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Book Review: Jonathan Yardley reviews "The Line," by Olga Grushin

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 28, 2010; B08

THE LINE

By Olga Grushin

Marian Wood/Putnam. 322 pp. $25.95

A s Olga Grushin notes at the end of "The Line," her second novel is rooted in historical fact: "In 1962, the celebrated Russian composer Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky accepted a Soviet invitation to visit his former country -- his first trip to his native land after half a century of absence. . . . The line for tickets began a year before the performance and evolved into a unique and complex social system, with people working together and taking turns standing in line. . . . Although The Line is set in a fictionalized version of Soviet Russia, its central premise is inspired by this historical episode."

Indeed, Stravinsky himself is scarcely fictionalized at all. His name here is Selinsky, his music as described by Grushin is a dead ringer for Stravinsky's, and his appearance -- his formidable height and long, aristocratic nose -- is Stravinsky's. None of which is of the least importance; indeed, Selinsky/Stravinsky is important here only as a distant and awe-inspiring figure to the ordinary Russians who form a queue at a kiosk in Moscow. The time is the 37th anniversary of the "Change" -- the Revolution of 1917 -- which makes the year 1954, but as Grushin says in her postscript to this remarkable novel, the scene she has created draws upon "three different periods of Soviet history: the repression of Stalin's 1930s, the hopefulness of Khrushchev's Thaw (late 1950s-early 1960s), and the stagnation of Brezhnev's 1970s."

The gray mood will be recognized at once by readers of Grushin's first novel, "The Dream Life of Sukhanov" (2006), an extraordinary work made all the more so because it was written in English, which is not its author's first language. A native Russian, born in 1971, the daughter of a prominent sociologist, Grushin made her way to the United States two decades ago as an undergraduate at Emory University and now lives in a suburb of Washington. Her father's prominence permitted her what seems to have been a privileged childhood by Soviet standards, but it also gave her an insider's understanding of the ambiguities of the Soviet elite's existence as well as a deep loathing of the communist bureaucracy and its suppression of freedom in all forms.

Her depiction of the Soviet state is as withering in "The Line" as it was in "The Dream Life of Sukhanov," and the stultifying atmosphere is the same, but there are important differences. The central character in the first novel is a talented artist who sacrifices his principles for the easy life of an apparatchik, while the artist in "The Line" is Sergei, now in his late 40s, a musician whose ambitions to play the violin were crushed when, as a boy, he was forced by the state to take up the tuba and spend his days and nights playing official music "of a crude, simple nature -- brass exclamations punctuating anthems and marches, not worth his time, not worth his breath, not worth the very air he sent vibrating." Sukhanov's capitulation to the system is voluntary and cynical, while Sergei's is coerced yet does not quite kill his boyish idealism.

Deep in his heart Sergei still wants to play, perhaps even compose, music of beauty and seriousness. He sees "in Selinsky's music his chance to start living at last, to become something more than he was, to try summoning into existence the notes he could almost imagine flowing from the tips of his fingers," so when he learns that a new kiosk near his dreary apartment may be selling tickets for a concert by Selinsky -- his return to Russia after decades in self-imposed exile -- he becomes ecstatic. He joins the line at the kiosk, and in the process throws the rest of his life into turmoil.

He lives in the apartment with Anna, his wife, a respected teacher at the local school; her ancient mother, Maya; and their son, Alexander, who turns 17 in the course of the novel. At first, nobody knows why the kiosk is there or what, if anything, it will be selling, but the line forms anyway:

"Anna soon gathered that over the past two months the kiosk had become a neighborhood obsession. It had appeared in the fall, but, unlike other local kiosks, which, regularly and with no secrecy, dispensed cheap cigarettes and vegetables or, on thrilling and brief occasions, chocolates and cosmetics, this kiosk had never sold anything at all, not even on those rare days when a fake blonde with a pasty face made surly appearances in the kiosk window. The woman would answer no questions, thereby deepening the general suspicion of some momentous mystery. . . . And the more Anna heard, the more filled she was with a sure presentiment of a change, whether small or boundless she did not know -- but in any case, something, she thought, to make her and her family happier, or lend some simple beauty to her everyday life, or perhaps even infuse her entire existence, working into its minute cracks and voids, knitting it into a tighter, brighter, fuller fabric."

Eventually, it becomes known that the kiosk will sell tickets to the Selinsky concert, that there will be only 300 seats available and that there will be one ticket to a customer. At first, Sergei assumes that the ticket for which he and Anna alternate standing in line will be his, but then his imperious mother-in-law announces that she wants to attend the concert, and immediately Anna pledges to obtain it for her. Sergei becomes obsessed with the ticket, convinced that "he was entitled, yes, entitled -- for had his whole life, with all its missed chances, its unrealized longings, its reversals of fortune, not guaranteed him this music, this gift."

As the days, weeks and months pass, the line assumes a life of its own. A man decides to take matters into his own hands and declares that each person in line will be given a number -- Sergei and Anna share number 137 -- and that this order will be maintained. Rumor and speculation become daily constants, friendships and enmities are made, endless discussions on weighty topics are held. Sergei and Anna become close to others in the line; then Alexander reluctantly begins to relieve his parents at night but is drawn into the life of the line and eventually comes to love "the brightening chill in the air past midnight, the freedom of going nowhere, doing nothing, existing in some secret, timeless pocket of invisibility . . . staying awake, alert, alive, while in identical, ugly buildings all through the city, nighttime windows quickened with identical, ugly lives moving like cutout puppets on dozens of lit stages in dozens of predictable plays."

Alexander becomes friendly with an old man who seems to know a great deal about Selinsky's life. The more Alexander talks to the man, the more he becomes convinced that Selinsky offers him the chance to enter "another, astonishing world . . . a place where no object was meaningless, no action inconsequential, where every word, every turn, every note led to some adventure resonating deep within one's soul." He decides to present himself to Selinsky in the expectation that the great man will recognize his uniqueness and offer to transport him to the world outside. In other words, Alexander, like his parents and grandmother, has invested Selinsky with magical, mysterious powers and expects the concert to be a life-altering event.

Grushin leads all of these people toward the great day with a sure hand and an equally sure gift for surprise. Every one of her characters -- by the end the cast is large -- comes fully to life and reveals depths the reader at first does not sense. Grushin understands, as she says of Sergei, that he realized "just how small his private immensity really was when measured against that other vast, dark, impersonal immensity, call it God, or history, or simply life," yet she grants him, and all the others, individuality and dignity. Her disdain for the system under which they live ultimately matters far less than her sympathy for them, with which this beautiful book is suffused from first page to last.

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