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

Petrushevskaya assures us that hers are “real fairy tales.” Perhaps by this she means her stories are all based on genuine experiences. “Many people have told me the stories of their lives… Not a single thing in my stories and plays in invented,” she explained to Baird. This information is remarkable when we apply it to the stories in this collection. In the first one, “The Arm,” a man exhumes his wife’s body because she has told him in a dream that it is in her coffin that he will find his missing Party card. However, she warns him that under no circumstances is he to lift the veil from her face. The man disinters the coffin and retrieves his card but can’t resist a peek at his wife’s face. Later he goes back to war, only to discover his unit has been besieged, with everyone dead or wounded. He sits down at a campfire and notices a woman with a scarf round her head. She turns to him and he realises it is his wife. She berates him for lifting his veil and informs him that as a result his arm is going to wither. At the end of the tale he wakes up in hospital, and is told he had been found by his wife’s grave, but lying on his arm in such a way that it may now have to be amputated.

Along with a blurring of sections, then, is a blurring of dream and reality. Petrushevskaya will not proffer hope as generously as Fallada and the glimpses that are on show come in unconscious visions, rendering the hope even hazier and all the more ungraspable.

Later, in “The Fountain House,” we learn that “There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life.” The girl’s father can’t accept her death and uses all the money in the house to pay a doctor to act out the charade of working on the girl with a view to reviving her. The doctor needs the money for an apartment and so plays along. We encounter another dream sequence, this time with the daughter at the summer camp she used to attend. The father offers her a sandwich but notices that between the slices of black bread is a raw human heart. She is hungry and wants to eat it, but he saves her — “if his daughter ate this sandwich, she would die.” He eats the heart instead and is glad, for it means he will die first.

Along with a blurring of sections, then, is a blurring of dream and reality. Petrushevskaya will not proffer hope as generously as Fallada and the glimpses that are on show come in unconscious visions, rendering the hope even hazier and all the more ungraspable. Suffering is thus briefly assuaged, only to be cranked up in the cold light of day when stark reality draughts back in. (Is Gregor Samsa better off in his new, metamorphosed state than earlier, during his “uneasy dreams”?) “‘I want to wake up,’ says the girl in “The Black Coat,” ‘I want to end this horrible nightmare.’” Unfortunately Petrushevskaya’s binary realities are scarcely distinguishable, a frying-pan and a fire being the sole options, with no adjacent greener grass, no lesser evil.

This symbiosis of dreamy somnambulism and wide-awake cognisance has mixed results. “The Fountain House” is wrapped up with a conclusion-cum-caveat: “It was in a dream, though, that it happened, and dreams don’t count.” Petrushevskaya wants the best of both worlds here — the events are ludicrous, but it is fine because they happen to take place in an alternative reality, the dream sequence. But while this line strives to be cunningly knowing, it is in effect jauntily throwaway. In “Incident at Sokolniki” a woman buries what she believes to be a pilot’s abandoned flight-suit, only to be shocked by the fleshed-out reality: “And in her dream her husband came to her and said, ‘Thank you, Lida, for burying me’.” This last line is also intended to shock us but the reverse is true. Petrushevskaya is even thriftier with her prose: characters are mere outlines, situations over with at the end of a sentence. It is brief to the point of being insubstantial, and so we are unable to get any traction on it. As a result it does not generate eeriness, and we are lucky if we are surprised, let alone shocked. But it is the ending which is the real problem: the reader sees what is coming a mile off. Several other stories are marred by the same flaws.

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