Thursday, July 29, 2010
The revolt of the imagination under the Soviets
“The world smelled of heated copper and wilted carnations.”
The Line (Putnam: A Marian Wood Book) a new novel by Russian-American writer Olga Grushin, is full of such marvelous word pictures, that excite the inner senses. Under the dead weight of Soviet bureaucracy, time congeals “like a vat of frozen concrete.”
The tuba-player who aches for release from this sterile environment dreams of a street that resembles one he knows, but opens into magic, where an old man looks at him with mirror eyes and “satin women play cheerful little songs on ripened grapes.”
I am awed by Olga Grushin’s ability to write so well in a second language. Like Joseph Conrad, while she uses her adopted language better than most native speakers, she gives a little spin to the words that makes them fresh.
I loved her previous novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov. Also set in the Soviet era, it brilliantly depicts the revolt of the imagination against the totalitarian project of total control over a subject population. The protagonist here is a promising Surrealist painter who betrays his ,use in order to get a fat paycheck and a big apartment and a chauffeured car while working as an art bureaucrat. His suppressed imagination comes after him, spawning dreamlike anomalies in his everyday world, until that world — and the false values it instilled in him — falls apart.