OURS: SCENES FROM RUSSIAN FAMILY LIFE is a little book which is likely to get lost among the season’s best-sellers and literary heavyweights. It is a book worth hunting for, though--fresh, funny, and, beneath its deceptively artless surface, cunningly crafted. Sergei Dovlatov, part Russian, part Armenian, part Jewish, was working as a journalist when his first stories were published--not in his native Soviet Union but in the West. As a result he was arrested, briefly imprisoned, and encouraged to emigrate. In 1978 he came to New York, where his wife and daughter had already settled. Since that time he has published a number of books, a few of which have been translated into English: THE COMPROMISE, a collection of linked stories drawing on his experience as a journalist in Estonia, and THE ZONE, based on his stint as a prison-camp guard.
Dovlatov’s procedure is to start with his paternal grandfather and work his way through his extended family, a chapter at a time, concluding with a few lines addressed to his son, who was born in New York City in 1981. (The Russian original of OURS was published in 1983.) This approach might sound mechanical, but Dovlatov’s touch is light. His style reflects his journalistic background--short sentences, short paragraphs--and, like a good newspaper columnist, he has developed a reliable, engaging persona: The subject matter itself is not as important as the way in which it is perceived. There should be an adjective, “Dovlatovesque,” on the order of Kafkaesque, to denote incongruous situations that epitomize the unpredictability of life. Here as in THE COMPROMISE and THE ZONE, Dovlatov is excellently served by his translator, Anne Frydman, who gives the book an idiomatic flair lacking in most translations.