Complex political, human story of Soviet life


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The Line

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/04/2010 (4539 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Line

By Olga Grushin

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 322 pages, $32.50

Olga Grushin: sophisticated literary novel

In this Kafkaesque novel, hope seizes the imaginations of members of a Soviet-era family, with consequences that shatter their grim, pre-planned existence.

Author Olga Grushin, a Russian living in the United States, has written an adept, complex political and human story set in an ill-disguised Soviet Union.

The year is undefined, because one year is no different from another. Even the elements conspire against her characters, who subject themselves to the cold, rain and heat for the promise of something better.

Yet Grushin’s lyrical style injects life into broken elevators and bleak, identical housing units, juxtaposing how the lofty goals of the Russian Revolution were seized by the aparatchki and turned against those who were supposed to benefit from it.

People were in the habit of forming queues in Soviet society, sometimes only on the basis of a rumour that a new commodity or food might be sold. Grushin drew the idea for her story from a line that grew for a whole year before a concert given by Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky in 1962, one that developed its own social system and form of governance.

The whispers of a concert by a composer who left the country before "The Great Change" spark memories of a happier past. Anna had hopes of being a dancer, but now she has "stolid legs," her face is "widened by age," and she looks frumpy in her sagging beige cardigan and brown woollen hose.

Her husband Sergei is a tuba-player whose love of music has been crushed by the state. Anna’s mother speaks for the first time in decades upon learning of the proposed concert.

That sets in motion an obsession to get the one precious ticket they are allowed. The time and effort required to keep their place in line helps Anna and Sergei each escape the boredom of their lives and their marriage — Anna looks at "the lump of her slumbering husband," he passes her on the street without recognizing her.

Both studiously avoid dealing with their son, symbolically colour-blind and the abysmal sum of their crushed dreams.

The concert represents escape, freedom, albeit for a few hours. Everyone in line has his or her own reason for wanting to attend.

At first, they feel each other out to see who might be a government plant, but "united by fear and hope and trust under black, pregnant skies" relationships develop among people who would otherwise never cross paths.

Grushin reveals their stories whenever they step away; in line they are obedient citizens. The collision of events unleashes qualities in Anna and Sergei that neither knew they had, threatening their future and at the same time offering a kind of liberation.

In her 2006 debut novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Grushin explored the psyche of a surrealist artist who becomes a party hack but who then can’t regain his creativity when Gorbachev declares glasnost.

She writes about a world gone askew, with tones reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s Blindness and Orham Pamuk’s Snow. In The Line people struggle to live even the most ordinary existence in a society that only has the veneer of stability.

In reality, it is constantly uncertain and dangerous, to the point that within the tiniest apartment each individual has secrets from the other and feels isolated.

But they never give up hope, and in their struggle to find some level of personal accomplishment, they realize that the answer is not found at the end of a queue, and that happiness can be more than a distant memory. In this sophisticated literary read, the answer is simple.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.



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