Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dovlatov’s Uncompromising "Compromise"

Sergei Dovlatov’s Компромисс (The Compromise) prompts recognition. Though the novel’s narrator, a heavy-drinking journalist named Sergei Dovlatov, recounts a dozen unevenly sized slices of life set in Soviet Estonia, most readers will find bits of themselves in The Compromise.

Dovlatov looks at compromise and honesty through his vignettes, each consisting of a newspaper clipping plus Dovlatov’s account of gathering information for the article. These loosely linked stories show his boss’s ridiculous demands, typical bureaucratic hassles, and the pervasive lack of logic in life. Dovlatov’s job takes him to a birth house, a dairy farm, and a cemetery, among other places. He makes frequent use of vodka and humor during his travels.

Dovlatov’s co-workers, friends, and sources drop in and out of his narratives in various levels of development but still feel lifelike: we can fill in missing details. We already know them, just as we know Dovlatov, even if we’ve never lived in Soviet Tallinn. We’re all imperfect humans with a dose of Dovlatov in us: we’ve all been forced into situations that made us feel compromised, used, and alienated.

Dovlatov is a friendly and inherently unreliable storyteller who crafts his tales with a simple, elegant style that makes his characters and situations feel universal. I think familiarity is what makes Dovlatov’s sad humor so funny. The situations and complications that he presents – as at a funeral where he becomes a pallbearer despite not knowing the deceased – are predictable.

But predictable works here. Even when I knew what would happen, I wanted to guess and then hear Dovlatov’s twists on familiar stories. And I wanted to empathize with someone I know, someone who, at his core, resembles me. I often found myself simultaneously laughing out loud and shaking my head while I read The Compromise. It felt just right.

Some aspects of The Compromise – specifics about everyday Soviet life – might feel unfamiliar to non-Russian readers, but Dovlatov provides an apt introduction to the warped rules that pervaded public and private lives. They, of course, pop up everywhere. No matter how we escape our individual problems – through vodka, beer, TV, or, yes, even fiction -- I think the layered narratives of The Compromise, which reveal paradoxical truths and metaphors about life, should appeal to readers everywhere. Maybe they will also help us to laugh a bit more at ourselves.

SUMMARY: Very highly recommended for readers who enjoy simple, well-crafted prose about everyday events that have larger significance. Aspects of Soviet humor and life that appeal to some people (like me!) may feel “depressing” to others. The Compromise is, for me, an example of what fiction should be: stories that read easily when one is tired at the end of the day but carry ideas that seep into the subconscious and attach themselves.

Note: According to my borrowed Dovlatov book, the vignettes in The Compromise were written as individual stories during 1973-1980. Most did not originally include the newspaper “preambles,” which were added later to connect the episodes. Oddly, the New York Times review of The Compromise refers to 11 stories, but my Russian edition has 12…


  1. I agree, it's a wonderful book! (My Russian edition also has twelve.)

  2. Dovlatov's prose is extremely well crafted. This one is one of my most favorite books

  3. I agree, openid. I also love this one: it was the first Dovlatov I read, and absolutely everything about it works for me.

  4. Hi, somebody knows wich agency represents Dovlatov works? Many Thanks

  5. Hi Lisa,
    Could you please tell me if you read Dovlatov's Compromise in Russian or in English? I have a couple questions about the English translation of this wonderful book.
    Thank you in advance.

    1. Hi, Earl,
      Thank you for your question -- I'm glad to hear you enjoyed The Compromise! I read the book in Russian.


  6. Thank your for your reply, Lisa.
    Still, do you happen to have Academy Chicago Publishers’ English edition of the book? As a professional translator, I am keenly interested to see how the late Anne Frydman handled a few very fine innuendos in 'Compromise Nine'.
    Incidentally I found a few curious detail about the protagonists. According to the CV, the Tiina Karu зарисовка must have appeared in 'Sovetskaya Estonia' in 1974, not in 1976 (Sergei Donatovich was already guding tours in the Pushkin Reserve in summer 1976 ...)
    Here (in the Radi Freedom subtitles) you will find a truer story of 'Compromiss Nine' and a few others: Scroll down to a bit more than a half height.

    Happy reading.


    1. Hi again, Earl,

      No, I don't have the translation... or the original, for that matter, since I borrowed the book from a friend!

      Thank you, though, for the links. I don't remember if there were notes in the Compromise book that I read about where the material came from, though I think there were.