Do you have a box containing mementos from your younger years that is stashed away in an obscure corner and covered in dust? When was the last time you browsed through these items and revisited your memories of time past?
The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov revolves around a Soviet émigré who shares the same name as the author and one day rediscovers the suitcase that he had brought with him when he moved to America. Depicting the life of Dovlatov the protagonist in the Soviet Union between the 1960s and 1980s, the eight stories are named after items in the suitcase, which include a pair of Finnish crepe socks, an officer’s belt, and a jacket that belonged to the artist, Fernand Léger.
Together, the vignettes offer a peek across different sections of the Soviet society and feature a colourful cast of characters from black marketeers to alcoholic artisans, journalists, military soldiers, and the bourgeois. As an example, in Fernand Léger’s Jacket, the protagonist observed that the mother of a childhood friend “had all the good qualities and all the flaws of the rich. She was courageous, decisive and focused. She was also cold, haughty and aristocratically naive. For instance, she considered money a burden.”
Narrated with vivid detail and wry humour by the protagonist, each episode unveils the bizarre and often comedic events that led to him acquiring a particular item. In The Nomenklatura Half Boots, Dovlatov recalls his stint as an apprentice with a monumental sculptor during which he worked on a statue of a mayor. Interspersed with hilarious drunkard episodes, it culminates with him stealing the mayor’s shoes for inexplicable reasons – highlighting how theft may be common throughout the Soviet society.
Born in 1941, Dovlatov was forced into exile in the US because he was persecuted for his writings by the Soviet authorities. To what extent are the stories in The Suitcase based on Dovlatov’s own memories and experiences in the USSR?
This is the first time I have read Dovlatov’s work and I look forward to discovering his other novels, many of which are autobiographical, as well as learn more about the Soviet Union and its people.
The Suitcase was first published in Russian in 1986. It was translated by Antonina W. Bouis in an English edition edited by Dovlatov’s daughter, Katherine, and released by Alma Classics.