Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A theme already touched upon is the transformation of the model guard Alikhanov into a drunken prisoner, symbolizing the fundamental similarity between soldiers and zeks. Dovlatov underscores this similarity by giving the individualistic Alikhanov and the anarchistic Kuptsov the same given name: Boris. As the first names are seldom used, the discovery of this “coincidence” by the reader almost has the character of an epiphany. In like manner, critics have noted that an exchange of gestures between a zek and a woman he sees only once in fourteen years appears as an epiphany of love. Makeyev is marched in a convoy to an exterior construction site; Isolda approaches, her overshoes sinking down into the mud of the tundra, her steel teeth flashing. He tosses a handmade plastic cigarette holder toward her. She passes a knitted scarf to him across the rows of men. Such transparent moments, which touch guards and prisoners alike, occur several times in the novel.

Dovlatov insists in a letter to his publisher that although the world of the camps was horrible, “Nevertheless, I smiled no less frequently than I do now, and was not sad more often.” He is capable of true poetic nostalgia for that world when, in the final episode, he is being escorted through the settlement by Fidel, “past the dilapidated stone gates of the shipping section, past the huts buried in snow, past the mess hall with white steam pouring from its open doors, past the garage where automobiles all faced one way like cows in a meadow....” Yet he also realizes “with fear how unaccustomed I had grown to the things that make life worth living” and “how much happiness had swept by me on those nights full of hatred and fear, when the floorboards crack from the frost and dogs bay in the kennel and you sit in the isolator and listen to Anagi-Zadye clinking his manacles behind the wall and the miserable, frozen, unchanging days drag on....”

Dovlatov’s terse yet poetic style found unexpected reception, for a Russian emigre, in The New Yorker, which published not only the last chapter of The Zone, as a short story titled “Straight Ahead,” but six other short works as well, between 1980 and 1987. The stories reflect one basic idea, without sentimentality: that people everywhere—prisoners and free men, females and males, Russians and Americans—are fundamentally the same.