A novel of crime and freezing punishment in Russia

The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard's Story, by Sergei Dovlatov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 178 pp. $14.95. It is a melancholy fact that Russian literature is particularly rich in accounts of prison life. The chronicle of crime and freezing punishment, brilliantly represented in our own time by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, extends back through Chekhov and Dostoyevsky in the 19th century to the Old Believer Avvakum in the 17th.

``The Zone,'' while falling squarely within this tradition, nevertheless remains something of an odd fish, for its author, the 'emigr'e novelist Sergei Dovlatov, was neither a prisoner nor an outside observer: He served as a guard at a strict security camp for criminal offenders. His experiences have yielded a moving book that is somewhat experimental in form: It purports to be fragments and sketches from a complete novel left behind in the Soviet Union and passed on to the narrator. These fragments are gradually sent to the publisher, together with ruminative letters containing the narrator's thoughts on human nature, good and evil, and life in America.

``Strict security'' suggests a concrete and steel box sealed tight with the latest in electronic monitoring systems. None of this is necessary near the Arctic Circle. Dovlatov's prison is little more than a ramshackle plywood settlement with four watchtowers and a pack of baying guard dogs. Prisoners do not scheme day and night to break out. Escape is a pointless exercise when frozen taiga stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction.

This brutal and isolated environment tends to break down the distinction between guard and prisoner. ``We were very similar,'' the narrator asserts, ``and even interchangeable. Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.'' The dogs understand this: They bark at everyone.

Other categories blur as well. Can there be such a thing as crime in a country whose leaders have sent millions to their death? What meaning does imprisonment have when the entire nation is a jail? The narrator, who has had many, many hours to reflect upon such paradoxes, comes away with a heightened sense of compassion and an aversion to categorical moral positions. Conscious of man's frailty, his own above all, he prays only that ``God give us steadfastness and courage, and, even better -- circumstances of time and place that are disposed to the good.''

Dovlatov, determined not to sensationalize his material, states at the outset that ``the world [of the camp] was horrible. But life continued. What is more, life's usual proportions stayed the same. The ratio of good and evil, grief and happiness, remained unchanged.'' It is the author's mission to rescue what is human from an inhuman set of circumstances. In one tale, the camp guard Alikhanov, oppressed by his surroundings and his own moral weakness, turns in despair to writing, where he finds consolation, hope, and purpose.

In another, the narrator describes his fascination with the prisoner Kuptsov, an inveterate thief who on principle refuses to work, preferring to spend his time in solitary confinement on half rations. He comes to see in Kuptsov's lone rebellion a moral grandeur and, in a highly charged series of confrontations, attempts to break down his resistance even while regarding him as ``dear and necessary.''

The mood of the book is not unrelievedly bleak -- it would take more than prison to blunt Dovlatov's comic edge -- but even a highly amusing account of a camp dramatic production ends with a chorus of ``The Internationale,'' with its call for freedom and justice, which pierces the narrator's heart.

Dovlatov's considerable talent is best suited to the short story and the sketch. His first novel, ``The Compromise,'' was a brilliant satire of Soviet journalism that really amounted to an ingeniously connected string of short pieces. ``The Zone,'' a more serious and ambitious work, does not really cohere as a novel, and its technique of combining letters and bits of text seems contrived. But the book's shortcomings fade quickly from memory. What remains is the sound of a tolerant, humane voice speaking from the whirlwind.

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