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Sometimes a Small Redemption: On Ludmilla Petrushevskaya | The Nation

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Sometimes a Small Redemption: On Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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In "Hygiene," a little girl opens the door to the apartment she shares with her parents and grandparents to find a young man bearing a sinister message:

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Alexandra Schwartz
Alexandra Schwartz is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

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He said he'd come to warn the family of an immediate danger: There was an epidemic in the town, an illness that killed in three days. People turned red, they swelled up, and then, mostly, they died. The chief symptom was the appearance of blisters, or bumps. There was some hope of surviving if you observed strict personal hygiene, stayed inside the apartment, and made sure there were no mice around--since mice, as always, were the main carriers of the disease.

The messenger says that he has survived the plague and become immune, and offers to bring the R. family supplies so that they don't expose themselves to infection. After he leaves, they cannot agree on an appropriate response to the threat. The grandfather has refused his help, as have the neighbors, who can be heard laughing at the man through the door; the grandmother thinks of a similar episode in which a stranger came to solicit money for a neighbor's funeral, only to vanish with the alms she had collected. But the father secretly believes the young man's story, though circumstances forbid him from voicing his mind: "These were his wife's parents, not his, and he rarely agreed with them about anything. Nor did they exactly ask his opinion." Over the next few days, it is he who leaves the house to steal--and eventually kill--to secure provisions for the family, wiping himself in the hallway with eau-de-cologne upon his nightly return to keep the plague at bay.

The explicit terror of "Hygiene" lies in the prospect of an undiscriminating and unavoidable death, which, when it comes, is gruesome and swift. But its greater, more lasting horror is apparent from the outset in the messenger's stipulation that the R. family remain together inside their apartment. Rather than foster solidarity in the face of disaster, the close quarters exacerbate, to a brutal and grotesque degree, the natural domestic antagonism present in Petrushevskaya's other work; the apartment, silent backdrop to the characters' anxiety, is at once an emblem of the family's distress and a partner to it. When the family quarantines their little girl in her locked room for kissing their mouse-eating cat, telling her to defecate on books and pass her urine out in bottles though she is not yet old enough to wash herself, the home has completed its transition into a prison camp. Petrushevskaya has made good on the promise of her metaphor of the "mini-Gulag." Under the right conditions, it turns out, the figurative lockup has always had the potential to become real.

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby is only the third volume of Petrushevskaya's fiction to be published in English, and the first to arrive since Sally Laird's translation of Immortal Love appeared in 1995. The general inaccessibility of Petrushevskaya's works in English defies her popularity in her home country but echoes her publishing history there. Though Petrushevskaya began to submit her work to magazines in the 1960s, Soviet political and aesthetic constraints kept her pointed accounts of everyday struggles under communist rule out of the press. "To survive these conditions as a writer you have to have--I don't know, something out of the ordinary," she told Laird in 1987. That "something," as it later became apparent, was a combination of patience and indomitable persistence. She began to garner attention in the mid-1970s for her plays, and by the time artistic sanctions were relaxed under glasnost, she had gained a following as a mainstay of Moscow's experimental theater. Her first volume of stories was published in 1988; despite her prediction that it would never find the audience her theatrical works had, her fiction has been in print ever since.

The stories that Gessen and Summers have compiled will likely be the first of Petrushevskaya's work that most English-speaking readers encounter, and as such it makes for a compelling if skewed introduction. By combing through her oeuvre for "mystical and fantastical tales," they have assembled a series of works whose striking immediacy is a far cry from Petrushevskaya's more quotidian stories. Her prose is so sparse and succinct that it can seem as if she is rationing her words as prudently as the R. family rations their food; she is like the messenger in "Hygiene," who cannot afford to indulge in any superfluous language that would prevent his message from getting across. "When I started writing properly I stopped trying to imitate and wrote just as simply as I could, without metaphor or simile, in the voice people use to tell their story to another person on the bus--urgently, hastily, making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off," Petrushevskaya has recollected. "And then you know that the story will get passed on, and that's the beginning of folklore." Set against the extraordinary plots and happenings that characterize this collection, such urgency lends the tales a starkness that rivals the opacity of the magic that drives them. The stories feel elemental and colloquial, their complexity sustained by the simplicity of the telling.

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