One of the best kind of reading experiences are those where a book starts solidly enough but then in the second half gets better and better. In the case of the Dream Life of Sukhanov you get to that half way point and sit back plotting out where you expect the story to go.
But by merging long past, near recollections with the present at an ever increasing speed any attempt to work out where you thought this might be going has to be abandoned. Instead you let XX take you on a journey that not only shows the danger of hearing only one side of the story and forgetting to make the effort to find out the truth.
In some respects it is of course a metaphor for a generation of Russians who allowed truth to be buried under fears and lies during the Communist years because to face reality was not only too dangerous but also difficult given that lies were produced officially continuously. The book is set in 1985. The winds of change are starting to blow through the art world as well as the political arena and for those that have pinned their colours to the party mast the times are getting challenging. It provides a chance for those that have buried themselves and beliefs in the years since their introduction to the ugly side of communism and the thaw to come out and show themselves. But what if they can’t remember what drove them then? What if they have locked up the dreams of their youth so securely in a commitment to personal safety and advancement that now when the time comes they are unable to unlock them? Or as with Sukhanov how does someone cope with dreams flooding back in a tide that turns into a flood that not only overwhelms them but as we all know because of the events in 1989 overwhelmed the USSR?
The main character has reached a certain position in life through compromising everything he believes in but as his life starts to fall apart he realises that although the state didn’t do anything to help he is ultimately to blame. By not bothering to ever be bold enough not just to be himself but to invest in the relationships with his wife, children and friends that really mattered he is left alone in every respect.
Although the first part might at times feel a bit predictable with the rich and successful critic shunning his failed former artistic friend and looking down on the little people who drive and cook for him. But the way the dominoes fall comes in a skilful way. Starting off with dreams starting to blur into reality towards the end you are reading the past and the present at almost the same time as the memory of places and moments leads directly into the present.
The scales might have fallen from Sukhanov’s eyes but he is almost unable to say those words you want him to say to his wife and children. His father’s suicide, or rather the fatal misunderstanding about it, haunts him and when he finally understands why his father died the blurs of time melt away completely.
At times it might feel like reading an art history text book but the knowledge of Russian art, politics and society is so well detailed that you never question the background. Those operating in the foreground grow as the camera comes into sharper focus not just on Sukhanov but also on his dreams.
A great read to kick off 2010. The word haunting is so over used but it is. To describe the impact of this book in a personal way it made me think about the life I had 15 years ago and how the little signs of change had perhaps been ignored and there is a warning here about the dangers of lying to yourself.
One review has used the word ‘confusing’ to describe this book and it is confusing because dreams merge into waking hours and the past crops up in the present.
But in a sense that perhaps is the point that in communist Russia your dreams and past remained buried. Ironically it is the inability of art critic Anatoly Sukhanov to tell of his past and dreams that makes his life more likely to fall apart.
he has spent his life towing the party line, thinking of art without emotion but politically and has made a comfortable life for himself. But as his life starts to fall apart he hears echoes in the past and is unable, at this stage at least, to vent his thoughts to those around him that could help him get through.
“‘Don’t let anyone clip your wings,’ Pavel Sukhanov had written, and it was not, as Anatoly had previously believed, a bequest of bravery, a proud expression of defiance. It was a warning instead, a cautioning reminder that 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.”
In addition to the critic finding memories stirring this is set in 1985 where a whole system of political belief had just a few years left. So no wonder there are feelings of change in the air.