The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story

The ZoneBy Sergei Dovlatov; Translated by Anne Frydman; Russian edition @1982; English edition @1984; My edition @2011; Counterpoint Press; 182 pages.

Perhaps Dovlatov is the Soviet version of George Carlin, sans the vulgar tirades and the four letter words.

Here is the introductory statement by the author:

The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential.

Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.

Dovlatov always had an excellent structure for his books. In The Compromise, it was a series of increasingly absurd compromises. In The Suitcase, the chapters were organized by what he found in his suitcase and the relevance of each item to his life.

In this book, Dovlatov has come to America. He has written the book, The Zone, while still in the USSR, but couldn’t risk taking it with him when he left. As a result, several of his friends have smuggled small parts of the book out while traveling to various places in the free world. Dovlatov is now trying to reassemble his book. The serious content of The Zone is tempered by Dovlatov’s letters to his editor talking about his current life in the U.S. and commenting on the manuscript he is now submitting in parts.

As one might imagine, being a prison guard was pretty horrible not to mention shocking at times.

Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.

young dovlatovThis is the darkest of Dovlatov’s books. But while dark, it still contains his philosophical bent which I enjoy so much. I thought his strategy for dealing with his job was very interesting:

I felt better than could have been expected. I began to have a divided personality. Life was transformed into literary material…I began to think of myself in the third person.

Dovlatov says he doesn’t agree with the ancients—that a sound body means a sound mind. Instead, he says that people who are physically healthy are most often spiritually blind and morally apathetic.

He says he was very healthy.

Since the time of Aristotle, the human brain has not changed. What is more, human consciousness has not changed.

Dovlatov rails against not being able to get his work published in the Soviet Union, but really, what did he expect when he said things like this:

… a prison camp is a pretty accurate representation of a country in miniature, the Soviet state in particular. Within a camp, you have a dictatorship of the proletariat (which is to say, the camp administration), the people (the prisoners), and the police (guards).

Dovlatov says that literature has historically portrayed the prisoner/guard relationship in one of two ways. Either the prisoners are to be pitied or the guards are. To him, both views are wrong:

Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.

For anyone wanting to read Dovlatov, I wouldn’t start with this book. Even though I really liked the book and appreciated what Dovlatov had to say and his characteristic humor, I’m not sure I would have been so compelled to keep reading him if I had started here. (The order I suggest? The Compromise, The Suitcase, A Foreign Woman, The Zone.)

So has the spell been broken? (Will I be rushing out to buy more D?)

Well, as I finish this book, I think about how jaded and disillusioned a person might become after having similar experiences. Here is a man who didn’t graduate from university. He trained as a heavyweight boxer. He saw horrific things and experienced ongoing fear.

Yet, through it all, (not having had everything given to him, not having had a pampered existence and the best education, freedom for travel throughout his life, money, etc.) through it all, he retained his humanity. He retained his capacity for mercy and compassion. How did he do this? Do these kinds of circumstances breed empathy and emotional maturity?

It makes you think, especially on days like today with all the crazy news stories—the Boston Marathon bombing, an NPR story about a company you can hire to get the kidnapping experience, and other more horrific things I don’t want to get into.

(This post is also available on my portfolio blog.)

The Suitcase

the suitcase dovlatovBy Sergei Dovlatov; Counterpoint Press; @ 1986; 129 pages.

The premise of The Suitcase is simple. Sergei Dovlatov finds the suitcase that he carried from the Soviet Union to the United States in the back of his closet in New York. Each chapter of the book tells the story behind each item he rediscovers inside.

I really like this structure. I’m trying to figure out how to “repurpose” it for my own needs. And, I really like Dovlatov. I’ll be reading along, interested enough to keep going, and then all of a sudden I’m laughing. It’s nice. It reminds me of Russia and the friends I met there, and makes me sorry I left and glad that I did at the same time.

I like how Dovlatov describes his relationship with his wife, Lena. He says the main things a wife should do for her husband are 1) feed him, 2) believe he is a genius, and 3) leave him alone. And she can’t just do one of these. She has to do all three. So I’m ticking off these things in my head. Am I doing my part? It was touching—for all his tough-guy rhetoric, you can tell he really loved his wife. The kind of love that is too real and painful to talk about.

Dovlatov died relatively young (Not suicide—but what was it? I don’t know.), and it makes me really sad. But he left behind several books that I haven’t read.

The New York Times said this about The Suitcase: “Readers will soar through the first two-thirds of this novel, then…stave off finishing it. The final chapters will be hoarded and cherished, doled out one at a time as a reward after a bad day.”

That’s exactly how I felt. I have a bad day, I reach for Dovlatov. That’s why I need to have enough on hand. Fed up with life? Lost your sense of humor? Take two Dovlatov’s and call me in the morning.