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10 thoughts on “Иностранка

  1. says:

    A great story translated from the Russian but set in the USA in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens in New York City. The story is set in the mid-1980’s when Russians (mainly Russian Jews) started arriving. The area remains a focus of Russian Jewish settlement today and the corner of 108th Street and 63rd Drive has been given an honorary designation in this author’s memory (1941-1990). The author emigrated to the US and lived in this neighborhood for the last 12 years of his life.


    Much of the story consists of short vignettes of the lives of people who came. It’s amazing to note how just about everyone who immigrated changed life paths from what they did previously in Russia. An artist becomes a cab driver; a famous sports coach becomes a custodian; a dissident wedding MC (who is Jewish) becomes a Baptist TV minister; a lawyer runs a grocery store.

    Mostly the story (there’s not a lot of actual plot) focuses on the ups and downs of the woman of the title who in Russia had lovers, a husband, lovers, a divorce, lovers, a second husband, a child, lovers, a divorce and so on before coming to America. Despite wanting a career she never quite finds her way. She marries a Latin American man, and is mainly a stay-at-home mom.

    The value of the book is in the satire, sarcasm and irony that the author presents to us as he shows us that life in the US compared to life in Russia isn’t all that much different --- life is life. He presents us with many sharp and humorous passages and one-liners. Some examples:

    On the Koreans, Hindus, Arabs and Latinos in the neighborhood: “We do not know them. But just in case, we despise and fear them.”

    On books: “Back home there was no freedom, but there were readers. Here there was freedom enough, but readers were missing.” (This reminds me of a quote I liked in the book Summer of Betrayal by Hong Ying “Here [in China] there are people listening, but one can’t speak. There [in the West] one can speak, but nobody listens.”


    “He’s too lazy to smoke.”

    On the political turmoil in Russia in 1938: “Of course, innocent people were being shot. Yet the execution of one was good for many others. The execution of some marshal guaranteed promotions for ten of his colleagues. A general was promoted to the marshal’s spot. A colonel moved into the generalship…”

    “Dima was a good man. His vices were the absence of defects. After all, we all know that defects are more attractive than virtues.”

    “As everyone knows, there is no equality in marriage. The one who loves less always wins. If you can call it winning.”

    “He seemed so clumsy under the burden of great ideas. He walked with a determined gait, like an arrogant blind man.”

    A woman questioning a man about a dream he had where he saw himself flying over a brightly-lit city:
    She: “Lights? …That’s clear. According to Freud that’s sexual frustration. The lights symbolize the penis.”
    He” “What about the wings?”
    “The wings,” Fema said, “also symbolize the penis.”

    The author inserts himself into the story as an author, using his real name. He said he was so pleased with how well his books were translated into English that a friend of his was fond of saying “Dovlatov loses something in the original.” He also says of critics “I am completely indifferent to what is written about me. I only get upset when they don’t write.”

    “I always say, if you’re in trouble, you’re not sinning.”

    A character says: “Recently, I gave my boss an ultimatum: Give me a raise or I quit.”
    “What happened?”
    “We compromised: He didn’t give me a raise, and I didn’t quit.”

    After the author’s life becomes more comfortable economically: “Other people’s unhappiness naturally worried me, but less than before.”


    A fun, quick read (113 pages), well worth it for the insight and a quick look into this 1980’s community giving us a lot of local color.

    Top photo of Forest Hills neighborhood from
    Middle photo from
    Photo of the author from

  2. says:

    Underrated and seemingly forgotten, Dovlatov remains one of my favorite writers. His style, called "laconic" and "witty," earned him comparisons to one of his admirers, Kurt Vonnegut. This is not my favorite of his works (that would be The Compromise), but even on an off day, Dovlatov is nothing short of fun.

  3. says:

    Dovlatov does not need more words to describe more things. It was enjoyable again to read about the migrant details from such prominent fiction master. Some reviewers blamed him in racism. I do not blame them. However, Soviet man always classifies people according to something and only after it tries to perceive that person.

  4. says:

    My new favorite.

    I had three long conversations with Marusya over a cup of coffee. She told me her whole rather silly story. To some degree we became friends. I like people like that--doomed, dying, helpless, and brazen. I always say, if you're in trouble, you're not sinning.


