Russian for export

Olga Grushin: The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Penguin 2007 (Hungarian translation: Szuhanov álomélete, translated by Katalin Ladányi, Budapest, Geopen 2008)

Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, 2007Sukhanov had been a talented painter, the follower of Surrealism and of Dalí. During the Khruschevian “thaw” his paintings were even exhibited in the Manezh, at the famous exposition of 1962 where Kruschev personally called “pederasts” the representatives of the “New Reality”. This well-known story is dramatized in the version of Grushin so that the secretary-general busts the bourgeois dive in the early morning, well before the opening of the exhibition, casting out all the images from the Manezh and the artists from their jobs. An alarm bell starts ringing in the head of the reader. This version is too bold to be Realist, but too timid to be Surrealist. In this latter key much better is the grotesque report in the Absurdopedia that will make your diaphragm ache for sure.

As a consequence of this experience, Sukhanov stands over to the Old Reality. He receives a brilliant career in change, after twenty years we see him as the chief redactor of The Art of the World having power over life and dead in the Soviet art scene, and writing his editorials framed with quotations of Lenin against Western art, especially Surrealism, principally Dalí. (In the eighties! Another alarm bell.)

And then follows the death of Ivan Iljich expanded for a week, Sukhanov’s becoming aware of his life’s falsity and valuelessness. The abandoned painter friends and masters pop up, the one just as unsuccessful and poverty-stricken and the other just as wise and forgiving as they should be. The past begins to haunt, suppressed memories of the father that died under Stalin break forth, a remote cousin drops in – with the name Fedor Mikhailovich Dalevich composed of that of Dostoievski and that of Dalí (a-ha!) – who brings back real art to Sukhanov’s life. Finally abandoned even by his own family, Sukhanov is left nothing else to do than to go crazy and begin to paint icons with bare hands on the wall of the ruined village church.

The faultless symmetry of the thesis and antithesis is matched by the structure arranged in such a way that nobody can miss the right path by any chance. The author marks clearly the points where we step over from reality to memories and back in the plot that runs on a double level (a-ha!). You are always exactly instructed about the symbolic importance of the mercifully few cultural icons that pop up in the course of the novel (only three, Dalí, Chagall, Rublev – nothing more during fifty years of artistic career). You always know who is the good and who is the bad. The bad is very black and the good is very angelic. The regime is absolutely inhuman and the victims are absolutely clean. The enthusiasm for Surrealism of the artists coming together regularly in Jastrebov’s flat during the “thaw” is just as bloodless and ungenuine, as pulsating and heart-stirring is, even after forty years, Hrabal’s description in the Tender barbarian about their enthusiasm for Surrealism. Bells and more bells. And the synthesis that follows with a necessary logic is just as theatrically cathartic as the arrested last picture of a Hollywood film. A Russian author, a master of the complex and absurd connections how can write, and Russian people, readers of Erofeev, Pelevin and Sorokin, of Babel, Bulgakov and Pasternak how can take in the hand such a didactic, such a schematic, such a bombastic book?

The solution can be read on the last page, where the author says thanks to her American husband and to her American editor. This is a book written for American order and for the American taste, with exactly those stereotypes, with that “Surrealism” (this buzzword popping up on every second page is basically used as a synonym for “coincidence”) juiced with a pinch of Russian savour, and with those magic words that prickle pleasantly the Western reader who is hungry of this exotism but is only able to moderately consume it. As Yakov Borohovich appropriately notes it in his criticism published in the Русский журнал: This book has not been translated into Russian, and whoever read it can clearly see that it has nothing to do with Russia apart from the fact that one of its characters bears a Russian name. We are witnesses to the birth of a new genre, the russerie, a light export version of Russian literature. Its great success among its own target group is well attested in the glowing reviews of both the New York Times (1, 2), the Washington Post (1, 2) and Amazon’s reader comments like documents of reception aesthetics repeating all those buzzwords with a deeply felt pleasure.

„»Steeped in the tradition of Gogol, Bulgakov and Nabokov...« James Lasdun, author” advertises the publisher’s recommendation on the cover of the book. Well, the first three ones are authors as well, and it is surely not by mistake that the adjective is not added to their name. No, not only for that. Also because they do not feature here as authors, but as cultural icons, like Dalí, Chagall and Rublev in the novel, as the signboards of russerie like the images of the four great authors of the Spanish Golden Age painted on the shop-window of the Siglo de Oro Pub in Madrid. For in the novel we find nothing of the absurd of the real Gogol, of the mysticism of the real Bulgakov and of the insolence of the real Nabokov. The Russian feeling, however, is evoked even without these, or even without a real lecture of the book. As Borohovich writes about the star interview of the Известия with Grushin: True, the correspondant has not read the book. But, sincerely, who needs this book?

Nevertheless, the novel does reveal something authentic, albeit involuntarily. Something that could have not been written by an American, because it is only known intimately to a Russian. That typically Russian relation between men and women, that monadic being maintained even in living together and basical strangeness that is also reflected in the novels of Ulickaya and Tolstaya and that I have also experienced among my Russian colleagues and students. And as Zhivago inefficiently lets Lena go, like a tree lets its leaf to fall, so becomes Nina detached of the fallen Sukhanov “so that she might stay alone for a while, as a participant of a more majestic, more realistic creation”.