Reading a book like Sergei Dovlatov’s The Zone raises some interesting questions about the purpose and meaning of literature. The book was written during the Soviet regime and details the everyday absurdities of life in a prison camp—the humiliations and harrassment, the pointless political officers, the wily, ill-tempered zeks and the even worse-tempered prison guards. Unlike the better-known work of Solzhenitysn and Varlam Shalamov, Dovlatov’s book details life in a criminal prison camp, not a political one. More significantly, Dovlatov writes from his experience as a guard, not as a prisoner.
An important theme arises from this: “Almost any prisoner would have been suited to fill the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.” This idea recurs both explicitly and implicitly throughout the many episodes and vignettes that make up this (loosely-defined) novel. Guards are routinely portrayed as boorish, petty, dishonest and lustful—a veritable cornucopia of bad behavior, not significantly different from the men they guard.
There’s another difference between The Zone and previous works of Soviet-era prison literature: it’s being released now. Inevitably, this raises questions. Although the book was written before the author’s death in 1990, right around the time when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union was still a (barely) viable entity, those days have been gone for some 20-odd years. The Zone exists now as something of a time capsule, a looking glass into a vanished past or—at worst—as a freakshow. Does the book have anything to say to us now, in the post-Soviet 21st century?
The answer is not entirely clear, in large part because of the author’s nontraditional approach to storytelling. A reader might well reply to the above questions by pointing out that character will always remains central to most stories, and that much of the pleasure comes from observing that character over the course of time and events. The Zone, however, subverts that expectation in a typically post-modern, late 20th century fashion that never lets the reader forget that s/he is reading a book.
The novel is made up of many fragmentary episodes, ranging in length from two pages to over 20. These episodes cast a distinctly absurdist light over the whole prison-camp experience, as well they might. Prisoners die suddenly; guards harbor grudges and lash out, often at each other; government-appointed “political officers” try to keep everyone in line while marching steadily toward the glory of Lenin’s as-yet-unattained Communism. In the book’s longest chapter, a particularly wretched play is performed by prisoners and guards for the enlightenment of the criminal multitude. A bit of propagandist nonsense, the performance is effective in showing the ridiculousness of non-believers (of Communism) playing at being believers, while being watched by an audience of non-believers in a camp which has imprisoned them for, among other things, their non-belief.
If all this makes The Zone sound like a book of ideas rather than characters—well, yes. There are few if any characters in any identifiable sense; rather, a series of first-person narrators talk us through the chapters, all of them sharing a world-weary cynicism. Names recur from time to time, and the reader soon catches on that the blockhead Fidel mentioned in one section is the same Fidel who is narrating another. Little effort is made to differentiate these characters, though, and they all just blend into a faceless mass.
Maybe that’s the point: prison, after all, is an institution which does much to erase individual differences (and some would argue the same of Communism). Intentional or not, the technique leaves the reader distanced from the characters, and fairly well disengaged from them as a result.
The one voice that does stand out is Dovlatov’s own, which is where the point about post-modernism comes in. The conceit of the novel is that the manuscript has been smuggled out of the Soviet Union in bits and pieces and reassembled by the author upon his flight to the US, with much lost in the interim. The author, now traveling throughout the States, is attempting to recreate the manuscript but must interject throughout in order to expound upon what’s going on—or, more often, to reflect philosophically on his experiences. These interjections come in the form of letters to his editor, who is receiving the manuscript bit by bit as Dovlatov reconstructs it.
It’s all terribly clever, and the authorial interjections are sometimes more interesting than the prison camp scenes, but they also do much to distance the reader from the events of the story, a story which is pretty tenuous to begin with.
That said, Dovlatov can certainly turn a phrase, and the translation by Anne Frydman conveys the cynicism of the narrators and the abdurdity (that word again!) of the circumstances. “The world in which I found myself was horrible,” we are told early on. “Nevertheless, I smiled no less frequently than I do now, and was not sad more often. “Elsewhere, Dovlatov-as-narrator asks, “How does the activist, the revolutionary, choose to act…? …Basically, he tries to create a new human species. It’s well known how all of this ends.”
Dovlatov is also capable of moments of lyricism amid the squalor. As a prisoner walks to the latrines, “Alikhanov headed for the rickety stall. The snow near it was covered with golden monograms.” It takes a moment for the reader to recognize that these “golden monograms” are patterns of frozen urine.
The Zone is likely to be a book of limited interest to most readers. It’s less the story of an individual or set of individuals than it’s a snapshot of an entire milieu, an institution of—I’ll say it again—absurdity that defined much of the second half of the 20th century. That absurdity is now gone, washed away by the tides of history and, if nor vanished entirely, at least replaced by a new variety. Thank goodness for that, but it does leave this book tottering somewhere on the knife-edge between being an irrelevance and a curiosity.