Olga Grushin’s second novel, The Line, is an exquisite and wrenching meditation on the act of waiting in Soviet times. In Grushin’s hands, waiting is not only the passive experience of being ignored. Waiting becomes an act of blissful escape and sheer defiance as people abandon their daily lives to stand together in hope for “something, anything to happen”.
The Line is so powerfully unnerving that the reader is inside the line, at times rooting for comrades, at other times exasperated by them. The feelings the book evokes are hard to shake. Grushin’s central characters are both surreal and real enough; their existential hunger shows like steam off skin.
Thus, The Line is not an easy read, steeped as it is in the powerless purgatory of Soviet life. The two main characters, Sergei and his wife Anna, lose their jobs and very nearly their sanity to the line. Like Gogol’s The Overcoat , bad leads to worse and worse becomes unbearable. Unlike The Overcoat, in The Line the central characters haunt only themselves. At their core, they can be redeemed.
Sergei, a frustrated musician, his oblivious Anna, and Sasha, their ne’er-do-well son, spend an entire year taking turns waiting in line to buy tickets to a concert. The narrative is based loosely on a true story: the anticipation of Igor Stravinsky’s concert in Leningrad in 1962. Stravinsky conducted a concert at the age of 80 after 50 years in exile. As Olga Grushin writes in her historical note, it “evolved into a unique and complex social system, with people working together and taking turns standing in line. After a year of waiting, an 84-year-old cousin of Stravinsky was unable to attend. The tickets had sold out; her number in the line was 5,001.”
The line becomes a standing metaphor for a better life or, at the very least, a chance to bump up against truth, beauty, even history.
Grushin’s lyrical language stuns the reader. Her first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, revealed a breathtaking talent. Russian-born and writing in her second language, English, she has astonishing powers of description.
One of the book’s tender gifts is its tribute to the transporting power of Stravinsky’s music. On pages 268 and 269, Grushin seems at times to be describing, in perfect pitch and growing rhythm, Stravinsky’s essence, and his fierce and ancient Russian roots. The reader emerges with a strong sense of what it is like to wait and hope for forbidden music never heard, only whispered about. Hope becomes desire and then desire turns to need. It becomes a kind of shock treatment, reminding these characters they are alive.