    Sales were lukewarm. Back home there was no freedom, but there were readers. Here there was freedom enough, but readers were missing.

  5. says:

    Very touching! The book is written with a great sense of humour. A story about each of us! 5 out of 5!

  6. says:

    His America is a bizarre and superficial racist misanthrope's phantasmagoria with Soviet übermenschen surrounded by coloured human animals with whom they have to get along. If tried write a collaborative novel it would not have been much different from this.

    However, his description of the KGB and of the courtship in the Soviet elite contain some genuinely funny and insightful anecdotes. The one thing that Dovlatov could do well was to describe the Soviet Union.

    The Russians on the internet seem to compare it to Limonov's book about the same Russian community in New York.

    Limonov does not regard black gangsters and latina housewives as something that belongs to the zoo. Instead he finds that they are similar to the folksiest of folksy rural Russians he remembers from his native Dneprodzerzhinsk.

    Limonov also slams his fellow immigrants much more severely than Dovlatov. In Dovlatov it's just the irony of their situation: they share the author's white immigrant supremacism, they are in fact superior, and yet they are destitute and cannot ever get their rightful due because they cannot speak the English language.

    Besides you get male-on-male interracial sex in the book by Limonov: Another reason for the Russians to prefer Dovlatov.

  7. says:

    This was an OK read, but not more than that. I like the format, with the author as a character in the story, and the introductions of all the characters (even though there's a bit too much focus on the See How Crazy We Russians Are, But In A Positive Way-thing), but Marusja? I couldn't find any sympathy anywhere for her, and I failed to see why the author would take her side. Mostly I was just perplexed by her indifference or annoyed by her arrogance.

    ++ The language in this one is fairly easy.

  8. says:

    Life of a Russian female immigrant to the US. Funny and sad at the same time...True life of Russian-Jewish immigrants

  9. says:

    Perhaps the least amusing Dovlatov book I have read so far. I think the reason being that, for the first time, Dovlatov himself is not the primary character in the story. As a result, he is not as harsh on others as he is on himself, and the dry, rasping wit that characterizes Pushkin Hills, The Compromise, Zone and Suitcase is missing here. He treats Marusya quite sympathetically, and while he is happy to reproduce the mean judgments passed on her by others, these others are unfortunately not as witty as Mr. Dovlatov himself. I do, however, think that this book summarizes Dovlatov's writing genius brilliantly in this short passage, something that distills his oeuvre into a short and concise world view:

    [A fellow exile to Dovlatov] "Tell us, what is more important than justice?'
    'Why, anything' I replied.
    'And could you be more specific?'
    'More specifically, mercy."

    Sergei Dovlatov faced a creaking, overburdened Soviet state during the Era of Stagnation which refused to publish any of his novels. Had he been more inclined, he could have easily railed against the regime like Solzhenitsyn, and he had the literary powers to be as influential and as persuasive. Instead, he busied himself with short, introspective texts, that use hilarious humor to mask the desperation of the era beneath. For that reason, he is and remains a joy to read, both in translation for foreigners, and for Russians themselves. Instead of divisive political views, his slices of life can be appreciated by both sides, looking back on a much different time.

  10. says:

    more structured and coherent than "The Suitcase", this short book presents a great, tragic but also immensely interesting, entertaining story, a story that is basically a glorified character study with great period piece nuggets thrown into it. The authenticity is top-notch, I believed this one to be a fact-based story up until the very end. Dovlatov has that amazing skill to ground his stories in reality as much as possible, but that doesn't sacrifice the fun or a biting satire prevalent in all of his works.
    The length of the book is perfect for this type of story and it never really drags, never fails to keep the focus on the main character and her tragedy as such- something that I can't say about Sergei's other book "The suitcase", which, while an amazing book, in places felt like a combination of short stories. A foreign woman truly feels like one, strong and compelling story and It never dabbles too much into the particular setting or tragedy of contemporary people. While there surely are some great moments depicting a harsh realities of late 20th century, the book's main focus remains with a strong theme of just wasting life away and never truly realizing what we wand or desire to be remotely happy. So I believe, even if you're not into the said period and the struggles that came with it, there's still a lot to love in this gem.