Category Archives: Dovlatov Sergei

Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

“And that,” I said, “is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoevsky, that’s how it was with Yesenin, and that’s how it’ll be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Suitcase from Sergei Dovlatov, and so when I saw a new release from the same author, Pushkin Hills, translated by the author’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, I knew I had to read it. The premise sounded excellent–this is the story of a divorced, alcoholic writer, Boris Alikhanov who takes a job as a tour guide at the rural estate of Mikhaylovskoye, the Pushkin “preserve” even as his  ex-wife considers emigrating abroad. The possibilities of such a scenario were intriguing. At 116 pages, this is a slim book that at times seems more anecdotal than straight narrative, or perhaps it’s just that the characters appear and then disappear, and I frequently wanted them to return.

Pushkin HillsPushkin Hills was first published in Russia in 1983, and the novella slips in observations and criticisms of Soviet life, so when our narrator arrives at his destination, he notices that the walls of the town square are plastered with “warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.” These observations are prevalent in late Soviet literature, and yes they appear in early Soviet literature and post Soviet literature too, but there’s something about that late Soviet period. I’m not a historian, and I’m not a Russian literature expert–I’m a reader, so I’ll throw a mental dart at 20th century, and say post Stalin. Yes, Soviet writers were still being exiled but Soviet culture was defanged without Stalin, and what seems to be left, in late Soviet Culture (60s, 70s, & 80s) as evidenced by Pushkin Hills is a broken society in which conformity is still valued. We hear the slow, creaky wheels of indifferent, incompetent bureaucracy at every turn, and here at Mikhaylovskoye, it’s no different except tour guides are bombarded with the question: “do you love Pushkin?” which is supposed to generate an enthusiastic, gushing response. Here’s Boris being grilled in an interview conducted by the methodologist about his devotion to Pushkin:

I explained my reason for being there. With a skeptical smile, she invited me to follow her to the office.

“Do you love Pushkin?”

I felt a muffled irritation.

“I do.”

At this rate, I thought, it won’t be long before I don’t.

“And may I ask why?”

I caught her ironic glance. Evidently the love of Pushkin was the most widely circulated currency in these parts. What if I were a counterfeiter, god forbid.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why do you love Pushkin?”

“Let’s stop this idiotic test,” I burst out. “I graduated from school. And from university.” (Here I exaggerated a bit; I was expelled in my third year.) “I’ve read a few books. In short, I have a basic understanding… Besides, I’m only seeking a job as a tour guide.”

But Boris has failed to give the correct answer which is “Pushkin is our pride and joy” and “He is not only a great poet, but he is also Russia’s greatest citizen.” In spite of failing to give the standard answer, Boris is given the job of being one of the many tour guides. He rents a room from Mikhail Ivanych:

A sloping antenna shone black against the white clouds. Sections of the roof had caved in, revealing black uneven beams. The walls were carelessly covered in plywood. The cracked window panes were held together with newspaper. Filthy oakum poked out from countless gaps. The stench of rotten food hung in the owner’s room. Over the table I noticed a coloured portrait of General Mao, torn from a magazine.

Mikhail Ivanych lives alone in squalor since his wife left. The beds are covered with “putrid sheepskins,” and Boris’s new landlord charges rent calculated by how many bottles of booze he can buy.

To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss. If only I could have simply said: “I’m afraid this won’t work…” But it appears I am genteel after all. And so I said something lyrical:

“The windows face south?”

“The very, very south,” Tolik affirmed.

Through the windows I could see a dilapidated bathhouse.

“The main thing,” I said, “is that there’s a private entrance.”

“The entrance is private,” agreed Mikhail Ivanych, “only it’s nailed shut.”

“Oh that’s too bad,” I said.

“Ein moment,” said the owner, took a few steps back, and charged the door.

Mikhail Ivanych, one of the book’s more bizarre characters, is perpetually drunk, and has some extreme, distasteful views regarding the German occupation and the fact that they “did no harm.” Apparently to Mikhail Ivanych, who at one point hangs two cats with fishing line, the Germans “fix[ed] the Yids and the gypsies.” This character, repulsive as he is, seems a study in contrast to the high-minded worship of Pushkin which is fostered just a few miles away.

Boris’s life as a tour guide at Mikhaylovskoye is the best parts of the book. We see bus loads of tourists disgorge, and Boris learns which nationalities are the best-behaved, along with the sorts of questions they will ask. Boris sometimes fabricates the facts, but most people don’t notice. The tour guides are essentially a bunch of misfits: failed writer Stasik Pototsky & the brilliant Mitrofanov who suffers “a rare clinical condition … total atrophy of will.”  Pototsky, who indulges in week long drinking binges, develops a lucrative sideline in showing tourists Pushkin’s secret “true grave.”

For this reader, the best parts of the book are found in the details of life at Mikhaylovskoye, and the juxtaposition of the worship of all-things Pushkin with the reality of how the tour guides are heartily sick of the manipulation of the subject. The book’s narrator finds parallels between his life and Pushkin’s. After all, they both had “an uneasy relationship with the government,” and Boris acknowledges that they both had ‘problems’ with their wives. Beneath the dark, sardonic jokes, and the twisting of the absurd into humour, the book raises questions about the writer’s life, censorship, the writer and the state, and the role of an émigré writer.

Pushkin Hills contains some colloquial language and the occasional swear word, and this brings up the issue of exactly how does one translate this sort of language?Apparently Alma Classics searched for a translator for some time, and I can guess that this book wasn’t easy to translate.  The translation of colloquialism is the aspect of the novel I liked the least.  I’ll add that I find it wearing to read much colloquialism in any book–not that I object to swearing. Here there’s “gimme,” “kinda,” “scrud,” “Fuck them and the horse they rode in on,”fuckin,” “fuck, my pecker’s dripping,”  “booze-up,” “wino,”have ya heard,” “outta,” “snuff ‘er,”  Well you get the point. I have no solutions for how to translate colloquialism, but for this reader, the book became less Russian when I read Americanisms. Perhaps other readers will feel differently. Yes, I could always learn Russian, but that’s not going to happen.

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The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

“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 what?”
“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 DoubleBreasted 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

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