THE COMPROMISE by Sergei Dovlatov


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Short comic episodes from a Soviet ÉmigrÉ, neither hilarious nor brilliant, but with two intriguing, specific elements: they're all set in Estonia, in the coastal city of Tallinn; and they all involve, more or less, the ""compromises"" made by an ordinary, notterribly-upright Soviet journalist. In each of the eleven chapters here, then, rather dissolute narrator-hero Dovlatov begins with a clipping from his file of newspaper writings (1973-76), followed by the real story--what led up to, or resulted from, the published version. Several of the pieces, as you might expect, involve the vicissitudes of censorship and officialese: Dovlatov is lectured on the proper way to list countries in a news item (""You've put East Germany after Hungary! Again alphabetical order? Forget that opportunistic expression! . . . Hungary goes third! They had an uprising there""); he is shown the possible political message in a harmless fable for children; he searches for an ideologically acceptable baby to write about in a silly feature (can't be Jewish, can't be half-Ethiopian)--just as his friend Lida must find an untainted ""interesting person"" for her new radio-interview program. (Says philologist Alikhanov: ""I'm not suitable for a radio broadcast! Yesterday I got drunk! I have debts and alimony to pay! My name has been mentioned on the German radio! I'm sort of dissident! You'll be fired. . . ."") Elsewhere, however, the foibles are as much personal as political: in order to get some money for a crony's stranded girlfriend, Dovlatov fabricates an interview with her (""For the 'Guests of Tallinn' column. A student studies Gothic architecture. Always travels with a volume of Blok. Feeds squirrels in the park. They'll pay her twenty rubles or so""); a trip to interview a productive milkmaid becomes the excuse for a bucolic, boozy romp; and the funeral of a TV-station biggie--with Dovaltov as a reluctant, last-minute eulogist--turns into a minor, somewhat strained farce. Throughout, in fact, the comedy is uneven, with oddly translated (perhaps untranslatable) puns, local references, belabored ironies. But most of these anecdotes have sharply amusing moments--and the Estonia details (about politics, the media, Jews) are often fresh and curious, even if somewhat dated.

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf