Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99, 206pp. £9.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby, By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, trans. Keith Gessen and Anna Summers
Friday 04 February 2011
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, the grande dame of Russian letters, won the 2010 World Fantasy Award for this collection of short stories, subtitled "Scary Fairy Tales". While all the pieces, written over the last three decades, have some elements of mystery, their inherent realism is equally powerful. The strength of these dark modern fables is the author's ability to weave the extraordinary into the everyday without making the former an end in itself.
It is her inexorable realism that Petrushevskaya is famous for –she has been both admired and criticised for holding up a mirror to the reader's face. In the 1970s, Soviet editors refused to publish her fiction, deeming it too pessimistic. Her stories of ordinary lives spent between poky flats and shop queues, wasted on extramarital affairs, family rows and office gossip, were never explicitly political – and all the more subversive for it. Even after Petrushevskaya's books achieved the popularity they deserved, some of her compatriots still could not accept their bleakness. Recognising themselves in her writing, however compassionate, they found it hard not to flinch at its honesty.
Petrushevskaya turns to fantasy with all her usual emotional candour, never completely detaching herself from reality. Mundane episodes often shock more than their surreal counterparts. In "The Fountain House", a man has a nightmare in which he eats a raw human heart to save his daughter's life; on waking up, he finds himself in another circle of hell, a typical Russian hospital. The R family in "Hygiene" is going through a crisis - their city is seized by an epidemic – but the catastrophe does not change their situation dramatically, just brings the end nearer. The heroine of "The Black Coat" tries to commit suicide and glimpses the afterworld with its horrible phantasms. She manages to pull herself back, but instead of a happy ending we witness a gloomy return: a shabby room, an ill grandfather, an unplanned pregnancy, a lover's betrayal.
Magic spells happen in Petrushevskaya's world, but their meaning is never overplayed. Each can be interpreted as a trick used by human imagination, a last resort. Driven to extremity, her characters are ready to surrender to their fate, hoping to be delivered by some miraculous force, only to discover a reason to go on inside or around themselves. This can be their responsibility for a child, an ailing parent, or a cat: the creature may have nine lives, but its owner, the lost soul of "There's Someone in the House", proves more resilient.
Giving her deeply humanist tales an allegorical twist, Petrushevskaya reminds us that reality will have to be faced once our trip to the other side is over. A parable that sets the collection's tone, "The Miracle" tells of a woman on the brink of despair who comes to a drunken visionary for help. About to make a wish, she realises that would be futile. Ditching the opportunity, she goes home relieved, "as though she'd passed the hardest test of her life".
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