(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Compromise only barely qualifies as a novel. It is highly autobiographical; the narrator retains the name and personality of the author and follows the exact path of the latter as a human interest reporter for the Tallinn newspaper Soviet Estonia from 1973 through 1976. The newspaper, however, is not named in the book; the name of the author’s mistress (whom he in fact later married) is changed from Elena to Marina; and the tone of the narrative signals “fiction” rather than “nonfiction” to the reader.

Other reasons that the work barely qualifies as a novel are its brevity (it is less than 150 pages long) and its division into eleven untitled sections (identified only as “The First Compromise,” “The Second Compromise,” and so on), which are more like separate short stories than chapters in a novel. Three or four chapters were published as stories in magazines before the book appeared. The “chapters” are presented according to a standard format: A brief, dated journalistic sketch is reprinted, one written by Sergei Dovlatov for the Estonian newspaper, followed by the “story behind the story,” ranging in length from three to thirty-seven pages. These report the real personalities behind the bland facts and faces of the original text; or they tell how the reporter got into trouble with his boss, Turonok, for political “insensitivity”; or they describe incredible drinking bouts en route to, during, and after interviews of blue-ribbon milkmaids, crooked jockeys, and garrulous old war veterans. (One of the most humorous “compromises” concerns the discovery that the corpse of a Party...

(The entire section is 674 words.)