Many years ago, Anatoly Sukhanov made a choice. He abandoned his life as an underground artist for money and security. Now, he is being hunted by the ghosts of his past.
When we meet Anatoly Sukhanov in his Russia of the 1980’s, it is a wintery world, filled with memories. He is leading a warm and fuzzy life, has money and a family. But everything changes when he is confronted with an artist that used to be his best friend 20 years ago. Suddenly he is forced to challenge the reasoning behind the choices he has made all over again.
In the beginning Sukhanov states that he doesn’t remember much of his past. He keeps a few isolated memories and therefore creates a curated version of his life that has almost no connection to reality. But through the encounter with his friend from the past, memories keep suddenly overwhelming him. Memories from his childhood, memories from his time as a poor and rebellious artist:
“[…] this stray little thought released in him some echo of the past, a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”
He feels overwhelmed by these memories and is unable to save himself from the emotions that come with each new recovered memory. Oftentimes the memories are triggered by places and the reader is transported to a different time in the life of Sukhanov without much warning. The memories, characters, places and emotions create an eerie and claustrophobic mixture, where sometimes it is not clear what is real and what is not. Could some of the people he encounters be himself at different times in his life?
What I thought was done rather brilliantly in this book was the way that Grushin did not paint a black and white picture of Sukhanov. In many ways his character is quite flawed, he is a proud and opportunistic man where we get to meet him, but nonetheless Grushin got me to really care for him. Also she never simplifies the choices that Sukhanov has and had to make. His struggles are real and valid. When she gives reasoning for his decision to turn down life as an artist, they do not seem like choices that were done without thought behind them. In a lot of ways the reasons Sukhanov gave, made me care more about the character and not less:
“…the only life worth living was a life without humiliation, a free life, a safe life – and the only sure way to avoid having one’s wings clipped was to grow no wings at all.”
Obviously art is an important part of the book. The characters talk about it, they judge it, they create it and different artists are mentioned again and again to show the characters’ changing relationships to art throughout their life. Dali and Chagall play the most important roles here. Grushin also describes how art was perceived in Russia at various times in the last century. To me this opened up a new view on the connection between the artist and the environment that he lives in:
“Our days flowed into nights, our nights were endless and every single windbag who talked about Russia, God and art was a brother, every artist a genius, every painting a miracle – and the world did not know us yet, but we were together, we were brilliant, we were destined to light up the skies […].”
What impressed me most about this novel is the way Grushin writes. Her descriptions are almost like the script for a film, she creates a very detailed (and this in no way meant in a bad way) picture of where the characters are at any given time. The opening of the book is one of the strongest I have read this year. Her writing, clear and precise at the beginning, follows the inner life of her main character. When he finds himself in a swirl of memories, the writing also becomes more surreal. It jumps between timelines without warning and gets experimental where you don’t expect it to be.
The novel is like a painting. The longer you look at it and think about it, the more ways of reading it you can find. On the surface it is a novel about a man and his choices, but it is so much more. It is also a meditation on art and why we create it, what it is that we strife for and how much we are willing to sacrifice for it:
“But you were also wrong, because in spite of all the injustices and horrors and stupidity, beauty always survives and there will never be a higher mission than by adding more beauty to it, by making one single person cry like a child at the age of fifty three.”