The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

the suitcase

A recent charity shop find, which I mentioned here, was a book I’d had on my radar and want-to-read list for quite a while – “The Suitcase” by Sergei Dovlatov, published by Alma Classics (who do bring us all kinds of interesting Russian things!). Dovlatov was an intriguing character, and his Wikipedia page makes fascinating reading. Born in 1941, his Jewish father was a theatre director and his Armenian mother a proofreader. After a colourful youth, spending time in the forces and as a prison guard, he then worked as a journalist while supplementing his income as a guide at a Pushkin museum near Pskov (which he draws on for another fiction). His work was of course censored and unpublished during his time in the Soviet Union, and he eventually emigrated to the USA with his wife, daughter and mother in 1979, where he finally achieved recognition as a writer.

You can divide the world into two kinds of people: those who ask, and those who answer. Those who pose questions, and those who frown in irritation in response.

Three of his books are published by Alma – Pushkin Hills, The Zone and The Suitcase; all three sound fascinating and are titles I’ve been hovering around. And interestingly, all three seem to draw strongly on Dovlatov’s life, though they are all billed as fiction. In “The Suitcase”, the author reflects on his emigration to the USA, and the fact that he was only allowed to bring a minimal amount of items with him. In the end, it was a single battered suitcase of clothes that travelled with him to his new life and one later day he comes across it in a cupboard. As he opens it to explore the items, each simple item of clothing sparks a memory from his past; a pair of socks is from the time the author was drawn into the black market trade; a belt is from his guard days; a suit brings back recollections of being asked to spy by the KGB; and a shirt recalls his courtship of his wife.

Each symbolic piece of clothing has a link to the author’s past, and Dovlatov revisits each event with humour and nostalgia. And as the book progresses, every tale adds more to the story of life in the USSR, with all its difficulties, red tape and stupidity. Yet there is a longing here, that of an exile from his country who’s chosen to leave but cannot quite abandon the past. So the items in the suitcase have been kept for what they represent, a personal history of the author.

Dovlatov 1980

So is this fiction or fact or something in between? Personally, I assume it’s the latter; ostensibly drawing on the structure of Dovlatov’s life, I imagine that the setting and events may be based on real ones, perhaps tweaked to fit the story the author wanted to tell. Regardless of this, it’s a wonderful little book, mixing pathos and humour and giving a real insight into what it was like to live under the Soviet regime. It’s funny and poignant, and very, very evocative. Dovlatov portrays himself as a bit of a failure, wonders about the state of his marriage, contemplates the stupidity of the system, all the while subverting your expectations. One chapter which I found particularly interesting was the one entitled “Fernand Leger’s Jacket” which reaches back into Dovlatov’s youth and his friendship with the son of the great Russian actor, Nikolai Cherkasov. The latter played most notably the title role in Eisenstein’s films of Ivan the Terrible – stunning films and stunning acting – and so I was fascinated to read about the family from someone who knew them.

“The Suitcase” is a short read – 129 pages – but it packs a lot into those pages, and it’s a book that will stay with me. It evokes brilliantly the sense of loss felt in exile, it vividly paints a picture of life under Soviet rule, and it’s also very, very funny. My first experience of reading Dovlatov has been wonderful, and I’m definitely going to look out for his other works.