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In Pushkin Hills, the main character, Boris Alikhanov, shares numerous similarities with the author. Both worked as guides at the Pushkin Preserve, a major cultural attraction. Both were dissident writers during the Cold War (Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, is mentioned in the novel). Like Boris Alikhanov, Sergei Dovlatov was prohibited from publishing in the Soviet Union. Both eventually immigrated to the United States, using as their means of escape their Jewish ancestry. Do these parallels make Pushkin Hills an autobiographical novel? In the wider sense, yes, but the novel is as much about creativity (writing) in the face of overwhelming censorship as anything else, within the context of a country so decayed that almost everyone wants out. Dovlatov died in New York in 1990; the translation is by his daughter.
The Alikhanov in the novel is recently divorced from his wife, and early in the story recalls the last conversation he had with her. “Even your love of words—your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love—is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least….” These are pretty harsh words. He can’t publish because of the ban on his writing. He’s taken the position at the Pushkin Preserve like other stifled writers because at the least it will connect him to a wider literary world. He’s been a terrible alcoholic but stopped drinking after his arrival at the revered Russian writer’s quasi-shrine, described as follows:
“The Preserve consisted of three memorial sites: Pushkin’s house and estate in Mikhailovskoye; Trigorskoye, where the poet’s friends lived and where he visited nearly every day; and finally the monastery with the Pushkin-Hannibal burial plot.” The atmosphere is less than friendly, though guides are paid decently:
“Everyone in service of the Pushkin cult was surprisingly very begrudging. Pushkin was their collective property, their adored lover, their tenderly revered child. Any encroachment on their personal deity irritated them. They were hasty to prove my ignorance, cynicism and greed.” Not exactly a welcoming committee, but it isn’t long before Alikhanov is one of the most sought-after guides.
There’s a bit of humor in the inane questions that tourists always ask guides and the ingenuity docents need to foil those questions. Alikhanov, himself, quickly realizes that many of the so-called artifacts relating to Pushkin’s estate are not the author’s own property but replicas. As he muses, first a writer is driven into the ground, but afterwards the state tries to cash in on his stature by looking for his “personal effects,” when the
cult of the writer is converted into monetary reward. In the worst cases, the state did everything it could to stifle the writer but then turns around after his death and cashes in. He thinks of his own situation, “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,” but not as an artist.
The major dilemma for Alikhanov is the arrival of Tanya, his ex-wife, at the Preserve—not her presence there but what she proposes. She wants to immigrate to the United States with their daughter and have Alikhanov accompany them. Her proposal sets off a barrage of recrimination. How can an artist be removed from his heritage and still remain an artist? “Language,” he tells her. “In a foreign tongue we lose eighty per cent of our personality. We lose our ability to joke, to be ironic. This alone terrifies me.” Like most Russian writers, he’s grounded in the country’s moral, spiritual and psychological landscapes. At the same time he understands that he’s fallen into a passive state of inaction. “I simply couldn’t make this decision. Such a serious and irreversible step frightened me. After all, it would be like being reborn. And at one’s own will. Most people can’t even get married properly….” But if he doesn’t join her, he believes that what will loom ahead of him is “divorce, debt and literary failure.”
The characters in Pushkin Hills appear is if they are trapped in one of Chekhov’s plays. Their dialogue is often clipped, brief responses to one another, full of non-sequiturs, with lines often passing over the other character, provoking little understanding of what has been said or logical response. Yet, this is a novel replete with memorable but sad characters, informing us how important cultural roots are for artists, particularly Russian writers. James Wood’s informative afterword states that “Dovlatov was not published in Russia during his lifetime. During the 1970s, he circulated his writing in samizdat, and began to be published in European journals.” Pushkin Hills was first published in 1983; his daughter’s translation into English is an act of love.
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills
Trans. by Katherine Dovlatov
Counterpoint, 160 pp., $24
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.