Friday, August 10, 2012

The Suitcase

The short semi-autobiographical novel The Suitcase is the first book I've read by Soviet writer Sergei Dovlatov.  Born in 1941, he lived in Leningrad before flunking out of college and being sent to work as a prison guard in high-security camps.  After his stint in the military he became a journalist, supplementing his income by giving museum tours and attempting to write novels.  These attempts never proved successful within the U.S.S.R., but ultimately led to his emigration to New York.

The Suitcase is a series of vignettes or short stories about the items he brought with him to the West.  Dovlatov comes across the suitcase which sat unremembered in a closet for years and contains essentially all of his prior life's possessions: eight ordinary items.  As he tells where he came by each of these items, he paints a painfully witty portrait of the failings of the socialist U.S.S.R.

Through the Finnish crepe socks, we see a college student attempting to find a modicum of success in dealing in the black market.  The story of a military officer's belt describes an incident during Dovlatov's time as a prison guard, and of the penalties that result when a fellow guard is found guilty of misconduct.  His bittersweet courtship and marriage to his wife is recounted over a poplin shirt (perhaps the most touching and poignant - certainly the most personal - of the stories in the book).  And so on.

It's very interesting for me to read a book set in a post-Revolution Soviet Union, given the deep enjoyment I've gotten from older Russians.  I enjoyed this, and I think it'll be a book that I reflect on time and again.  I certainly don't rank it with the classics, but I will just as certainly seek out more works by Sergei Dovlatov.

Next up: The far more mainstream Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

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