By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (trans. Keith Gessen and Anna Summers)
Penguin Books, 2009 226 pp $15
WHEN ZHENYA is a child her parents disappear without a trace or an explanation. The girl’s grandmother raises her not to question their absence—to be good, pragmatic, and hard-working. Knowledge of the dark side of life comes later in teacher’s college when she is dating Sasha, a man who has concealed a wife and children. Sasha’s wife confronts Zhenya and accuses her of spreading a sexually transmitted disease. The tests come back negative. But Sasha cuts off contact with her, and “Zhenya began to see that things weren’t so simple among people, that there existed a whole other secret, stubbornly flourishing animal side of life, where revolting, horrible things collected.”
Not long after that, Zhenya is assaulted by a group of teenagers. The boys bind her arms, gag her, and lead her to a secluded area at knifepoint. Just as they are about to rape her, the dark road is illuminated. A man and woman, who resemble Zhenya’s parents, appear and drive the young men away. The next day, Zhenya takes her grandmother to the area but can’t find the location of her rescue. Instead, she falls against a log and cries. Not long after, she leaves town, gets married, and stops searching “for her mother in mental hospitals and jails.”
This is the peculiar world of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, one of Russia’s most renowned writers. The story described above, “The Shadow Life,” appears in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers). The book is the first translation of Petrushevskaya by a major American publisher, and it provides a striking introduction to the author’s work. It has been marketed as “scary fairy tales,” and the nineteen stories in the collection do use familiar elements of the fairy tale and horror genres: omniscient and sometimes indulgent narrators, corpses that don’t stay dead, visions that collapse into mist or darkness.
But don’t be fooled. What is shocking and memorable about the stories is not the sudden, supernatural junctures but the utterly bleak and believable details of the character’s lives. In the seventies and eighties, Petrushevskaya, then primarily known as a dramatist, was reputed for her bracing realism. Her recent fairy tales follow the trajectory of this work. While fantastical, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby reverberates with the grim realities of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.
If “The Shadow Life” turns on a mystical apparition, the greatest threats are still spiteful wives and violent teenagers, unexplained disappearances and the prick of a knife-blade held to a young woman’s back. The collection’s atmospheric visions of ghosts and dreams mix with the harsh realities of injured soldiers and overworked mothers. Petrushevskaya leverages the fantastical against the tangible—and utterly realistic—difficulties of life in both the USSR and contemporary Russia.
Petrushevskaya’s stories could easily be read as bleak grotesques, populated by envious neighbors, selfish adolescents, and parents who overcompensate with exaggerated love. But ultimately, Petrushevskaya’s skillful juxtapositions yield glints of light. Resilience and ingenuity thread through the hardship, whether in the form of forgiveness or love. Such traces of humanity are starker—and brighter—because of the darkness that surrounds them.
THE ARC of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s life stretches over seven tumultuous decades of Russian history. Petrushevskaya was born in Moscow in 1938 during Stalin’s ruthless purges. Her father abandoned her family when she was an infant, and Petrushevskaya was raised by her mother and grandfather, a well-known linguistics professor. During the years surrounding her birth, most of her mother’s family was shot or arrested as Stalin rooted out long-time Bolsheviks.
During the Second World War, she and her mother shuffled between Moscow and Kuibyshev, a nearby industrial city, living alternately in cramped urban apartments and among her few remaining relatives in the countryside. Food was scarce and there was no promise of safety. Eventually, Petrushevskaya’s mother placed her malnourished daughter in a state-run children’s home, “a kind of sanatorium for starving children.” Of her childhood, she remarked, “By the time I was 10, I felt I’d been through all the circles of hell.”
Young adulthood didn’t get better. When her mother moved Petrushevskaya back to Moscow, the writer shared a tiny one-room apartment with her mother and grandfather for the next eight years. The once-famed professor had been fired from his job and stripped of his pension on a vague, political misdemeanor. Unemployed and completely cut off from friends and colleagues, he slowly went mad. “He suffered from insomnia and would cry out at night in the darkness,” she recalled. “But sharing the room with us he was deprived even of the insomniac’s right to turn on the light and read. So our home was like a mini-Gulag, with no privacy at all for him and not a single peaceful night for us.”
