Russian echoes of Waiting for Godot

The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin

The story in this wonderful novel was inspired by a real event – that of the eighty year old Stravinsky returning to Russia in a ‘for one night only’ comeback concert; the queue for tickets started a whole year before.

Set in an unnamed Russian city some time during the height of the totalitarian regime, the streets abound with kiosks selling various goods.  When Anna discovers a new kiosk with a queue already forming, despite it being shut and there’s no indication of what it will sell, she bags her place, and thus begins a marathon that will involve her entire family. Anna is a school teacher, her husband Sergei is a frustrated professional musician who was assigned to play the tuba after the ‘change’, and student son Alexander helps out too. Rumours spread that the tickets will be for a special concert featuring an exiled composer, and each member of the family dreams of what they’d do if they got the ticket.

The line develops its own life, becoming a complex social structure, with myriad families all holding their allotted place – all taking shifts in waiting to get the single ticket per place. One of its members wonders what’s really going on …

‘All I’m saying is, it’s a very efficient way of disposing of people’s time, don’t you see? Thousands of us, some waiting for stockings, others for symphonies. But what if there aren’t any stockings, what if there aren’t any symphonies, so to speak? What if all of this is just a means to keep the masses occupied and hopeful – a cheap solution to the problem of time?’
‘Wait, does this idiot seriously believe that the State is maintaining a system of phony kiosks just so we waste our time waiting for things that don’t exist?
‘No, no, I’m not claiming that’s how it is, I’m only saying it philosophically. Like a metaphor, a metaphor of life, do you understand?’
‘Well, metaphor or not, this smells of subversion to me. You’d do well to keep your voice down – ‘

Waiting in the line becomes an obsession for all of them. Their jobs suffer, they don’t talk to each other any more except to arrange shift patterns. They begin to display all the traits of addicts – the line is their life now, their neighbours in the queue replace their families; the line is the only place were hope still lives. Whiling the hours away in the line is preferable to anything else. There is much philosophising about time and Sergei muses with himself and his neighbours in the line …

‘Here’s a question for you: Does waiting make time move faster, or slower?’
‘Slower of course. Everyone knows that time flies when you’re happy, but when you’re waiting, each moment crawls by.’
(Each moment, they say. Ah, but moments are akin to snowflakes, no two alike. Some extend back like powerful microscopes, zeroing their light on some spot in the past, until the recollection, bright, enlarged, is spread for your contemplation as if under glass. Others remind you of that curiously unpleasant mathematical paradox, that hapless runner trying to reach point B from point A in eternal increments of half the remaining distance, doomed never to attive at his destination, the units of time sliding one out of another life endless smaller compartments hidden in larger ones, again and again and again, suspending time in an agony of futile anticipation. Then, of course, there are others, light and enjoyable, fleet and indistinct like dreams, like delightful whooshes down a slide in some forgotten park, like so many of their moments spent waiting, spent daydreaming, here – if they but knew it. Here, then, is a better question for you: If you’re happy when you’re waiting, what happens to time then?)
‘Me, I just can’t help wondering – we’ve given up almost a year of our lives for one or two hours of enjoyment. Is it worth it?’

I really loved this book. It felt so authentic – well the author is Russian; she perfectly captures the dreary lives of people just trying to get by under the regime but always dreaming of better things – and we get to live their hopes and aspirations with them. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett’s two tramps in Waiting for Godot, the waiting is what they do best, with the lure of things happening tomorrow.

I definitely want to read Grushin’s first book, The Dream Life of Sukhanov having read this fantastic novel. (9.5/10) I bought this book.

N.B. This book has also been published with a different title – ‘The Line’ outside the UK.

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13 thoughts on “Russian echoes of Waiting for Godot

  1. It actually shames me how rubbish I am with Russian literature and I should be so much better as I know some of the greats, both classic and contemporary, hail from there but I just don’t read any. I will make it a resolution for 2011 (reading cold Russian in hot Brazil might just work hee hee) to read much more of it, and this will be one of the books I will aim to give a whirl!

  2. I remember seeing an ARC of this one at work a couple months back and thought it sounded interesting. I haven’t had the best of luck with Russian literature of late, but I’m always looking for the book that proves the exception to that streak!

  3. I think even if you hadn’t love it I would still add this to my wish list. For some reason the description of this story really really appeals to me. Shame it only seems to be in hardback at the moment.

  4. This one looks just up my street and your review makes me want to go order it straight away, combining as it does my appreciation for Russian literature and my love of music.

  5. I bought this book for a friend and it’s sitting in a drawer at work! She’s a total Russophile (?) and a pianist so I thought it would be perfect. I was planning to read it sometime later when I get my own copy but I’m so thrilled that you loved it. I might just have to get it sooner than I planned… The cover illustration is just so beautiful, isn’t it?

  6. Simon, Steph, Jessica, Tom, Sakura – Olga Grushin now lives in the USA, and if it was translated she did it herself. It was the winning combination of Russia, Music and a lovely cover – I couldn’t resist the hardback of this one. I would have given it 10/10 but for a few short bits that dragged slightly – (I’m not handing out as many perfect tens these days).

  7. This does sound amazing. I hadn’t heard before (under either title), but those quotes and the philosophical musings are irresistible. I just this past week gave up on my first attempt at a contemporary Russian novel, so maybe I should try this instead.

    • I’ve bought several Russian novels lately … will you divulge which one gave you problems – or keep it to yourself Teresa!

      • Having read your post now I think I’d have problems with that one too! Luckily it’s not one of the ones I bought recently – phew!

  8. I read this back in March after being desperate to read whatever she did next after The Dream Life Of Sukhanov – a brilliant book that I would heartily recommend to anyone, let alone someone who loved her latest. I wasn’t quite as bowled over as you were Annabel but perhaps this was just because the standard set by her debut was so high. As a companion read if you fancy it you might want to take a look at The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin. Originally published in 1983 it has the same set-up but is a novel rendered entirely in non-attributed speech. My review might make that last sentence a little clearer.

    • Somehow I missed your post, but I’ve read it now! The dream life of Sukhanov is definitely a must-read it seems. Loving Russian books, I may well check out the Sorokin book too. Thanks.

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