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.


Nancy said...

"His suppressed imagination comes after him" -- yes! I exchanged notes today with a soon-to-be-retired science professor who has dreamed for decades of missing an undergrad class. On waking he always assured himself it was fine, that he has his PhD now, but the dreams kept coming. I gently suggested if it were my dream, there may be something I wished I had done back then that I could get to now. He said yes indeed, that he always wanted to play the guitar. He has recently bought 3 (!) and started practicing, loving it ("even though I suck!"), and this dream has stopped.

There is so much wisdom inside of us! We ignore it at the peril of keeping our life smaller than it has to be.

Robert Moss said...

Hi Nancy, thanks for helping the science professor understand that dreams remind us that life is always setting us fresh life lessons, which sometimes invite us to reclaim gifts from earlier life.