(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

It is difficult to assign a clear-cut genre to The Zone. First, it is only barely fictional, based as it is on the author’s experiences as a prison guard while serving in the Soviet army in the early 1960’s. Sergei Dovlatov states, while leaving room for some “accidental” fictionalizing, that all essential names, events, and dates are real and therefore “any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious.” The book proper consists of fourteen untitled chapters; some are mere sketches and others are well-developed “short stories.” They are not connected by plot so much as by characters, some of which are merely names, who appear and reappear, and by the grimly exotic setting. The title identifies the part of the settlement reserved for the prisoners.

These chapters are all presented within a “frame story” consisting of fifteen letters written by the author to his publisher, Igor Markovich Yefimov. (Yefimov brought out the original Russian edition in the United States in 1982, four years after Dovlatov had emigrated to that country.) The letters, usually sent from New York City, but also from Minneapolis, Boston, Dartmouth, and Princeton, cover the period between February 4 and June 21, 1982. Arranged in chronological order and in strict alternation with the “chapters,” the letters frequently remark on the author’s problems in organizing the smuggling of microfilmed sections of the book out of the Soviet Union. (Thus Dovlatov plays a witty variation on the device of the “found manuscript.”) Dovlatov also makes a number of remarks on the aims and intentions of the fictional or literary material alternating with the letters. In this way, the two parts of the book are unified to some extent in their content but differ considerably in tone, the letters at times being uncomfortably self-conscious. Undoubtedly, too, many of these are not real letters but...

(The entire section is 798 words.)