“Lenin was depicted in his familiar pose–a tourist hitching a ride on the highway. His right arm pointed the way to the future. His left was in the pocket of his open coat.”
The words “A Novel” appear on the cover of Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, but that isn’t an accurate description of the book’s 8 chapters which are bookended by the sections “Foreword” and “Instead of an Afterword.” In each chapter Dovlatov (1941-1990) examines one of the few objects found in his suitcase–the single piece of luggage he took with him when he left the Soviet Union and emigrated to America. Here’s how the book begins at The Russian Office of Visas and Registrations (OVIR):
So this bitch at OVIR says to me, “Everyone who leaves is allowed three suitcases. That’s the quota. A special regulation of the ministry.”
No point in arguing. But of course I argued. “Only three suitcases? What am I supposed to do with all my things?”
“Like my collection of race cars.”
“Sell them,” the clerk said without lifting her head.
Then, knitting her brows slightly, she added, “if you’re dissatisfied with something, write a compliant.”
“I’m satisfied,” I said.
After prison, everything satisfied me.
“Well, then, don’t make trouble…”
A week later I was packing. As it turned out, I needed just a single suitcase.
I almost wept with self-pity. After all, I was thirty-six years old. Had worked eighteen of them. I earned money, bought things with it. I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me. And still I only needed one suitcase–and of rather modest dimensions at that. Was I poor, then? How had that happened?
The narrator takes his one suitcase from the Soviet Union and finally to New York. The suitcase is “plywood, covered with fabric.” The lock doesn’t work so it’s wound with a clothesline to keep it shut. The narrator begins his new life in America, dresses completely differently, and forgets about his old battered suitcase until one day, years later, his attention is drawn to it. He opens it and sees “pathetic rags” which are relics of his “lost life.” From this point, he examines the articles of the suitcase–including some Finnish crepe socks, a pair of half-boots, a suit, a belt, a jacket, etc, and each piece of clothing is its own piece of uniquely Soviet history. The Finnish crepe socks, for example, are part of a black market story which extends into the vagaries of consumerism and friends lost to the past.
While The Suitcase details these neglected relics of the narrator’s life, the stories told here are really about lost identity. The items that meant something to the narrator in the Soviet Union are useless in his new life, and yet even though they are seemingly ‘worthless,’ they are markers of Soviet life and reveal the author’s former identity. Here’s the narrator on the fate of 720 pairs of useless, pea-green Finnish crepe socks, and his friends Asya, Fred, and Rymar:
They reminded me of my criminal youth, my first love and my old friends. Fred served his two years and then was killed in a motorcycle accident on his Chezet. Rymar served one year and now works as a dispatcher in a meat-packing plant. Asya emigrated and now teaches lexicology at Stanford–which is a strange comment on American scholarship.
Dovlatov was a journalist and a part-time tour guide in The Pushkin Preserve. In the chapter, A Decent Double-Breasted Suit, the narrator is told by the director of the Preserve that he dresses so shabbily that “his trousers ruin the festive mood of our area.” In the narrator’s tatty old suitcase is a suit that carries a tale of the narrator’s employment as a newspaper reporter and how he managed to upgrade his pitiful wardrobe. He’s assigned a series of tasks, finding an Uzbek to quote for a Constitution Day article, a “modern Russian handyman” for Efficiency Day , and a “Heroine Mother.” Things become complicated when a KGB major appears at the newspaper office and begins quizzing the narrator for information about a visiting Swede. The narrator manages to get a new suit out of the deal without compromising his morals.
Dovlatov was unable to publish his work in the Soviet Union and so smuggled out his writing which was subsequently published in Europe. In 1979, he emigrated to America.
Told with a self-deprecating, yet gently ironic humour, there’s a bitter-sweetness to the book, and I came away with the feeling that I would have liked to have known Dovlatov.
My copy translated by Antonina W. Bouis