The Suitcase

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Told that he can take only one piece of luggage when he departs the Soviet Union, THE SUITCASE’s autobiographical narrator and anti-hero, is furious until he goes to his flat, begins packing, and realizes just how little he owns that he either needs or wants to take with him. Even that little proves worthless until his young son discovers the forgotten and still unpacked suitcase in the back of a Queens, New York, closet four years later. The contents are insignificant—Finnish crepe socks, stolen boots, suit, belt, jacket that once belonged to Fernand Leger, poplin shirt, winter hat, driving gloves—but each item evokes a genealogical story. Taken together the eight tales (plus a foreword and an endpiece “Instead of an Afterword") make up Dovlatov’s fractured “novel” and equally fractured life.

The contents of THE SUITCASE form a minimalist wardrobe of an emigre’s old clothes, an autobiography no less instructive than Benjamin Franklin’s (and far more entertaining), a collage of Soviet life as a world of quotidian frustrations, seriocomic non sequiturs, and Gogal-like absurdities. Dovlatov’s antihero attempts to make do as black marketeer, journalist, soldier, stone cutter, amateur actor, son, husband, brother, friend. Witty and satiric, though not without a strain of muted nostalgia, THE SUITCASE succeeds wonderfully well in its depiction of Soviet life and of its own self-deprecating but endlessly resourceful and resilient main character. However, it is Dovlatov’s brilliant use of that typically Russian oral style of storytelling known as skaz which makes this very short yet wildly, wackily digressive novel a literary achievement of the first rank. Originally published in Russian in 1986 and very able translated into English by Antonina W. Bouis, THE SUITCASE is more than a discovery; it is a work of comic genius tightly packed into 128 spare but unsparing, explosively funny pages.