“POLITICAL WORK OUGHT TO BE CONCRETE”: this is one of the rousing Soviet mottos recalled in Sergei Dovlatov’s novel, The Zone. Ironically, it is also what is said about good writing, and can one think of a more concrete contemporary writer than Dovlatov? Sentences compacted to aphoristic ingots: “One is born either poor or rich. Money has almost nothing to do with it.” Paradox, sharp wit, and swift one-liners: “Boris sober and Boris drunk are such different people, they’ve never even met.” Or: “What could I say to him? What do you say to a guard who uses after-shave only internally?” Fierce, precise snapshots, illuminated by absurdist flashes: “Cars streamed past us like submarines holding each other’s tails.” Dialogue almost Waugh-like in its tart comedy . . .
Sergei Dovlatov’s comic masterpiece The Suitcase begins with the author’s brief, pathetic conversation with a clerk at the Russian Office of Visas and Registrations (the ‘bitch at OVIR’, he refers to her in anger), conducted in the course of pointless, exhausting formalities that were involved in emigrating from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Dovlatov describes this exchange with characteristic satirical flourish, an exchange essentially about the quota of suitcases allowed to an emigrant. ‘Only three suitcases? What am I suppose to do with all my things?’ But a week later, while packing, he finds that he needs just a single suitcase, for he has given away all his books, which would not have been allowed through customs anyway. . . .