Olga Grushin - The Dream Life of Sukhanov

Rating 7.7

On The Vicissitudes of the Dream Life of Sukhanov.

In the beginning it was fire...

I've rescued this book from a mouldy crate (which once contained Portuguese tangerines) left on the floor of a firemen station in a provincial English town on a placid Saturday afternoon of early May.

The first novel by Olga Grushin was lying on her meek ivory back crushed beneath a pile of heavy-weighted low-browed gaudy rubbish labeled Sophie Kinsella, Danielle Steel and E.L. James.

BBC Oxford set the mood broadcasting 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler

The local firemen were sipping cups of tea wrapped up in their fluorescent-striped uniforms chatting amiably with elderly bystanders and enjoying their charity event. They didn't really care about The Dream Life of Sukhanov.
And no one of the reluctant book-scourers of Abingdon-on-Thames had the keen eye or the noble heart needed to pick up this gem of a novel. What they did, little by little, was making room for The Dream Life of Sukhanov by taking the aforementioned Kinsella, Steele and James away.

Meanwhile, BBC Oxford had adjusted their standards by switching to 'Ring of Fire' by Johnny Cash

Thus, I was able to spot the novel, lift it up and - taken by a sudden impulse - decide to save it from oblivion and bring it home, across the street.
It costed me one quid. Sgt. Sam Fireman said: 'thanks, mate'.

You may be surprised to know that I had never heard of Olga Grushin before.

However, I'll tell you what. Put a nice sketch of the Red Square in Moscow on the cover as well as a line stating 'shortlisted for the Orange Award for new writers 2006' and a broad spectrum of praise from Vogue (do they review novels?) to The Financial Times (do they care about novels?) and that's it: you buy me.

What I thought is this: in the worst case scenario - say, if this is going to be awful cheap Russian-flavoured crap like Snowdrops - I will have good fun in writing an evil review smashing this novel to bits. But if the novel proves to be good, that would be even almost better than being sarcastic about it.

And then came water...

It happened that the very same night my partner in life and in book-rescuing were invited to a social gathering involving the making and baking of a half-dozen pizzas, multilingual chatting and the occasional warm beer.
You know, we're not exactly the Oxford University Ball types. Falling hopelessly drunk in a college quadrangle blabbering obscenities in Latin is not our idea of entertainment. Or not anymore.

Anyway, what matters here is that I put The Dream Life of Sukhanov in my rucksack so that I could have something to read on the bus (my partner abhors noise on the public transport and wears fancy earplugs which do not encourage conversation).
And that's when I began to understand that this novel was stunning. A handful of pages was enough to make me realise that Olga Grushin has a soft spot for adjectives, but does have plenty of talent.

I left a postcard from Lisbon (a homage to those Portuguese tangerines) as a bookmark between page 16 and 17 and left the bus with my partner to reach our social gathering. We wanted to walk a bit.
The problem is that we didn't expect a huge deluge to welcome us in Oxford.
It took us half an hour to reach our destination where our friends had already started to make dough, warm up the ovens and assemble the ingredients for the pizza bonanza.
We were desperately wet but beastly hungry and after fishing bottles of beers from my rucksack, I forgot to check what happened to The Dream Life of Sukhanov.

We baked. We ate. We chatted. We drank.
We said goodnight see you later guys.
My partner and I left.

Back home - despite the late hour - I spent twenty minutes hair-drying my freshly rescued book page after page.
The first novel by Olga Grushin took so much water that its last 80 pages were like a single thick plank of plywood. The Red Square was flooded beyond recognition. Only the faintest outlines of Saint Basil and the Kremlin were still there.

(By the way, I hope my neighbours have forgiven me for the noise. If you meet them, say sorry on my behalf and tell them that the hair-dryer bit wasn't a song by Kraftwerk and was for a good cause).

Ok, to cut a long story short, I am glad to tell you that The Dream Life of Sukhanov survived the deluge.The Red Square is now back on dry soil. One can actually leaf through each of the last 80 pages. Luckily.

The point of the whole story is simple. And it's this:
go, fetch this book. Because it is truly exquisite.

Sure, it doesn't have much of a plot but it's masterfully written. Plus, it includes some of the best pages about art which I've ever read (not that I'm an expert, but still). There are sentences which are worth of Nabokov and others which would have pleased Bulgakov. Believe me.

The works of Chagall, Dalì, Rublev are here. The music of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Vysotsky is here. Moscow in the mid-1980s is here.
The moral miseries and sour memories of a privileged man - Tolya Pavlovich Sukhanov, you bet - are here.
Some interesting literary experiments in switching from the first to the third person narrator (and back, and back again!) are here. Beauty is here.

Just keep this novel in a dry place, please.


Evelyn Waugh - Decline and Fall

Rating 7.5

Decline and Fall is the sort of merciless social satire about Oxford and its elitist characters I expected to find when I bought Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm.

Whereas the latter left me utterly disappointed - to the point I left that book half-read - this novel turned out to be far more brilliant than I thought.

It's funny to notice how Mr. Beerbohm was chiefly a caricaturist who toyed with literature while young Evelyn Waugh was exactly the opposite.
And I believe both men made the right choice in sticking to what they did best later in their life.

Decline and Fall was published in 1928 as an 'illustrated novelette', but Waugh's sparse cartoons are amateurish and clumsy when compared to his brilliant flourished words.
In fact, among the novelists I have been reading, only the Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt had a worse inclination to figurative art than Waugh did.

So much for Evelyn Waugh's early aborted career as an awful cartoonist.
Shall we focus on his writing? Oh yes, indeed!

Mind you, this novel is the very first that Waugh published and it is better than a household name of British humour like P.G. Wodehouse in my humble opinion.

Am I partial to Mr. Waugh?
Well, to be honest, I don't think I am. And let me tell you why.

