the brink of their own successes.
But his perfect life teeters precariously.
Sukhanov may officially reject and ignore all artistic forms other than socialist realism in his party-line copy, but in his heart he holds an underlying scorn for this banal, propangandistic work, ironically epitomized by the renowned paintings of his father-in-law, Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin.
Come to find out, as a young man Sukhanov was one of several underground surrealist painters who aspired to “resurrect” art. He and fellow painter Lev Belkin nearly had their anti-establishment paintings exhibited in the Manège, a notable art museum, but party officials shut down the installation before it began, and the artists feared for their lives. Knowing that Sukhanov was compromised, Malinin offered him a respectable position at the magazine. Doubting his own talent and fearing that his wife would leave him otherwise, Sukhanov took Malinin up on his offer, turned his back on creativity and became a ruthless art critic. That life-altering decision has led to his current – and more fragile than he realizes – state of material, family and personal bliss.
Lev Belkin breaks Sukhanov’s complacency when he materializes like a ghost from canvases past and invites Sukhanov to his upcoming gallery show. Sukhanov couldn’t be more shaken from the encounter with his former best friend. This The-Way-We-Were flashback sets off a spiraling series of memories, events and revelations that threaten Sukhanov’s very sanity.
Mental instability runs in his blood. Sukhanov’s father, a psychologically unsound individual who committed suicide by stepping out a window, had been obsessed with birds and flight. His final message to the world: “Don’t let anyone clip your wings.” This mantra and what exactly his father meant by it has plagued Sukhanov through the decades. It has also guided him, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. Whether these last words will lead to a similar grisly fate for Sukhavov Jr. is up in the air.
First-time novelist and Russian citizen Olga Grushin wrote The Dream Life of Sukhanov with compassion and skill. She reveals from the get-go that Sukhanov has sold out, duct-taped rose-colored glasses to his face and washed the paint off the brush of his memory. This initial negative impression could have made me scorn or pity Sukhanov, but her well-drawn protagonist quickly compelled me to root for him to rediscover his wings.
Anatoly Pavlovich had always made a habit of gluing shut the pages of passing years, leaving at hand only some brief paragraphs for basic reference and a few heavily edited sunny patches for sentimental indulgence. Yet of late, memories were welling up in his soul, unbidden and relentless – and if at first he had found them to be pleasantly nostalgic sojourns into the pastel-tinted landscapes of his early childhood, now they were beginning to grow bleaker, harsher, more disturbing, disrupting the tranquility of his mind, of his life, bringing him closer and closer to the forbidden edge of a personal darkness he had not leaned over in decades.