A Writer Without Borders: Autobiographical Voice(s) in Sergei Dovlatov’s The Zone

Angela Brintlinger, Ohio State University

"There is a suspicious similarity between guards and prisoners. Or even more broadly, between ‘prison camp’ and ‘freedom.’” Thus spoke the narrator of Sergei Dovlatov's 1982 novel The Zone. The double-voiced structure of The Zone benefits from the doubling of typefaces and genres; stories from the prison camp in “regular” type alternate with italicized letters from the author to the publisher. If the line separating guard and prisoner was permeable, Dovlatov shows us in this work that the border between the Soviet Union and America was permeable too, as the narrator of the final work moves back and forth between time zones.

Building on work by Ilya Serman, Mark Lipovetsky and Ekaterina Young, this paper aims to explore the in-between zone of Dovlatov's The Zone, focusing on the doubled hero's voice and the meaning which emerges from the doubled narrative. Characterized by Karen Ryan as featuring a “relatively complex narrative strategy” [in Contemporary Russian Satire, 1985, 180], The Zone was purportedly first written in the mid-1960s, but the final published book becomes a completely different text thanks to the [probably fictional] letters from 1982. This technique, of co-creating a narrative space between two very different times, two very different places, and two necessarily different narrative voices, may very well be unique to Dovlatov and to this work in particular, although The Zone owes much to the genres of epistolary novels, story cycles, and autobiography generally. Since his subject matter, Soviet prison camps, had by the time of publication been indelibly illustrated by both Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, Dovlatov was in a sense forced to compete with his predecessors (as he himself acknowledged). It was through innovations in narrative voice and genre that Dovlatov sought to make his mark on the material.