7. Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

10 Feb

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This is the first English translation of Sergei Dovlatov’s 1983 novel “Zapavednik,” which translates directly as “The Preserve” but is here is called Pushkin Hills, after the preserve in question, a trio of country estates associated with Pushkin, where Dovlatov worked as a tour guide  prior to his exile from the Soviet Union. I find it to be the saddest, quietest and most personal of this great Russian dissident writer’s books, though still hilarious because every line of Dovlatov’s writing is hilarious.

The story is that “Boris Alikhanov”—a stand-in for Dovlatov—an alcoholic and failed writer, gets a job at the Pushkin preserve after his wife has decided to emigrate to America, taking their young daughter with her. His wife has pressured him to join them, but he won’t. Everything in Dovlatov is between the lines, and here, between the lines, is the conflict between what it would mean for a great writer to leave his country, verses what it means for a great writer to stay in his country, when that country is the Soviet Union, where honest and free speech is not possible, and he is not allowed to write. For Dovlatov, it was an impasse. And so he drank.

“I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
‘What’s your pleasure?’
‘My pleasure,’ I said, ‘is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.’
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
‘My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.’
‘What kind?’
‘Sausage, I guess.’
I got out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. My hands were shaking uncontrollably.”

Sergei Dovlatov is a writer’s writer, one of the most sophisticated of the Russian prose stylists, and the book is a perfectly constructed puzzle-box on the themes of the inside and the outside, the personal and the public, the interior and the facade, the inmates and the asylum. Almost everything in this book can be turned on its head, and as soon as you look for a meaning, you find its opposite.

One of the most interesting things for me, in our moment of extreme literary confessionalism, is its author’s scruples. Dovlatov is writing autobiographical fiction sort of like, say, Sheila Heti, except in the most opposite way humanly possible. This is a novel that shows everything and tells nothing (speaking of interiors and exteriors). At one point, a character asks Alikhanov why he loves Pushkin, and he responds ” ‘To love publicly is obscene’ I yelled. ‘There is a special term for it in sexual pathology!’ ” In an America where there’s nothing that’s obscene to do publicly, the notion feels bizarrely quaint, but it’s also the key to the book. Alikhanov says so quietly, but he does in fact love Pushkin, and here he is being forced to spout cliches about the writer, guiding tourists around landmarks of questionable authenticity. When the government turns its own culture into a mockery of itself, and it drives you insane, are you insane, or is the government? When you are forced to love publicly, what happens to your love? At one point, Dovlatov writes of his coworkers at the preserve, “Christ, I thought, everyone here is insane. Even those who find everyone else insane.”

It makes delicious sense that a book about a depressed man working in a ridiculous place, living among brutal, wife-beating, semi-literate peasants and ending with an alcoholic bender of epic proportions is actually a backwards-written love letter, to Russian literature, and to Dovlatov’s estranged wife.

Dovlatov did eventually emigrate, and rejoined his wife and daughter, and it’s the daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, who translated this book. I plan to write more about the translation elsewhere, but it’s definitely the best I’ve read of this enormously precise, minimalist, hilarious, difficult-to-translate writer. There’s so much in Dovlatov that just can’t be funny without letting the texture of the Russian come through, and doing that while sounding smooth and correct in English is a true feat. I haven’t yet seen a translation walk that line as well as this one does. It’s a joy for all English-speaking readers, and makes a great introduction to one of the greatest Russian writers, as well as to the hilarious, dry, profane Russian humor.

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