Continuing to Die: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

The best story in this collection also happens to be the most representative. “There’s Someone in the House” introduces us to a woman who lives alone with her cat because “everyone has departed.” She decides she is not entirely alone, that there is a poltergeist in her home. This “Creature” has to be defeated. She sets about exorcising it by destroying her apartment. She smashes furniture and plates; she stuffs all her clothes into a potato sack and throws it out the window; she takes a hammer to her beloved TV which she always watched “intently, her face pressed to the screen.” This method of destruction she compares to a military tactic, of meeting your enemy in the middle: “Like when they light a fire to battle another fire in the forest — if they intersect in the right spot, they’ll both go out for lack of oxygen.” It is not an act of vandalism but a means of survival. But the next morning she has a change of heart and abandons her “battle plan,” deciding she will not be terrorised by this spirit in her own home. She surveys her ruined apartment which looks as if it has been ravaged by “a veritable war,” and then tidies up. She has few belongings — no clothes, no functioning television – but really “her apartment has everything.” She tells us that “a person can make do without all sorts of things, so long as she’s still alive,” and Petrushevskaya reinforces her character’s new-found resilience and altered outlook by concluding with the pledge “She’s decided to live.”

The cold, clinical language complements this, with description lean and metaphor virtually nonexistent — such bare-bones prose being perhaps the most apt means to delineate lives bereft of love and tainted by abandonment.

Various components are in place to render this tale pure Petrushevskaya. People and places are nameless, faceless and for the most part featureless. This lends them a universal, everyman-everywhere quality, but also an anonymity which invariably unsettles. Our woman is only later given an identity, almost as an afterthought, becoming “the m-d (mother-daughter),” because she destroys her house in the same way her mother once destroyed the family china. Such characters are often hemmed in, made to operate in tight, cramped spaces — shared Soviet housing, stinking hospitals, dingy underground stations — and we watch them at work like exhibits in a vivarium. Either they can’t venture out or they are too afraid to. “The huge wide-open spaces of the great outdoors” is simply too overwhelming for her tiny, timid, agoraphobic people. Their fears are so irrational that they are consumed by them and would prefer quarantine or self-banishment among the rubble of scant personal effects than the unknown hazards that await them outside. To the extent that an apocalyptic mist pervades each story, a desolation as pungent and unquenchable as death. Our woman’s destroyed flat becomes “a sacred funeral ground,” “the memorial to a terrible earthquake.” Human warmth is a rare commodity because social interaction, such as there is, subsists only between chary strangers. The cold, clinical language complements this, with description lean and metaphor virtually nonexistent — such bare-bones prose being perhaps the most apt means to delineate lives bereft of love and tainted by abandonment.

Lastly, then, there is the suffering. The m-d suffers from loneliness and perhaps madness. (In a sliver of back-story we learn that the m-d was nearly driven insane by her mother “cold-bloodedly” smashing the crockery. It is our job, as reader, to determine whether in adulthood this woman is still mad). The spirit’s motives are unclear to her — “Does the Creature want her total annihilation, or just to drive her into the street?” — but since eviction into the big bad world is another form of death, both fates achieve the same result. Along with her property, the woman throws her cat out to save it from “the Creature’s maw,” fully aware that “the street awaits it, and wild dogs, and hunger.” Cruelty is inflicted chiefly against women, children and animals. Perpetrators escape unpunished. The attendant themes of justice, comeuppance and rehabilitation are not Petrushevskaya’s business. Deciding to live at the very end of the story means her character must be prepared to take the rough with the smooth, and in Petrushevskaya’s world, maybe even our world, each character can expect to be dealt more of the rough.

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