Characters Discussed

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Sergei Dovlatov

Sergei Dovlatov (sehr-GAY doh-VLAH-tov), a journalist in his mid-thirties, formerly a camp guard. Educated as a philologist, he is talented, very tall, and an alcoholic. Something of a dissident (he is part Jewish), he works for an Estonian newspaper. He is separated from his wife and behind in his alimony payments. In telling the reader the truth behind several apparently innocuous “compromising” human interest stories he had written for his newspaper, the narrator presents himself as the center of a kind of novel that ends with the reporter’s return to his family in Leningrad. It is Dovlatov as author who in fact recalls the events behind the stories, but the narrator appears to be fictional, if for no other reason than that his surname is almost never mentioned or, if it is, usually is rendered incorrectly by one of the characters, as Dolmatov, Dokladov, Zaplatov, or some other variation.

Mikhail (Misha) Borisovich Shablinsky

Mikhail (Misha) Borisovich Shablinsky (boh-RIH-soh-vihch shah-BLIH-skee), a reporter for the “industry desk” at the newspaper, an excellent but cynical writer who is ruthlessly successful with women. He finally decides to get married and therefore breaks up with Marina, who in turn takes up with Dovlatov. Shablinsky is an established journalist and a member of the Communist Party; the narrator, though a superior writer, is not a Party member.

Marina

Marina (mah-REE-nah), one of the secretarial workers at the newspaper. She is around thirty years old and single. She smokes, is well-informed, and is somewhat bitter about men. She sees Dovlatov as pensive, polite, and honest, in keeping with his pattern of being liked by cast-off women. The narrator is inclined to view their relationship as one of intellectual intimacy, with shades of animosity and sex. To Marina, this is love, and she weeps over Dovlatov in frustration.

Henry Franzovich Turonok

Henry Franzovich Turonok (FRAHN-zoh-vihch tew-ROH-nok), the editor-in-chief of Dovlatov’s newspaper and an important member of the Communist Party. He continually accuses Dovlatov of political myopia, for not understanding, for example, that in a list of socialist countries Hungary should follow East Germany, because in Hungary there was an uprising. When he assigns Dovlatov to do a story on the birth of the 400,000th inhabitant of the city of Tallinn, he rejects first a newborn Ethiopian baby and then a Jewish child, finally allowing Dovlatov, by then very drunk after waiting around the hospital all night, to write about a 100 percent Russian infant and the infant’s parents.

Mikhail Vladimirovich Zhbankov

Mikhail Vladimirovich Zhbankov (vlah-dih-MIH-roh-vihch ZHBAN-kov), an alcoholic photographer for the newspaper. He makes a number of disconcerting anti-Semitic remarks but later turns out to be Jewish himself. He is occasionally assigned to work with Dovlatov on stories. A typical such story is the achievement of an Estonian milkmaid, Linda Peips, in extracting a record-breaking amount of milk out of one cow. Dovlatov and Zhbankov drive to the collective farm and interview the girl, who does not even speak Russian. They stay on for two days, however, drinking excessively and having sexual intercourse with their young Party hostesses.

The Characters

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The narrator is identified once by the first name of the author and twice by the author’s surname. Like the author, he is very tall. A pretty young Estonian girl named Evi, who falls in love with the journalist for a night, tells him that he looks like Omar Sharif. “Who?” he says. Yet the real Dovlatov, who is half Armenian and half Jewish, does indeed resemble Sharif. The narrator immodestly allows the reader to understand that he is an excellent journalist, except that the boss cannot trust him because of his perpetual drinking and his political irreverence—called “cynicism” by Turonok. A character emerges who is talented, intelligent, witty and handsome. Almost all the female characters in the novel either love him or have once loved him. He has a reputation for infidelity. Yet Dovlatov prefers to show the reader that his brief dalliance with the Estonian girl soon makes him feel guilty; he purposely drinks so much that he can no longer perform sexually with her. He thus does not quite appear to be a male chauvinist, as do almost all the other Soviet males in the book, but he is a type that women like, and he takes advantage of that. This causes him trouble and is a source for wry humor. Apropos of his relations with women, he declares that he is a “good man,” adding that he can say that “without the slightest embarrassment, because it is nothing to be proud of.” That is, “Women only love scoundrels, as everyone knows.”

In short, Dovlatov has great potential as a human being, yet he is an alcoholic, a divorced person with a child, poor, morally weak in that he finally always writes what he is told to write, and a liar. He could almost qualify as a tragic figure if he did not behave so comically. He remains lovable because of his sins, not in spite of them. Through this major character the author shows how one may love a sinner who is not evil, but simply a person like oneself—and extend this tolerance to all humanity. What American readers especially must learn from this novel—and what the author intends for them to learn—is that nothing happening in the Soviet Union is worse than what happens every day in the United States (although that is bad enough and causes suffering).

About Dovlatov’s mistress little is revealed beyond her age and occupation, and her despair of Dovlatov ever changing. The narrator notes that “something had been going on between us on the order of an intellectual intimacy. With shades of animosity and sex.” Marina weeps despondently over her lover’s unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, and lack of ambition. She is more a symbol for the universal suffering of women than a genuine character. Several minor female characters echo this role, so that it becomes a substantial motif in the novel.

Turonok, the editor, is a stereotyped “boss” and has one major task: to dictate the Party line as it applies to newspaper stories. Dovlatov carries this line to comic exaggeration, inducing one to see Communist inflexibility as perhaps more absurd than evil. This allows the novel to be viewed as satirical, though it may in fact be simply realistic.

The reporter Misha Shablinsky, who is exceedingly intelligent and ambitious, has a small role that depends on his having once been Marina’s lover. When Dovlatov borrows a black suit from Shablinsky to cover the funeral of a Communist Party official, Marina, seeing Dovlatov in the suit, calls him “Misha” by mistake; the reader is obliged to consider what it might take to make this amiable drunk ambitious, and if that would be a good idea after all.

Most of the characters, whatever other roles they might play, lugubriously demonstrate the archetypal incompetence in everyday Soviet life.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 81

Bayley, John. “Kitsch and the Novel,” in The New York Review of Books. XXXI (November 22, 1984), pp. 28-32.

Fiene, Donald M. “Sergei Dovlatov: The Compromise,” in Slavic and East European Journal. XXVIII (Winter, 1984), pp. 552-553.

Karriker, Alexandra H. “Sergei Dovlatov: The Compromise,” in World Literature Today. LVIII (Autumn, 1984), p. 622.

Rosenberg, Karen. “Of Compromise and Corruption,” in The Nation. CCXXXVII (November 5, 1983), p. 437.

Serman, Ilia. “Teatr Sergeia Dovlatova,” in Grani. L, no. 136 (1985), pp. 138-162.

Williams, Frank. “Bottle-Blight,” in The Times Literary Supplement. December 16, 1983, p. 1413.

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