The Dream Life of Sukhanov
by Olga Grushin.
Putnam. 354 pp. $24.95.
Olga Grushin, a young Russian-born woman, has written a quite extraordinary novel. In it she tells how a man named Sukhanov sold his soul to become one of the cosseted few who enjoy all the comforts accorded to a member of the Soviet elite: a large, admirably outfitted apartment in the Arbat, a chauffeured limousine, a country dacha, his children educated in select schools, even the occasional trip abroad. But the year is 1985. Gorbashov sits in the Kremlin. Glasnost is in the air and life is about to change for fifty-six year-old Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov.
Here it seems apposite to tell of my encounter with one such member of the Soviet elite. It happened during the 1959 film festival in Czechoslovakia, where I got to know the Soviet film director Grigory Kozinstsev, one of the Soviet Union’s most distinguished directors. He’d made his first film at seventeen, in the heyday of the Russian Revolution when there was a burst of creative energy in all the arts that flourished all too briefly before Stalin laid a heavy hand on all that was imaginative. Since that time, Kozinstsev continued to direct feature films, but fewer as the years passed. Some, like his Maxim Trilogy , are still remembered and esteemed by film historians. But all his films hewed faithfully to the party line of the day.
In Karlovy Vary, we got to talking. His English was fluent. I had seen a number of his earlier films at Paris Cinematheque and was very curious to get to know a real-live Soviet artist. One day we went walking through the woods around the famous Czech watering spa for hours. (It was understood in those days that when someone from the Iron Curtain wanted to speak freely with someone from the West; they would go for a walk”a long walk.) Not that Kozintsev ever openly criticized the regime, even on our walk. Soviets allowed abroad at that time were extremely circumspect in what they chose to say about their country outside its borders. They never wanted to risk denial of another trip abroad.
But there were little indications of how he felt. I’d been reading the short stories of Isaac Babel and said how much I had liked them. Kozintsev’s face lit up. I knew Babel, which surprised me, as Babel had long been considered a non-person in the USSR. (It has now been reported from records of the KBG that Babel, arrested and interrogated, was shot in the cellars of the infamous Lubyanka Prison in 1940. He was rehabilitated in 1954 after Stalin’s death.) Kozinstsev then offered to send me his copy of Babel’s short stories given him by Babel himself. To this day I regret having refused his offer, thinking then my command of Russian was such it was unlikely I’d ever be able to read them.
We exchanged addresses. At his request, I would send him various recently published scholarly works on Shakespeare and in return he’d send me eighteenth-century Russian woodcuts, one of which hangs in my apartment to this day.
The last time I was to see him was at the Brussels’ World Fair. At a cocktail reception, Kozintsev greeted me in a rather subdued manner”in Czechoslovakia we’d hugged and kissed goodbye. He introduced me to two large, burly men at his side as Soviet Cultural Attaches. That was about the limit of our conversation, except a few days later at some special screening being shown in the round in a darkened room, Kozintsev came up to me, pressing my hand for a moment. You understand? he said very quietly. And I did.
Although his film of Hamlet was shown at the Venice film festival in 1964 Kozintsev was not there. The film received a standing ovation and was awarded the Special Jury Prize. Interestingly, Shostakovitch composed the original score and Boris Pasternak had translated Shakespeare’s verses. As a movie critic I reviewed it for the International Tribune , terming it a great film. He was to make only one more film, King Lear in 1973, dying the following year at sixty-eight.
I had nearly forgotten Kozintsev until I read Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov . Grushin captures perfectly the little world of the Soviet elite, with all its compromises and its hypocrisies required to maintain access to the comfortable life denied the majority of Soviet citizens. Surely it is not by chance that Ms. Grushin chose for her epigraph Revelation 3:15-17: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, poor, blind, and naked.
In telling Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov’s story, she makes skillful use of several different voices, often a straightforward third-person narration, sometimes sliding on occasion in mid-paragraph to the first person. Past and present mingle effortlessly giving the reader a look into the soul of a man at various stages of his life. Through them all we learn finally what Sukhanov thinks must be the meaning of his life: And it was only after twenty-three years of mute crawling through the mud”only after he had felt the smooth taste of betrayal on his lips and the chilly weight of thirty pieces of silver in his sweaty palm, only after he had learned about the slow fattening of the soul, the anguish of wasted chances, the pain of love slipping away, the soft, horrifying slide into death”yes, it was only then that the elixir of life was granted to him and his resurrection assured.
Sukhanov’s slow descent on the slippery slope can be understood and has no doubt been experienced in many another country and culture. His prospective father-in-law, one of the USSR’s most distinguished artists, sets him on the downward path. Back when he had been a young and ambitious artist, he ran into some potential trouble with the official artistic world by exhibiting a painting in a show at the Manege, a celebrated show that Khrushchev visited and denounced, red-faced and bellowing, calling the paintings amoral, anti-Soviet, and fit only for covering urinals.
As a kindly Mephistophelean figure, his future father-in-law sets his feet on the path. Let me think”yes, I’ve just agreed to do an article for a good friend of mine. He happens to be the editor of our leading art magazine, Art of the World . I could arrange to add you as my coauthor; he owes me a favor. Of course, you’d be the one actually to write the text. The working title of the article is: Surrealism and Other Western ?Isms’ as Manifestations of Capitalist Insolvency. At first Sukhanov is indignant and repelled. What you are suggesting is nothing but betrayal of myself, my friends, of everything I hold true.
But Malinin’s observation is that he would not be sacrificing himself for a noble principle, but For what would you sacrifice yourself?”And not just yourself, may I remind you, but your mother and your wife as well. And so Sukhanov makes his pact with the Devil.
Grushin reveals her protagonist’s early years, when he was filled with enthusiasm and hope and belief in his own talent as an artist. We learn how his wife, daughter of the distinguished artist, fell in love with him precisely because she thought he was not like her father”that he had integrity. And Sukhanov rediscovers an old friend, Belkin, who had kept the faith and has remained pitifully poor, but is at peace with himself. In the end, Sukhanov may no longer have his chauffeured limousine, but he may have found not only his soul but God as well.
Cynthia Grenier is a writer living in Washington, D.C.