Sergei Dovlatov, Russian born and raised, had extreme difficulty in having his works published in his home country. His works were smuggled into Western Europe and published in foreign journals, as a result he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Journalists and the KGB even destroyed the typeset formes of his fist book. At 37 years of age he emigrated from the Soviet Union with his mother and lived in New York with his wife and daughter. Twelve books were published in the USA and Europe during his twelve years in exile, however he was to die in New York shortly before his 49thbirthday.
“Pushkin Hills” was originally published in 1983 but it has taken thirty years to be translated into English, with his own daughter Katherine Dovlatov, taking the reins to translate her late father’s work.
Sergei Dovlatov worked at numerous jobs, one including being a summer tour guide at the Pushkin Preserve (5 star rated on Trip Advisor”!!!) Therefore this work has a semblance of truth?
Our protagonist is Boris Alikhanov, an alcoholic, unpublished writer who we join on a bus on his way to Pushkin Hills to apply for a job as a tour guide. He is recently divorced and as our tale unfolds we get to learn more about his life leading to this crossroads in his existence
I led the life of an independent artist. That is to say I did not hold a regular job and earned money as a journalist and ghostwriter of some generals’ memoirs. I had an apartment with windows looking out onto a garbage dump. A writing table, a couch, a set of dumb-bells and a Tonus radiogram. A typewriter, a guitar, a picture of Hemmingway and several pipes, kept in a ceramic mug. A lamp, a wardrobe, two chairs of the brontosaurus period, and a cat named Yefim, whom I respected deeply for his tact. Unlike my close friends and acquaintances, he strived to be a human being…
This is a work richly populated with Russian literary and historical references, with over eight pages of notes at the conclusion detailing the people referenced throughout the book. Numerous references to Pushkin’s life, and death, are an obvious target of Dovlatov’s ire and sharp eye.
But it is not only the literary references which make this an interesting work, our lead man begins the journey in a drunken stupor and slowly sobers up as he takes on responsibility leading tourists through the Pushkin Museum.
My working day began at nine in the morning. We sat at the office, waiting for clients. The conversation was about Pushkin and about tourists. More often about tourists, about their inconceivable ignorance.
“Can you imagine, he asked me, ‘Who is Boris Godunov?’”
Personally, I did not feel annoyed in similar situations. Or rather, I did, but I suppressed it. The tourists came here to relax. Their union committee forced these cheap destinations on them. By and large, these people were indifferent towards poetry. To them, Pushkin was a symbol of culture. What was important to them was the sensation that they were there. To tick a mental box. To sign the book of spirituality…
It was my responsibility to bring them this happiness without tiring them out. And to receive seven roubles sixty and a touching mention in the guestbook:
“Pushkin came alive thanks to such-and-such tour guide and his humble insight.”
But it is not just the acerbic views of Russian culture we have on display here, there is rich characterisation, with fellow tour guides with photographic memories, general laziness and an alcohol problem, and his landlord, a hopeless aggressive drunk who cannot speak properly and who rents out a room in his slum to our anti-hero.
According to our notes Dovlatov never repeated a word that started with the same letter in the same sentence. This was apparently, according to daughter translator Katherine, “To slow himself down. It was meant to be a self-editing mechanism.” This editing has not been replicated in our English translation, however as you can see form the quotes above, the short sharp sentences capture the style.
Later in our book, Boris’ ex-wife turns up at Pushkin Hills to advise him that she is emigrating, with their daughter and is asking him to join them. It is then that Boris begins to question why he is remaining sober.
A comic novel full of dark humour about the Russian and communist disposition which contains a large number of laughs at the expense of a rich bunch of characters. A worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award shortlist.
On a side note – what is it with the cover? Looks like a poor Snapchat!!! Not really relevant to the work inside, but I can tell you I am not a fan, and personally would never randomly pick up a book with such a design!!!