Petrushevskaya took refuge at the library, where she read unwieldy Soviet novels about earnest farmers and steel-makers. She attended Moscow State University and studied journalism. She began to write short stories in the late sixties and early seventies in which she strove to reflect the privation that surrounded her. Vowing “never, never, never to lie” as she felt officially sanctioned writers did, she effectively ripped apart the idealistic workers and stoic mothers of the prevailing social realism. Her plots featured one-night-stands; delusional, self-sacrificing, and abandoned wives; tense families crammed into suffocating high-rises.
Under the tightened censorship laws of the Brezhnev years, Petrushevskaya found it impossible to get published. At that time, she recently recalled, subjects ranging from the church to the existence of orphans were banned. “Truth was in general forbidden.” Petrushevskaya’s frank realism was incendiary in an era when the government neglected to keep statistics on crime, domestic violence, alcoholism, and illness. Novy Mir, a famed Moscow literary journal known for its liberal sympathies, declined to publish her stories, but labeled them with the note: “Withhold publication—but don’t lose track of the author.”
The emotional honesty and narrative daring of Petrushevskaya’s stories slowly gained her admittance to a fellowship of writers, neither official nor underground. Petrushevskaya found an outlet in theater and began to write plays whose unstinting depiction of human misery earned her renown. Though Novy Mir couldn’t publish her writing, they read and encouraged her and helped Petrushevskaya make a living on reviews and translations. Many other writers were in a similar situation. Petrushevskaya recalls that Nina Petrovna Borisova, an Novy Mir editor, once gestured to the files at the magazine’s offices and said, “You’re in such good company, Lyusya, you’ve no idea what heaps of excellent books and stories I’ve got stashed in there.”
Under Gorbachev’s reforms in the mid-eighties, controls on art and literature weakened and Petrushevskaya’s reputation grew steadily. In 1985, her play Three Girls in Blue was one of the first to be officially restored and was performed at the well-established Lenkom theatre. Amidst the patchwork freedoms of glasnost, Petrushevskaya’s plays and stories began to be published in major journals alongside the once-banned works of Mikhail Bulgakov and Vladimir Nabokov.
The sudden prominence of Petrushevskaya’s work, along with her age and reputation, meant she enjoyed dual status as an innovator and a vanguard. During the turbulent changes of the late eighties and early nineties, her writing was instrumental in clearing the path for other writers. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the sudden relaxation of commercial restrictions meant an influx of pulpy novels and a glut of postmodern experimentation. But Petrushevskaya’s unflinching and spare writing stood out. Her work evolved toward dystopias and fairy tales—including those gathered in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby—and she also branched out into memoir and even singing cabaret.
At seventy-one, she is lauded as one of Russia’s boldest and most versatile writers. “Her aura is one of extreme straightforwardness and clarity,” John Freedman, the drama critic for the Moscow Times explained. “When you see her you instantly know, ‘This is a woman who will tell you the truth to your face.’”
THE STORIES in There Once Lived a Woman’s Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby carry the bounty of that honesty. Petrushevskaya plumbs the dark depths of Russian society. She shreds state myths and social taboos and, without overt parable, penetrates the deep human realities of love and suffering. “The New Family Robinson” tells of a family that flees for a desolate countryside full of criminals and abandoned government buildings. It is clearly set in the desperate landscape of the Second World War, but the era is illuminated only indirectly.
Narrated by a child, the story begins:
So my parents decided they would outsmart everyone. When it began they piled me and a load of canned food into a truck and took us to the country, the far-off and forgotten country, somewhere beyond the Mur River.
