Olga Grushin's first novel is the sort of book where you can see what is going to happen from page three; the only question is how. Sukhanov, successful, rich and cynical, is riding the crest of the wave in Moscow in 1985. He has just been invited to weekend in the Minister of Culture's dacha, no less. Since the texture of the writing is dense with irony so heavy it seems to have been forged on an anvil, it is a foregone conclusion he will have lost everything by the end of the book.
The year 1985 is crucial to understanding this story. In its first quarter, Konstantin Chernenko, a Brezhnev protege, was in power, and the USSR apparently as incapable of progress as Lenin's embalmed corpse. Grushin quotes the phrase 'socialism with a human face' early on, and we are meant to remember that this was the slogan of the Czech liberal reformer Dubcek, which inaugurated the fragile 'Prague Spring' and brought Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968. But at the time this novel is set, Mikhail Gorbachev has been at the helm for a few months. Unknown to the apparatchiks, everything is set to change, including the rules for survival.
Grushin has a number of serious points to make. One is about the place of memory in a totalitarian regime capable of decreeing that Stalin should be forgotten and of convincing its citizenry that the price of survival is the development of selective amnesia, even within individual families. Sukhanov's mother never talks about his father and, for all his complacency, Sukhanov is aware with respect to his wife and children that 'their family map shone with uncharted white spots of terra incognita'.
When the novel opens, Grushin's hero is the editor of a state-controlled journal, The Art of the World. For 20-odd years, he has manufactured articles judiciously sprinkled with quotations from Lenin which execrate decadent capitalist art and praise socialist-realism. Once, he had been a young painter of real ability, but his first public exhibition was in 1962 and he was one of the artists Khrushchev denounced as amoral and anti-Soviet. He chose survival. Now he is a party hack, complacently tallying the symbols of his success: lovely wife, two brilliant children, car with chauffeur, dacha, tickets for the ballet. But the price seems to be that he can't remember anything, not even his chauffeur's name.
In Sukhanov's youth, he had been a Surrealist, a movement he now regularly abuses in the pages of his journal. He praises the representation of the real, while his life embodies the rational materialism of the Soviet dream. Surrealism, conversely, embodies a belief in the significance of dreams and links the creative impulse firmly with the subconscious. It is inevitable, since this is a modern morality play, that this man who has suppressed both his talent and his actual memories will be taught to believe in dreams. He will see his wife sprouting swan's wings and flying away (flight and winged figures proliferate in this novel). He will enter a series of fugal states in which random words or actions in the present ineluctably release a flood of buried memory which rises to overwhelm him.