The Zone, a Prison Camp Guard's Story by Sergei Dovlatov; translated by Anne Frydman (Knopf: $14.95)
A prisoner stumbles out of the barracks on a bitterly cold night and shouts to the guard in a watchtower: "Allo, chief! Which one of us is in prison? You or me?"
The taunt expresses the theme of this semi-novel that Soviet expatriate writer Sergei Dovlatov says is based on real people and events with only unessential elements "invented." The book, tightly written but marred by a rough translation, is a lament on human perversity, expressed with bitterness, sarcasm and black humor. It is rooted in the Russian literary tradition of suffering and pessimism, and goes well beyond its ostensible recounting of life in a Soviet strict regime labor camp.
Dovlatov looks at camp life from a novel perspective--that of a guard at a camp for civil, not political, criminals. The publisher says the writer served in such a camp as a Soviet army conscript. What the author saw there is presented in a series of loosely connected sketches of camp life interspersed among letters to a Russian-language publisher that seek to explain the significance of his experiences.
The inmates are brutal men "with a nightmarish past, a repulsive present and a tragic future." The few displays of human compassion--especially one of the best pieces that deals with the bond of friendship between the narrator and another guard--serve only to dramatize the unending hardships and pervasive brutality.
The experience leaves the narrator--Dovlatov--with a philosophy of surrender and the conviction that there is little difference between the guards and those being guarded. They could easily exchange roles, as both live "in one single, soulless world extended on either side of the restricted areas."
Looking beyond the camp to the Soviet Union as a whole and by implication the rest of the world, Dovlatov writes: "The same people can display an equal ability for virtue and villainy."
Rejects Moral Certitude
And in a disturbing dismissal of personal responsibility and individual choice, Dovlatov rejects moral certitude as ridiculous. He concludes that good or evil in any individual is due solely to the "conjunction of circumstances."
Although he proclaims himself to be an atheist, the narrator can offer only a prayer for human redemption: " . . . May God give us the steadfastness and courage and, even better--circumstances of time and place that are disposed to the good."
But Dovlatov makes it clear that the efficacy of such a prayer is unlikely to touch the inmates and their guards.