Sergei Dovlatov is the greatest Russian writer that readers outside of Russia haven’t heard of, a Soviet dissident, humorist and memoirist who is universally beloved, taught everywhere, and hardly translated in the West. For me he was the gateway drug to Russophilia, the first one to reveal the rhythms of the Russian language and Russian humor with its understatement, sadistic glee and binge-drinking. (What’s not to love?)
Dovlatov was published from about the late seventies till his death in 1990, and it’s a shame that he’s not better known, because his work is quite relevant to the cultural and literary now, even in America. I’ve read The Compromise, his account of working for a state-owned (propaganda) newspaper in Estonia in the 70s a dozen times in the past 15 years, largely for its resemblance to my life working for American mass-media. Our hero’s virtuostic, laconic contempt for nonsense prose and bad editors is truly heartwarming to the media professional.
I thought it was time, finally, to read The Zone, Dovlatov’s memoir about being a guard in Soviet prison camps, since American incarceration rates are being compared to those of Stalinist Russia, and since resistance to the various forms of totalitarianism in our own society seems to be becoming more essential with every news cycle.
The book has the Dovlatov humor, flair and structural innovation, but as befits the topic, it’s also the most philosophical of his works. The thesis–told in a meta-device of alternating chapters of memoir v. letters to his editor at a later date–is that the prisoner and the guard are interchangeable, the prison is Soviet society in a microcosm, and that:
“The world was horrible. But life continued. What is more, life’s usual proportions stayed the same. The ratio of good and evil, grief and happiness, remained unchanged.”
That concept is something to mull over, and not something I’ve read, exactly, before, in prison literature, which tends to be a morality play, in one form or another.
Dovlatov is too unsentimental to write the story as a morality play, or any version of the-triumph-of-the-human-spirit, but, in places, spirits do triumph. One is when he explains the inmate-concept of seance, “any experience of an erotic nature, and even beyond that, any instance of a positive sensual emotion.” The example he gives is of an inmate-burgler finding a shard of a china cup in the dirt, and kissing it with tears in his eyes, saying seance!. I haven’t been able to forget the metaphor of this shard of glass, which contains an entire sensual world, and a key to our humanity.
The other way that the camp denizens (and, if you extend Dovlatov’s metaphor, we all) preserve our humanity is, he argues, through speech. In a passage explaining the creativity, brilliance and importance of language in the camp, he writes “speech, for an experienced camp inmate takes the place of every usual civil adornment…”.
The stripped-to-the-bone prison-life is good ground for this stripped-to-the-bone writer, who allows transcendence only in a fragment of a china cup “the size of a three kopeck piece” or the baroque depth and variety of a man’s cursing. He has his own struggles in camp, and another of the book’s moral koans is provided by the conflict that plays out between himself, acting on principal, and a prisoner, also acting on a different set of principals, and the way both draw themselves deeper into trouble by “doing the right thing”.
This is all to give unfortunately short shrift to the book’s structural elegance, and the sense in which Dovlatov is a writer’s-writer who should have the young literary men slavering over his perspective tricks, if only they’d heard of him. There’s all that in here too, starting with the foreword, which declaims:
“The names, events and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential. Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.”
And ending with the last “letter to the editor” which explains that he has omitted the aesthetic extremes and more sensational material in order to contemplate the meaning of the experience in a more sober light. The whole letter is a masterpiece of a particular kind of restraint almost lost to our time, and I love him for it.