25.5.13

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.

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