The Compromise

Cover of "The Compromise"
Cover of The Compromise

By Sergei Dovlatov; Academy Chicago Publishers; @1990, first copyright Alfred A Knopf, Inc @1981; 148 pages.

While reading about Kurt Vonnegut, I noticed this guy, Sergei Dovlatov. Apparently, Vonnegut said some nice things about Dovlatov, so that peaked my interest.

The story unfolds as Dovlatov, a Russian living in Estonia, takes a job writing satire for the newspaper, On Watch for the Motherland. Turns out he isn’t a party member—which I found odd; I thought you would have to be a party member to write for a Soviet newspaper and that basically everyone was a party member anyway, but apparently not. Also, his articles weren’t satirical. Hmm, or were they?

Each chapter opens with a short newspaper article that Sergei has written—and that must be written in a certain way or changed to satisfy his bosses—a compromise. Basically, the typical writer’s life. But in this case, it is a writer’s life under Soviet rule. And it seems, every aspect of Dovlatov’s life.

One amusing anecdote is about an article that is needed for Tallinn‘s liberation anniversary. Dovlatov is given the assignment to tell the story of the 400 thousandth inhabitant born to the city. This number isn’t accurate, or even close, but no matter; it makes for a good story. Dovlatov goes to the maternity ward of the hospital in Tallinn and waits for a male child to be born. The 400 thousandth child needs to be a boy because a boy is more symbolic for the occasion.

Dovlatov waits. The first child born that day is a boy, but he doesn’t meet all of the publicizable requirements; he is half Ethiopian. Then another boy is born—also unacceptable; he is Jewish. Dovlatov has to explain to the father that the paper is looking for a boy from a “worker-peasant family.” No intellectuals. Too bad, because the father has already written a poem for the occasion.

“This means that anti-Semitism really does exist, doesn’t it?”

“Looks like it.”

“How could it appear in our country? Here, in a country where it seems—”

I interrupted him. “In a country where the ‘founding corpse’ has still not been buried…”

(I can see why Vonnegut liked Dovlatov.)

A suitable boy is finally born, but now the newspaper, still seeking to tell a good story, wants Dovlatov to convince the father to name the child Lembit, a name out of Estonian folklore. They are willing to pay him. So for 25 rubles, a would-be Volodya becomes a Lembit.

Sergei Dovlatov is immediately engaging. He captures my attention by talking directly to me; I find out who he is as he’s telling the story and I feel sympathetic to him (I have to think more about why). I like his tongue-in-cheek style. He’s absurd, honest, and subtlely humorous.

I liked several of his lines, but especially this one: “Lying without hope of gain is not lying, it’s poetry.” Seems right, considering how much poetry pays.

So probably, there are some things I missed, references, etc. that I didn’t understand because I haven’t ever lived in the Soviet Union. But, overall, The Compromise, was a good read and makes the interesting distinction between the facts and the truth.

I found myself giggling through the last two compromises, high praise indeed.

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