By Sergei Dovlatov
Translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
Grove Weidenfeld. 128 pp. $16.95
Emigre Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov, who died Friday in New York at age 48, leaves behind this delightful book with a device that's particularly poignant now: Coming across the single suitcase that the author-hero-narrator brought with him from Russia to the United States, he opens it for the first time four years after his arrival and each of its contents reminds him how the item was acquired.
But first there is the suitcase itself: "It was plywood, covered with fabric, and had chrome reinforcements at the corners. The lock didn't work; I had to wind clothesline around it. ... Inside, the lid was plastered with photographs: Rocky Marciano, Louis Armstrong, Joseph Brodsky, Gina Lollobrigida in a transparent outfit." Packing it, the narrator "almost wept with self-pity" at the meager accumulations of his 36 years of life, but unpacking it after years in New York, he finds that "memories engulfed" him.
Each item -- socks, boots, a double-breasted suit, an army belt, Fernand Leger's jacket, a shirt, hat and gloves -- forms the core of a chapter, a remembrance of things past. But Dovlatov was not exploring skeins of memory or indulging in the emigre's ironic nostalgia. His little tales are both snapshots and X-rays of what the Russians themselves call "Soviet reality."
In the West, people simply go to a store and buy what they want, a system that to a Soviet seems both miraculously rational as well as drearily bland, devoid of risk and adventure. The Soviet economy and Soviet life in general are one gigantic Rube Goldberg machine whose movements can never be predicted, as Dovlatov learned when he became involved in a black market scheme to sell Finnish crepe socks. No sooner had he acquired 240 pairs than the Soviet economy suddenly, mysteriously, flooded the market with cheaper domestic crepe socks.
Dovlatov emigrated to the United States in the late '70s to flee harassment from Soviet officials who restricted publication of his fiction. The experience helped to make him a connoisseur of the crumminess, both depressing and endearing, that is the true mark of Soviet daily life. He was a specialist in its schemes, swindles, squalor, a master at describing the boozy haze in which life takes place. One of the many colorful alcoholics who drift through these pages is "almost relieved" when his car is destroyed, saying: "I have to be sober at the wheel. But I can get home drunk in a taxi ..."
In this world of marginal people, which includes a large segment of the population, stealing from the state is considered so normal that it is unworthy of mention unless the act is graced with particular inventiveness. Sloppy work is the most typical means of revenge on the state -- whether it's building a statue of a famous scientist that might collapse at any minute because the drunken sculptors were slack in applying the epoxy or simply walking away from mind-deadening journalism: "I was in the library of the House of Journalists, editing the memoirs of a conqueror of the tundra. Nine out of fourteen chapters began the same way: 'False modesty aside ...' Besides which, I was supposed to verify the Lenin quotes."
Dovlatov was adept at the quick comic take. A KGB major is described as "thin, bald, with just a dull-colored wreath of hair over the ears. I wondered if he could comb his hair without taking off his hat." It is a technique Dovlatov applies to himself as well, saying that he has the "face of a seedy matador." This is a book of various humors -- rueful, pathetic, hilarious -- by a sort of Soviet Chaplin.
There are also many serious and piercing moments, as when Dovlatov suddenly realizes how great is the love between him and his wife, having thought until then that their marriage was based on indifference and convenience. Or the insight he has when watching "a documentary about Paris during the Occupation. Crowds of refugees streamed down the streets. I saw that enslaved countries looked the same. All ruined peoples are twins ..."
Despite everything, it is love for Russia that pervades this book. It runs from the book's epigraph from the early 20th-century poet Alexander Blok ("But even like this, my Russia, you are most precious to me") to sentiments expressed by a former prisoner: "When I was inside, I wanted out. But now, if I have a few drinks, I start missing the camp. What great people -- Lefty, One-Eye, Diesel!"
Dovlatov's miniature masterpiece gives the American reader the true tang of daily life in Soviet Russia, each chapter a straight shot of cold vodka.
The reviewer is the translator of Andrei Sakharov's "Memoirs" and the author of "Russia Speaks: An Oral History From the Revolution to the Present."