Olga Grushin has created a novel with all the characteristics of a Russian classic. The Concert Ticket could have been written by a modern Chekov or Gogol and yet has none of the clunkiness of a translation for it was written in English. Although Grushin’s story has a basis in real-life events, the author brings a surreal touch to her story which makes it go way beyond the prosaic, everyday lives of citizens of the old Soviet Union.
The book is loosely based on a real-life event. In 1962 the composer Igor Stravinsky returned to Russia to play one concert. The queue for tickets began one year before the event took place and only 5000 tickets were available. Olga Grushin has formed her story by describing one family’s participation in a similar queue and the impact it has on their lives.
In the novel, Anna is on her way home from work as a teacher, when she sees a small queue forming at a lone kiosk. Ths kiosk is nondescript with no sign above it. Its window was boarded up, and a handwritten notice tacked onto it, “Gone to the parade”. Anna proceeds on her way home but mentions the new kiosk to her husband, a tuba player in a state-run orchestra, and her mother and son.
A few weeks later she notices that about fifty people are standing in the queue. Nobody seems to know what the kiosk is selling. Leather boots, children’s coats, layetrd cakes? The suggestions from the queue are many and Anna discovers in herself a desire to be suprised, saying, “It sure must be something good otherwise all these people wouldn’t be here”.
Anna joins the queue on her way home from work, then fakes a day’s sickness and stays home from work to spend the day waiting with the other people who continue to speculate what might eventually be on sale. Weeks pass and Anna rejoins the queue at every opportunity. Rumours spread as the people whisper of imported good, ingenious toys, exclusive book subscriptions, a vacation by the sea.
Notices appear in the boarded up window – Closed for Accounting. Out with flu, will re-open in January. Restocking. None of these cryptic messages deter the people in the queue who are desperate for something novel to enter their grey-toned lives, where almost any unexpected produce would be welcome.
Meanwhile Anna’s husband Sergei goes to his work playing the tuba. A thwarted musician, he is doomed to play rousing marches and patriotic songs rather than the orchestral music he loves, and when he over-hears that the great composer Selinsky it to return to his home-country to play one concert his heart is ablaze.
One day, Anna and Sergei’s son Alexander is taking a turn waiting in the queue, when he hears that the kiosk is eventually going to sell concert tickets. Sergei puts two and two together and before long the family have convinced themselves that the mysterious kiosk is the place where the tickets will be sold. By this time others in the queue have also formed the conviction that they will be able to buy tickets for the Selinsky concert, but only one per family – who will be going to the concert? Sergei, the musician who is so desperate to see the ageing comp0ser? Or perhaps Anna’s mother, a retired ballet dancer with links to Selinsky? Or perhaps Alexander will sell the ticket on the black market and escape to the West?
I won’t go into the details beyond these opening pages. It is enough to say that the desire for a ticket becomes an obsession for the members of this family over the next year, leading them into complex and bewildering events which shake their family. I cannot but compliment Olga Grushin for her imagination and powerful story-telling which leads this book into being far more than an account of a queue, but rather an at times surreal exploration of human desire and longing. The queue is a catalyst for a family drama involving a wide cast of memorable characters.
Grushin captures the struggle to make ends meet in communist societies and the way a small surprise can bring disproportionate joy to the grey lives lived in a communist state. These people are cultured and highly educated and they long for a bit of colour to enter their daily struggles. They do not deserve to be so restricted in their lives by poverty and the non-availability of little luxuries. Yes, ultimately the queue is not a good place to find what you are looking for because desire can lead to the destruction of what you seek. On the other hand, this type of queuing can be a transformational experience – when the queue finally dissolves you are not the person you were when you joined it.
One minor quibble about the book. I said earlier, that the book was written in English, but I should really say American English because as a bit of a pedant, it shows up one of the differences between “English English” and American English in its use of the word “line” (American) for “queue” (English). This wouldn’t normally matter, but as the orginal title of the book was “The Line”, and “line” occurs hundreds of times (standing in the line, joining the line, going back to the line etc, etc) in the book, I do wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better to go the whole hog and prepare an English English version with line translated to queue throughout. I wouldn’t mention this if the expression wasn’t quite so crucial to this book in that queuing was such a unique feature of Soviet society.
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