Continuing to Die: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
From the Publisher:
“Vanishings and aparitions, nightmares and twists of fate, mysterious ailments and supernatural interventions haunt these stories by the Russian master Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, heir to the spellbinding tradition of Gogol and Poe. Blending the miraculous with the macabre, and leavened by a mischievous gallows humor, these bewitching tales are like nothing being written in Russia — or anywhere else in the world — today.”
Towards the end of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, there is a prison scene in which a character called Trudel wakes up and admits to herself that her husband, Karli, is dead. It is an assumption that is as good as a premonition, based on her knowledge of Nazi terror, for no critic of the regime can expect to come away unscathed, and reprieves and acquittals simply don’t happen. This imagined horror leads her to contemplate another, real one, that of her miscarried child. In her mind’s eye she can visualise her husband’s shrunken face, and then the face of the unborn child. The faces merge, the horror intensifies, “and she knows that she has lost everything there is to lose in this world,” and “never will she love again, never will she conceive again.” There is a hierarchy to her loss: loving and conceiving are gone, and further down the list, “there will never be sunshine and happiness and summer for her again, or flowers…” The chaplain assures her that Karli’s sufferings are over and that he will pray for him at his grave, only to have Trudel round on him: “What good will your prayers do him? You should have prayed for his life, while there was still time!”
This is a passage of unremitting bleakness and one which negates the brief flurry of positivity encountered several pages earlier where, in a different cell, our hero, Otto Quangel, is told by his fellow inmate that his death will not be in vain, “and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.” Even in a prison in the darkest days of the Third Reich Fallada offers us snatches of light. Dreams go unfulfilled but an evanescent vision is better than nothing. Prayers may go unanswered or come too late, but at least they are offered.
Penguin has recently released another work in translation, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby, a selection of short stories by the Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Reading her tales, however, one would be forgiven for thinking that Petrushevskaya’s view of the world is so despairing that there is little opportunity to enjoy anything. The characters, predominantly women, are lonely and embattled, down to their last. Divorced, widowed or simply abandoned, they pick their way through hardship and calamity, clinging to the debris of failed love affairs and thwarted ambitions. Their daily quest to stay afloat is impeded by misfortune amplified out of proportion: they are saddled with sick or unappreciative offspring; hamstrung by hunger and cold and reneged promises from the State; bowed by private millstones of past guilt and dashed hopes. She eschews Fallada’s subtle calibrations of optimism, preferring a permanence of pain. Suffering being good for the soul is by the bye, she tells us in each tale. What matters is that suffering is the hard, indigestible reality of life and must therefore be depicted in all its unpalatable rawness. Night is infinitely more credible than a false dawn. For her, Fallada’s snatches of light are facile, soft-focus shots, gaudily artificial flares. For us, his light at the end of the tunnel signals the allure, albeit spurious, of a way out; hers, on the other hand, is that of an oncoming train.
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