t is August 1985 in Moscow. Middle-aged Anatoly Sukhanov (he’s 56) is the apparatchik editor of “Art of the World,” a Soviet art journal that masticates the party line. Once an ambitious painter, he is now “uninspired and incurious.” His quirky father, “interned” before the war, jumped to his death before his eyes, leading the impressionable young Sukhanov to imagine his future as “an average man who chooses not to dream, who chooses not to fly, who prefers instead the wisdom of simple, everyday living.”
But now, “something strange” is happening to the world around him. Early on, for example, a cab driver claims the street on which Sukhanov lives does not exist; it does, of course, but incongruity spreads. His perfect wife Anna (her father is a Norman Rockwell social realist) grows inexplicably remote; his teenage son is a communist conformist while his recalcitrant daughter refers to him as “Cerberus”; an unknown cousin makes a jarring appearance. Step by step, the average life of the average party man is “assailed” by a dreamy past that lays siege to the present.
Raised in Moscow and Prague, Grushin has written a first-novel masterpiece: A meticulous and seamlessly-conceived reflection on the consequences of creative self-denial. Stalked by his own ideologically repressed imagination, fallen-idealist Sukhanov is a Faustian creation that dwells midway between madness and epiphany. His reveries — like rhetorical seizures — are the unconscious surrealism his fake orthodoxy denies. Though the story runs parallel to the impending collapse of Soviet Union, Grushin’s narrative never harangues the metaphor. Her accomplishment is superlative without tricks.