Sergei Dovlatov, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1978, differs in several respects from his most celebrated fellow émigrés. He is neither ethnic Russian nor Jewish; he is largely apolitical; he was unknown as a writer when he left his native land, achieving publication—and a measure of recognition—only in the United States. Two of his books have appeared in English translation following their issue in Russian by émigré publishers: Kompromiss (1981; The Compromise, 1983) and Zona 1982; The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story). Excerpts from both these books appeared in The New Yorker, to which Dovlatov has become a regular contributor.
The freshness of Dovlatov’s voice is immediately apparent in The Zone. The title and subtitle suggest a rather grim, straightforward narrative; instead, the text begins with the surprising heading “Letter to the Publisher,” followed by a letter, datelined New York, from Dovlatov to Igor Markovich Yefimov, head of an émigré Russian-language publishing house, Hermitage Press. Dovlatov is sending to Yefimov a fragment of his “prison camp book,” The Zone—which, he admits, has already been rejected by several publishers, all of whom said that the “prison camp theme is exhausted. The reader is tired of endless prison memoirs. After Solzhenitsyn, the subject ought to be closed.” The objection is unfair, Dovlatov notes—to begin with, he is writing about camps for regular criminals, not political prisoners.
Having made a case for his “right to exist” as a writer, Dovlatov then explains to Yefimov the fragmentary condition of his work. Before leaving the Soviet Union, he microfilmed the manuscript of The Zone; later, “a few courageous French women” smuggled it in bits through customs:Over the last few years, I have been receiving tiny packages from France. I’ve tried to compose a unified whole out of the separate pieces. The film was damaged in places. A few fragments were entirely lost. The reconstruction of a manuscript from microfilm is a laborious job. Even in America, for all its technological greatness, it is not easy. And, by the way, not inexpensive. I’ve restored about thirty percent of it to date.
Here is a marvelous modern variation on a favorite device of Romantic storytellers, the fragmentary manuscript—a device which Dovlatov light-heartedly exploits throughout the book.
Following this opening letter is a brief and ironic narrative of camp life. This establishes the pattern: Letters to Yefimov (who did in fact publish the Russian-language edition of The Zone) alternate with prison camp episodes. Thus, there are two distinct narrative lines. Dovlatov’s letters—there are about fifteen of them, the first dated February 4, 1982, the last dated June 21 of the same year—trace the process by which he was transformed from a Young Pioneer to a prison camp guard to a writer who associated with dissidents; there are also reactions to letters from and conversations with Yefimov (to which the reader is not privy) and wry reflections on Dovlatov’s acclimation to life in the United States. The second narrative line consists of a series of loosely linked but self-contained stories set in the Ust Vym camp complex in the Komi Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union. Finally, the book works on a third level: the interaction between the two narrative lines. Sometimes this interaction is explicit, for Dovlatov frequently refers to the stories when writing to...
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