22 September 2009

Obscure Writer Series: Sergei Dovlatov

A feature of this blog I'm introducing today may at first glance seem self-serving.  A title such as "Obscure (Anything) Series" denotes a certain kind of intellectual arrogance, namely, patronization.  But let me assure you that my aim here is completely innocuous, and based solely on my desire to share artistic wonders typically hidden from public view.  And yes, I'm fully aware that this introduction only further reinforces that which I'm trying to avoid.  On with the show:

Sergei Dovlatov was born to a Jewish father and an Armenian mother just two months after Hitler broke his Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin.  His parents, foreseeing the hardships a young man with a Jewish last name would endure in an increasingly anti-Semitic nation, gave him his mother's maiden name - a common tactic employed in mixed marriages during the Soviet regime.  Clearly, being Armenian was slightly better than being Jewish.

In spite of his parents best efforts, Dovlatov had an especially nasty anti-authoritarian streak in him, and had tremendous difficulty getting published throughout his life in the Soviet Union.  Due to his unyielding nature, he was relegated to menial jobs just to get by.  Eventually, he immigrated to New York in 1979 after some of his stories had been published in Western magazines causing his expulsion from the USSR.  Upon arrival, he quickly made a name for himself by publishing in The New Yorker.  

In The Compromise, Dovlatov's "bite my thumb at the man" quality is in full display.  It relays a series of eleven miniscule articles he wrote for the party newspaper in Tallinn, Soviet Estonia.  Beginning each chapter with a reprint of these articles, Dovlatov follows with a balladeer's voice the tale behind how that particular article came to be, and how he was forced to compromise his original vision - hence the title.  

His writing is jumpy and jocular, melodic yet scathing.  In one instance, he's sent by his editor to a Tallinn hospital to commemorate the impending birth of the city's 400,000th resident.  Given strict instructions to choose a proper baby (married parents, Party member father, etc.), Dovlatov first chooses a baby of half-African extraction (the father is a student from Ethiopia, and a Party member!), then a Jewish baby, all to the extreme consternation of his long-suffering fully interpellated editor, Turonok, who berates him over the phone, "Dovlatov, [he] says in a voice choked with torment, 'Dovlatov, I'll fire you...for attempting to discredit the very best...Leave me in peace with your rotten Ethiopian! Wait for a normal - do you hear me? - normal human baby!"

The book is surfeited with such comic moments, usually beginning and ending with Turonok's accusation, "Are you crazy? What are you drunk?"  Usually he was.  

Dovlatov's writing delivers great pleasure on a personal level, laughs abound,  and his style, simultaneously elusive and embracing, is wholly original.  But the geopolitical implications of such work is inexorable. While the Soviet Union, and Communism in general, provoked paranoid nightmares in the West of nuclear war, foreign invasion, and even flouridation, the view from inside the juggernaut exposed a nation whose core foundation was gnarled rotten.

The "Brezhnev Stagnation" wasn't just a cute term used in lecture halls during political science courses in the West, it was a real phenomenon.  Repression was rampant, beauracracy dominated over society, and defeatism became a virtue worn on one's sleeve like a merit badge.  While the powers that be inside the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House fetishistically focused on the USSR's bulging surplus of nuclear arms, they failed to recognize that the guy manning the fort, so to speak, barely had enough in his coffers for a bottle of vodka per week, was forced to share a bathroom with three of his slovenly neighbours and their equally slovenly families, and, most distressingly, saw nothing in the works to think his son's or daughter's life would be any better.

"Are you crazy?  Have you been drinking?"


1 comment:

  1. Hah, how appropriate, I'm just reading some Dovlatov right now... Kompromis pyatii!
    "Chelovek Rodilsya!" (A man was born....) He's great, my mom's recommendation...