The Compromise

by Sergei Dovlatov

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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 official being eulogized at the grave site is the wrong body—but the burial proceeds as scheduled.)

The picaresque nature of Dovlatov’s adventures, with their introduction of several dozen minor characters into the narrative, inhibits the classification of The Compromise as a novel. The narrator does remain a consistent personality throughout the book, however, and there is a certain development in his moral outlook, as he comes to realize the impossibility of continuing to work as a journalist who is never quite allowed to tell the truth. His first cousin, who had once been convicted of manslaughter, keeps telling him to take up some useful line of work. “Aren’t you ashamed of what you do?... All I did was kill a man,...and try to burn his body. But you!”

If one adds to the above the frequent appearances of several of Dovlatov’s colleagues, to provide a further sense of continuity, and of his mistress,Marina, who facilitates the portrayal of the private life of the narrator, one may be satisfied that this work is as much a novel as many another work so classified. The narrator’s relationship with Marina never becomes a true element of the plot, but one senses a growing pressure toward marriage and character reform, as the young reporter drinks heavily in an effort to hold back the onset of middle-aged stability. He is behind in his alimony payments, wears nondescript clothes, is always hungover. Will he never change?

Dovlatov’s journalistic work is the real subject of this book. Journalism, he says, resembles a peacefully flowing river—but one should not fail to notice the tin cans on the muddy bottom. He observes: “Journalism has its perpetually open markets, commissioned stores, and even flea markets. Which is to say, the selling-out is always going on, full blast.” Because there is so much political stupidity in Dovlatov’s anecdotes, it is tempting to assume that the main purpose of the novel is to attack the Soviet Union and its governmental system. A continually evident Gogolian humor, however, indicates that the real target of Dovlatov’s criticism is himself—and humanity. Despite what ought to be bitterness toward his motherland, from which he was eventually forced to emigrate (in 1978), Dovlatov is surprisingly forgiving of it, and of humanity. It is journalism, newspaper reporting, that provides a window into the world of the modern Soviet Union, where, the author insists, “there are no angels or villains... no sinners or saints.”

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