The Suitcase was published in Russian in 1986 and in English in 1990. This 2011 republication by One World Classics contained a revised English translation by Antonina Bouis. Dovlatov (1941-90), a Russian author who was half-Armenian and half-Jewish, left the USSR in 1978 and died in New York.
There were eight short stories, each featuring an object found in an old suitcase the writer had taken with him into exile and rediscovered in a closet years later: crepe socks, half-boots, a suit, belt, jacket, shirt, hat and gloves. The clothing, so to speak, in which the narrator had lived in his homeland. Prominent in the works were black-market activity, boredom and slacking off in the workplace, drunkenness and fistfights, occasional pointless interrogation by authorities, a wife's emigration, and so on. Family and close friends helped people cope. Occasionally in some of the stories, a note of melancholy was sounded at the passing of time.
The best of the tales for this reader was "An Officer's Belt," which described an incident from the narrator's military service in the 1960s and blended humor with wry observation of human stupidity. It flowed smoothly and contained nothing beyond what was needed to tell the story. Many of the other tales in comparison seemed rambling, less focused, or ended weakly or abruptly. And yet his descriptions of life lived certainly felt authentic.
Most of the stories were set mainly in the near-present--for this book, the late 60s or 70s. In two tales, the author opened up another dimension by going further back into the past and following his characters through a good part of their lives: describing his life in parallel with the pampered son of a famous actor, and his life with his gentle, faithful wife.
From these stories alone, it seemed that the narrator wasn't a political dissident of any kind, more someone who just couldn't fit in and was drawn to those like himself. Nor were the stories taken as straight condemnation. The book was prefaced with lines from a poem by Blok: "But even like this, my Russia / You are most precious to me . . ."
"Belt" was one of the few works by contemporary authors included in a recent anthology, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (2005), in a polished translation by Joanne Turnbull.