Sometimes a Small Redemption: On Ludmilla Petrushevskaya | The Nation


Sometimes a Small Redemption: On Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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Still, the volume's stress on the supernatural creates a somewhat false impression of Petrushevskaya. The fantastical may be essential to her fictional universe, but by emphasizing it at the expense of the commonplace situations central to her work, Gessen and Summers risk undermining the engagement with quotidian experience that lends power to their selections in the first place. The "scary" of the book's subtitle feels reductively sensationalist, a false advertisement for stories that seek to unsettle and disturb in ways far subtler than such a shopworn word implies. In Russia, Petrushevskaya has published a collection of "Everyday and Magical Fairy Tales," as well as "Real Fairy Tales." The stories in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby may be linked by their exploration of the uncanny, but, like the best spooky literature, their drama always hinges on actual experience.

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

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In "The Arm," the piece that opens the collection, a colonel who receives word from his wife that she may die before she sees him again rushes home just in time to find that her prediction has come to pass. After he begins his journey back to his base, he discovers that his party card has gone missing, and is directed by his wife in a dream to find it in her coffin, but to avoid lifting the veil from her face. When he fails to restrain himself, the focus of the story becomes the nightmarish world that the colonel enters upon his return trip. But it has been set in motion by the loss of his party card, an event with frightening repercussions that are entirely distinct from the consequences of lifting the veil. Without his card, the colonel is temporarily stripped of his former status and any coherent sense of identity. He has become a no one, transformed into a member of the living dead not by magic but by the patently real strictures of party bureaucracy.

When Petrushevskaya was growing up, Soviet children were taught the slogan "Fairy tale has become reality," illustrated by songs such as "Ever Higher":

We were born that fairy tale might become reality
To conquer the vastness of space
Reason gave us steel wings for arms,
And in the place of a heart they gave us a fiery motor.

As party directives mandated the creation of Socialist Realism, the arts were prodded and warped to promote the notion of the USSR's collective destiny. Yet myths are not quite fairy tales, and the official Soviet conception of the fairy tale was much like a Disney reinvention of a Grimm story, piling on the glitz and excising any hint of unresolved violence or danger. "A fairy tale fulfills the role of a social utopia," Roman Jakobson declared in an essay to accompany the classic 1945 edition of traditional Russian fairy tales that Aleksandr Afanasyev had collected during the nineteenth century; but this isn't necessarily the case.

Fairy tales map the territory of the abnormal as it affects individual lives. For all their usual happy endings, they don't resolve the inexplicable with the neat conclusion of a collective myth, and they don't offer a vision of redemption for society as a whole. Reason has no place in a genre that deals with the purely unfathomable, and Petrushevskaya's tales are all the more seditious for accentuating that point. Grisha, the protagonist of "A New Soul," becomes hysterical when his son is conscripted into the army, until he suddenly "wakes up" as a Russian immigrant in the United States. He has been placed in a mental hospital, and upon his release feels despondent until he falls in love and returns to Russia, where he meets his new wife's son, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his own boy. Is the immigrant Grisha a figure in the original Grisha's hallucination, or vice versa? Are we meant to believe that an incredible transformation actually did take place? Petrushevskaya refuses to tell, and ends her story with a shrug rather than a moral: "and no one ever did explain it to either of them."

Jakobson, like many of his fellow Soviet linguists and scholars, looked to fairy and folk tales as genres that could be manipulated to express the ethos of an "epoch when borders between utopia and reality are being effaced," as he wrote in his Afanasyev commentary. In his hope for a society that could transform itself from ugly duckling to swan, he gave little consideration to the possibility that reality, with all its flaws, could one day prove far more desirable than any manufactured utopia. As far as metaphors for the Soviet project go, Jakobson might have considered "The Black Coat," the final story in Gessen and Summers's collection. The story's principal character is "a girl who found herself in an unknown place, on a cold winter night.... The girl didn't remember her name or who she was." The girl doesn't know where she's come from or where she's going, and is motivated to move only to get out of the cold. Alone, terrified, with no sense of her identity or past and seemingly condemned to a phantasmagoric existence in which all of reality's borders have been rubbed out, the girl cries, "I want to wake up.... I want to end this horrible nightmare."

Petrushevskaya's own brand of fairy tale straddles the line between reality and utopia, intermingling the dismal oppressiveness of life in a Moscow apartment with the joy that can be found in a children's home. "I think of myself as a documentary writer," she has said, "collecting documents about people's lives and reworking them." As a collector, she has far more in common with Afanasyev, who followed the example of the Grimms by compiling the homespun tales of the peasantry, than with Jakobson. But inasmuch as she has refashioned stories gleaned from existing lives, Petrushevskaya has managed to amend a central facet of the typical fairy tale: the all-powerful ability of the external agent, whether Cinderella's godmother or the gray wolf of "The Firebird," to determine the hero's or heroine's fate. Even when confronted with acute pressure and unremitting bleakness, Petrushevskaya's protagonists can find ways to shape their destinies when they choose to think--and act--on their own. It's as if, as Petrushevskaya writes of one of her heroines, they have passed the hardest test of their lives.

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