Monday, May 01, 2006

Art and the Soviet Union

The Dream Life of Sukhanov
by Olga Grushin

In the last third of The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Anatoly Sukhanov's wife, Nina, asks him: "My God, Tolya, don't you remember what it feels like? ... To be in a hurry to live, to dream of overthrowing conventions, to hope to make the world a gift of something beautiful and everlasting? Don't you remember, Tolya? Tolya?"

And it's hard to believe he does or that he even felt like that ever, because this good Soviet citizen is a pragmatist, and in his childhood even there is a glimmer of that pragmatism.

He is an artist by training and a critic by profession. In school, he suppresses his unique artistic style because it does not meet with Soviet approval. As an adult, he suppresses his aesthetic sense for the same reason. He is not a critic so much as a mouthpiece for the Soviet Cultural Ministry.

But as much as he doesn't want to remember, Sukhanov does remember what it's like to dream of overthrowing conventions. And The Dream Life of Sukhanov is the story of memory making itself known. Memory tells him what it felt like and replays the incident that led to his choice of a comfortable life over his art.

As Sukhanov's memory unfolds, it's finally possible to reconcile the child taking delight in a book of Chagall's work with the man editing out of articles references to God.

A current of Communist oppression runs through Dream Life, but it is more about a man whose family orbits one another without forming a unit -- a man near the end of middle age realizing how much and how many people he has betrayed.

Sukhanov is on the verge of trying to make things right or at least acknowledge that he is finally in on the secret, but until his life falls apart, he never quite gets there, hobbled by trivia every time.

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