Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The personality of the narrator, together with his adventures as a reporter, is a source for several motifs. An obvious one is alcoholism—no doubt a true reflection of drinking life in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s. (It is worth noting that as Mikhail Gorbachev took steps to curb Soviet alcoholism in the 1980’s, Dovlatov the author managed to stop drinking upon emigrating to the United States.)

A more developed theme is that of Jewishness and anti-Semitism. These issues are not presented in a militant manner because the author, though half Jewish, was never religious and in general is not sympathetic to the religious cast of mind. Jews are not always presented as likable characters (for example, the alcoholic Zhbankov). All the same, the author is angry at Soviet anti-Semitism and the hypocritical denial of it by the government and the Party. When the narrator is told by Turonok to write a story on the four hundred thousandth baby born in Tallinn, he learns first that the baby must be a boy, second that it must not be half Ethiopian (this is also a reference to Aleksandr Pushkin), and third that it must not be the son of a famous Estonian poet who is also a Jew. Finally a newborn child is found whose father is Russian—an alcoholic shipyard worker who complains to Dovlatov that during intercourse his wife just lies there “like a codfish.” Dovlatov finally chooses to fight Soviet anti-Jewish attitudes with humor, as when Evi declares to the narrator “the morning after” that when she marries again it will be with a Jew—because “Jews get circumcised.”

The motif of sex occurs throughout the book, emphasizing the wantonness of youth, the insensitivity of males toward females, and the incredible ignorance and naivete of both men and women in the Soviet Union concerning sex—a situation much like that in the United States of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. (This may be construed as an attack on the puritanical character of the Party and its squeamish inability to provide complete and accurate information about sex.) Other themes include generational differences, the adoration of anything made in the West (except that Dovlatov has to make do with blue jeans made in Poland), and relations between Russians and Estonians, which are generally not very good.