Just whom the parents are outsmarting is not explained. The “it began” remains ambiguous, though the narrator hints that her father had been planning the escape for a long time. Refugees and “some kind of squad” enter the village and cause the family to flee to the forest, but neither are identified. The war, Stalin, and the purges of enemies and minorities are never mentioned. The story’s menacing power comes from the way it only hints at the circumstances that have isolated its characters.
“Marilena’s Secret,” on the other hand, takes place in a more recent, nightmarish space. A wizard transforms two thin ballerina sisters, Maria and Lena, into Marilena, an enormously fat woman who gets a job at the circus and is courted by clothing and toothpaste companies that want a gargantuan spokeswoman. A charismatic grifter takes advantage of Marilena, siphoning off her money by checking her into a clinic for dieting and cosmetic surgery where hired thugs nearly kill her.
The allegorical and historical shadows of Petrushevskaya’s work underpin, rather than overwhelm, her fiction. When once asked why her writing shied away from the systemic critiques of some of her contemporaries, Petrushevskaya answered that she and her generation were too fully immersed to create large-scale critiques: “You live your life under the roof you’ve been allotted, not knowing how high or low it is. Our generation lived despite the times–in a way, we didn’t even notice them. Of course we came into collision with the system, but we were so skilled at living, at just surviving. We’d been born in the belly of the beast and it was quite an art to stay whole, not to be dissolved completely.”
What typifies Petrushevskaya’s attitude about life typifies her fiction. The stories contain unsettling descriptions of death and hatred, of crime and atrocious living conditions. But what impresses most strongly is a sense of empathy and endurance, palpable amidst the darkest narrative elements. The family in “The New Family Robinson” is together when the story ends. In “Marilena’s Secret,” the sisters outsmart the thugs, escape the clinic, break the spell, and once again become ballerinas. Recognizing the hard-won compassion of Petrushevskaya’s fiction entails recognizing the stubborn, resilient nature of love itself.
PETRUSHEVSKAYA’S BALANCING act between bleakness and hope reaches its apex midway through the collection. In “The Miracle,” Petrushevskaya marshals all her experience and observational powers to tell a tale in which a mother’s love is circumscribed–indeed, threatened–by the grim life around her and by her own despair. The plot revolves around a woman named Nadya, whose son is about to be drafted into the army. He throws a party at which his friends ransack her apartment and steal her savings. Her son tries to hang himself. Discovering the theft after he has been taken to the hospital, Nadya becomes desperate. When she hears that a man named Kornil will solve her problems in exchange for vodka she beats a path to the boiler room of the hospital where he is said to live.
There, in a hot, dark room crowded with bums and drunks, she finds Kornil lying in a dirty heap about to die. He knows Nadya’s name and asks what she wants. She metes out the vodka, as she was told to, and describes how her son torments her. As she prepares to pour the liquid down his throat, a woman behind her tells her to go ahead and do it. The woman, Kornil’s mother, groans about her son, who she reveals is the second coming of Christ. “He really shouldn’t have come down this time,” she clucks, recounting how he raised a Jew from the dead to testify at a post-mortem dispute over an apartment. The vodka will kill him, the woman explains, but he wants to die and he will therefore grant Nadya’s wish.
Nadya, however, snaps out of her hysteria and empties the shot glass on the floor. She’ll manage, she explains, and really, this Kornil ought to see a doctor.
The vodka spilled out on the floor, and everything was suddenly enshrouded in fog. Nadya found herself on the street, walking home. She felt a little light-headed. Her mind was clear and free of all burdens. She walked lightly and happily, not crying, not thinking about the future, not worrying about anything. As though she’d passed the hardest test of her life.
Although what will happen to Nadya next is murky as the fog, she has neither killed off her own kindness nor sacrificed herself. As Petrushevskaya well knows, in a world of suicide attempts, thuggery, and unshakable poverty, Nadya’s decision not to relinquish love is miracle enough.
Ingrid Norton is a freelance writer who has written for publications ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education to Open Letters Monthly. This is her first article for Dissent.