In the introduction to There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby, a recent collection of short stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Keith Gessen describes Petrushevskaya’s tales as night journeys or visits to the underworld. They are haunted – a colonel is warned in a dream not to look at his dead wife’s face, an obese woman splits into two slim dancers for two hours each night, plague overcomes a town, an orphan is saved from rape from a woman who looks like her mother. Just as in fairy tales, loss and longing stalk the stories – desire for an unborn child or for a dead loved one, or simply the wish to forget a terrible experience.
Summarising the plots suggests that the book is a bleak read, but I found it compulsive and humane. Many of the stories are redemptive, though never sentimental.
Petrushevskaya has said that she tries to write ‘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’. Most of the stories in this collection are short, written in a clean, direct style. Here, for example, is the opening of ‘Hygiene’:
One time the doorbell rang at the apartment of the R. family, and the little girl ran to answer it. A young man stood before her. In the hallway light he appeared to be ill, with extremely delicate, pink, shiny skin. 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.
Often the strength of the main character’s emotion drives them out of normal reality into a world like that of dark, ancient fairy tales. My own favourites were ‘The Black Coat’, a dream-like parable about suicide, and ‘The Father’, which begins:
There once lived a father who couldn’t find his children. He went everywhere, asked everyone – had his little children come running in here? But whenever people responded with the simplest of questions – “What do they look like?” “What are their names?” “Are they boys or girls?” – he didn’t know how to answer. He simply knew that his children were somewhere, and he kept looking. One time, late in the evening, he helped an old lady carry her bags to her apartment. The old lady didn’t invite him in. She didn’t even say thank you. Instead she suddenly told him to take the local train to the Fortieth Kilometer stop.
“What for?” he asked.
“What do you mean, what for?” And the old lady carefully closed the door behind her, bolting it and fastening the chain.
The writing is simple, but the stories tore my heart out. I loved this urgent and wise collection, and am so excited to have encountered Petrushevskaya. Although she is highly acclaimed in Russia very little of her work is available in translation. The traumas of Russian history shape her stories, but they also have the universal appeal of folktale, thanks to their fierce, stark style and depth of feeling in the dark.