'The Suitcase' is filled with irony about life in Soviet Union


February 27, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"The Suitcase," by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 128 pages, Grove Weidenfeld, $16.95.

SERGEI DOVLATOV died at the end of the summer in Coney Island Hospital, an emigre far from the Russian homeland he continued to find precious if still impossible to live in.

Dovlatov was only 48, and he had lived about 11 years in the United States. He might have appreciated the irony of dying in a place best known for its broken-down amusement park.

His books often depict the Soviet Union with spare, sometimes almost surreal, absurdity as a kind of decrepit theme park. The theme being "the greatest charlatanism of all time," as he calls the communist system in an offhand remark in "The Suitcase," his latest novel, newly published in the weeks after his death.

Still, Dovlatov's books translated into English are all more or less memoirs of his life in the Soviet Union. Emigre life it seems had a bittersweet quality. He chose an epigraph from the poet Alexander Blok for "The Suitcase": "But even like this, my Russia, you are precious to me . . . "

He was a very fine satirist. His laconic, humane irony illuminated life in the Soviet Union like a sudden burst of laughter during a police interrogation. It would be very sad indeed if he came to be an exile from the Soviet Union only to be forgotten in America.

Dovlatov may not have the haughty grandeur of a Solzhenitsyn, but he's got that quirky, penetrating, personal honesty you find in good writers who really know their way around the streets. Dovlatov has hung out with the same kind of wise guys you find in Isaac Babel's Odessa stories or Nelson Algren's Chicago.

You should remember Dovlatov was a guard in the Gulag before he became a prisoner himself. He knew the difference -- "I'll only say this about it: I didn't like being in jail," he wrote in "Ours," his book about his family.

Five of his books have now been published in English. He's only beginning to be published in the Soviet Union, but he is becoming extremely popular.

"Thanks to the censor, my apprenticeship dragged on for seventeen years," he remarks dryly in "The Suitcase."

He was a journalist in the Soviet Union, in Estonia, actually. In his first book, "The Compromise," he contrasted what actually happened on each assignment with the stories he wrote.

Which is an exercise that might be salutary for journalists everywhere, including the United States. Soviet journalism doesn't seem all that different from American journalism in its insistence on the trivial, the inoffensive and the "patriotic."

The happy difference is that American journalists rarely go to jail for what they write. None have been shot lately either that I'm aware of, except perhaps during the course of domestic strife, which is a different matter altogether.

"The Zone" was inspired, if that's the word, by his life as a camp guard. The guards are as much imprisoned as the "zeks" -- that evocative word that resounds in all Soviet camp stories -- in as much as they are all immured in Communist society.

Everyone in the prison camp, it turns out, is looking for an angle and a bottle of vodka, or in the case of the Estonian "hero" chartreuse.

"The Suitcase" takes its form from the suitcase Dovlatov carried with him when he left the Soviet Union in 1979.

Made of battered plywood, covered with torn green cloth and reinforced at the corners with rusty chrome, the suitcase has been stuck at the back of a closet until Dovlatov is reminded of it by his son Nicholas, who's been born in America.

The suitcase contains an old-fashioned double-breasted suit, crepe socks, half boots, an officer's belt, a worn satin jacket once worn by the French artist Fernand Leger, a poplin shirt, a winter hat, driving gloves -- and half a lifetime of memories.

It's a ruefully amusing history.

The crepe socks recall a black market deal busted by vagaries of the Russian economy. Dovlatov ends up wearing pea-green socks for 20 years.

The boots come from a job he had as a monument maker for the subway. He's the youngest guy on the job so he has to climb 600 steps to get the vodka, several times a day.

Nothing seems to get done in the Soviet Union without vodka, including guarding prisoners. Dovlatov gets the belt and a scar on his forehead from another guard as crazy as the deranged prisoner they're watching.

The Leger jacket is given him by a friend of his mother. They were both briefly actresses. Dovlatov's mother married (and divorced) a dubious director, her friend a famous actor, Nikolai Cherkassov, whom Americans might remember as Ivan the Terrible in Eisenstein's film.

The poplin shirt is a gift from his wife as she leaves for the United States ahead of him.

Dovlatov is as candid about his married life as he is about his life as a prison guard. In a wonderfully etched passage, he finds his wife has put his picture in a photo album. He's touched.

"I didn't have the strength to think it through. I never knew that love could be so strong and so sharp."

And when he recounts the tales of the winter hat and the driving gloves, he reflects on where his life has brought him.

His years in his homeland are summed up in a suitcase full of rubbish and memories. His 10 years in America brings him jeans, sneakers, moccasins, camouflage T-shirts from the Banana Republic.

"But the voyage isn't over," he writes. "And at the end of my allotted time I will appear at another gate. And I will have a cheap America suitcase in my hand. And I will hear: 'What have you brought with you?'

"'Here,' I'll say. 'Take a look.'

"And I'll also say, 'There's a reason that every book, even one that isn't very serious, is shaped like a suitcase.'"

Take a look into this book which is called "The Suitcase." The man who filled it has reached that gate at the end of the voyage.

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