This guy (pictured on the left wearing a top hat worthy of Churchill) was a conservative at heart, a converted Roman Catholic and an incurable reactionary.
Had he lived in these years, Evelyn Waugh would have probably had his weekly column in The Times or The Telegraph attacking the UE and flirting with the UKIP.
I hardly doubt his harangues would have spared harsh words on Eastern and Southern European immigrants alike invading the UK.
Had we met in person, Mr. Waugh would have probably been condescending in talking to me, found my English pronunciation disgraceful and my social manners uncouth.

But still, I'm not bitter about him. Not a bit.
No hard feelings, Evelyn.

True, Mr. Waugh changed and developed his writing style quite a lot, but the joyous, sadistic pleasure that you can find in this early novel of his is unsurpassed in his later - and more accomplished - works. 
After all, this is the same author who delivered novels such as A Handful of Dust,Brideshead Revisited and Scoop which are staple food for many an English literature fan. And yet, all those books were just too perfect to blow me away completely.

Decline and Fall might be a juvenile work, but it does have power, anarchy, courage.
What I'm trying to say is that this novel is spontaneous and authentic to the point that you can easily imagine its author giggling at his own jokes and making fun of its own characters.

The downside of this novel is that there is plenty of racism in it. Which is hardly surprising thinking that Waugh is the same guy who entitled one of his novels Black Mischief.

Actually, if you are a black person, an Italian, a Frenchman, a Welshman or have Jewish heritage chances are you will be either deeply offended or bitterly amused by this book.
And if you're a woman things won't improve that much. Female characters here are pompous matrons, coquettish posh bitches and prostitutes (Waugh plays the prudish by calling them 'entertainers').

But then again Waugh here is pitiless in his scorn for everyone and every social class, from aristocracy to the bourgeoisie passing through Bauhaus-inspired architects, butlers, schoolmasters and pub-owners.
If there is one thing Mr Waugh is excellent at it's in despising people and the way he does that is terribly funny.

Decline and Fall is a 'Candide Revisited' without the wit of Voltaire, but with much more enjoyable cruelty. Waugh didn't need to stage the Lisbon earthquake to raze to the ground the times he lived in.


Dave Eggers - A Hologram for the King

Rating 6.7

This is a strange beast of a novel about an impotent middle-aged American man, Alan Clay, engulfed in the quite predictable twists and turns of the global economy.

Before dealing with impotence and middle life crisis, Mr. Clay used to be a self made man building up an entrepreneurial career in the manufacturing sector.

Now, the problem with Alan was chiefly a philosophical one: he thought that quality would have always won over quantity. Which was wishful thinking in the 1980s and 1990s and daydreaming in the noughties.
Having found his niche market, bicycles, Alan firmly and strangely believed that he could keep the production in the US despite the rise of cheap manufacturing labour abroad - in China, to be precise.

In Mr. Clay's myopic view, purchasing a sturdy, durable and reliable bike was what the American buyers aimed at. An American-made jewel of a bicycle that should and might have made its owners proud to ride it and to show its chromes around. A sort of family heirloom of a bike. A bike made of the same substance of dreams.

Now, all of this didn't make much sense in the real world and, in fact, doesn't stand a chance against mighty China and the Far East.
(Oddly, Eggers seems to ignore that the most of the world's biggest bike manufacturers such as Giant, Merida and Ideal Bike are actually Taiwanese).

Thus, when his dreams to keep the bicycle production line in the US are crushed and the company he works for has to shut down, Alan tries to fight back but in his own over-optimistic fashion. And quality and shiny chromes cannot save him.

Needless to say, that all his following start-ups fail one after another. Banks refuse to give him any more loans. His creditors start losing their patience. Alan puts his house on sale and wait for opportunities. 

Which is precisely why he finds himself stuck in a tent in the Saudi desert in this novel.

For the opportunity has come.
Due to a lucky coincidence (and a dubious acquaintance), Alan has been sent to the Saudi Kingdom by an American IT company as the member of a team which is trying to get a lucrative contract from no one else than King Abdullah.

And selling a futuristic communication system involving holograms to King Abdullah Economic City - the (sandy) apple of the eye of the sovereign - is what Alan Clay wants. He needs his commission to restart all over and pay a good college for his daughter.

That Alan doesn't know (and doesn't care) a fig about holograms is not the point.
He's the senior member of the American expedition. He's supposed to be the problem solver. He should know how to talk business. 

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise turns out to be a game of endurance. Nobody shows up in the tent to meet Alan and his team and the Americans are left alone awaiting King Abdullah or one of his dignitaries to show up. Just imagine Waiting for Godot by Beckett set in The Desert of the Tartars by Buzzati to get a snapshot of the whole situation.

And a hologram, a mirage, a Fata Morgana is what King Abdullah Economic City is. Will the King pop up? Will Alan Clay come back home with his money? And does that really matter?

After all, Alan does find a way to kill his time by making buddies in Jeddah.
The young chatterbox of a chaffeur driving him around and taking him to his family's secluded palace for hunting wolves down.
The nymphomaniac divorced Danish woman who tries to arouse Alan sexually to win over her boredom and loneliness.
The mysterious and fascinating Saudi lady surgeon who shows the hidden pleasures of snorkelling to the American visitor.

All supporting actors and actresses who come and go with the mere purpose to make Alan's (and the reader's) wait more bearable. Well, to some extent.

This is a novel about too many things at the same time. Eggers doesn't manage to keep up the good work he did in his former non fiction books and it's hard to see where he tries to take Alan and us at the end.
A Hologram for the King may lack a clear purpose and is certainly written in a somehow artificial oversimplified style, but it has an exotic taste and a sorrowful meaning:
no matter what you do and where you go, outsourcing always gets the last word.