Olga Grushin’s second novel, The Line, is a character study of a family and of a national spirit under duress; and a story in which everything important happens while nothing happens.
Grushin opens with this epigraph: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it (Romans 8:24-25).” The first person we meet is Anna, a schoolteacher in 1960s Russia, who shares an apartment with her disillusioned musician husband, their aimless teenage son, and her mother, who refuses to speak and hoards the precious remaining links to her life before “the change.” Anna, walking home after a long day in the classroom, stumbles across a line in front of a shuttered kiosk. Curious, she asks what the kiosk is selling, but no one near the end of the line can tell her. She could continue home, or she could join the line, and after a moment’s hesitation, she decides:
She had half an hour to spare. Of course, on any other day, she would hardly consider wasting her time waiting for God knew what. Today, though—today was different; today, she realized suddenly, she wanted to be surprised; felt entitled to a surprise, in truth. Making up her mind, she hurried down the line, blinking at the snow; the descending sun made things bright and hazy, breaking the city into blinding triangles of chill and brilliance. She took her place at the end. A cake would be lucky, she mused—she loved the anticipation of a sweet mouthful traveling down her tongue, narrowing the whole universe to a pinpoint of one flaking sugar-sprinkled moment—but of course, she would like any number of nice things: a pair of sheer stockings with their faintly chemical smell, for instance, or a ruby-red drop of nail polish in a square glass bottle, or a smooth pebble of jasmine soap. Once, on a winter afternoon just like this, she had chanced upon a kiosk selling oranges; true, the oranges had turned out to be sour and riddled with hard, bitter seeds, but their smell had been beautiful, beautiful, making her remember something she had not known she remembered, something from the dimmest reaches of childhood: the twilight deepening in a great, silk-lined, velvet-cushioned space, the majestic swaying of crimson and gold as the curtain rose, the rush of sound and motion and color, the stiffness of the lacy collar scratching her chin, the porous spiraling of the aromatic rind under her clumsy fingers as she leaned over the padded edge of the balcony, struggling to peel an orange, her eyes on the stage, now on the fruit, now on the stage again, and the disembodied voice, her father’s voice, breathing into her ear, “There—there she is, in white, do you see her—”
Anna soon discovers that the kiosk is not selling oranges or cakes or stockings; what they’re not selling—yet—is a ticket (each person in line will get to buy only one) to a once-in-a-lifetime concert. And thus will begin her family’s journey of discovery, as they jostle and sacrifice for and betray one another in order for one of them to bestow this most valuable of gifts on his or her beloved.
The book is loosely based on an historical event: in 1962, exiled Soviet composer Igor Stravinsky was invited back to Leningrad to conduct one glorious concert. As soon as word was out, a line formed for tickets; and that line would exist for a full year, with people standing in shifts and negotiating a unique social contract that turned “the line” into a microcosm of the human spirit vs. bureaucracy that was the Soviet experience of those years.
Grushin, born in Moscow, is at her best in describing the interior and exterior landscapes of Russia and the Russian people. She writes gorgeous paragraphs, full of adjectives but not excessively so, that loop through the narrative, melding a character’s sensory input with his interior monologue. Her structure has a way of slowing down the reader and offering words as morsels to be appreciated slowly and in order. An example of her extravagant, languorous sentences comes from one of my favorite passages:
Crisscrossing his sleep again and again, like a swift silver needle pulling a thread back and forth across the fabric of darkness, the voice would stitch the hours together, seamlessly merging its stories with his own dreams, his own thoughts, so he would often awaken with his head inhabited by a swarm of buzzing visions, half believing he had invented all of them himself—mermaids sipping frothy drinks from dainty little cups in terraced cafes, hiding their tails under elaborately ruffled skirts; songs extracted with special curved spoons from the rosy spirals of seashells sold in hidden street markets; goldfish languidly swimming inside the limbs of glass mannequins in the fashionable shops of some city—the faraway, fantastical, nonexistent city that the voice haunted as it leaked through the tiny cracks in his slumber.
Like her first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov (I reviewed it here), The Line is more about the characters’ feelings and experiences, the grasping at spent memories and the waking remnants of dreams and what those communicate about who we are and where we have come from, than it is about a sequence of actions. But in contrast to The Dream Life, The Line is a more linear telling with a more concrete ending. Grushin obviously does not feel compelled to clarify all of the mysteries, which will frustrate some readers while offering others a greater role in the storytelling. This is a quiet and slow-moving portrait; but like a symphonic performance in a great concert hall, the experience reverberates long after the final notes have sounded.
This review is cross-posted at The Discarded Image.