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

These twin faults don’t have to be damaging in a short story. Brevity is no sin, for the best short stories are mere vignettes anyway, containing and pulsing with snatches of life. And as long as the story isn’t a whodunit, the predicted conclusion is tolerated if the writing can stand up — the travelling being more enjoyable than the arriving. But a good portion of these tales are too episodic to have a sustaining impact. We feel it in particular in a story called “The Miracle.” As in her novel, The Time: Night, we have a woman who is tormented by her abusive and ungrateful son. At her wit’s end, she is told to find Uncle Kornil who can give her advice. It turns out he lives in the boiler room of a hospital. She is instructed to take as an offering a bottle of vodka. She discovers quickly he doesn’t live alone there, it being

the gathering spot for all local drunks. It looked like every bum in the neighborhood hung out there.

Two or three loitered near the basement door, either waiting for someone or just passing the time.

Worried they’d steal her vodka, Nadya made for the door like a tank, sweeping the drunks from the way and knocking loudly on the door. It opened just a sliver, then welcomed her fully when Nadya flashed one of her bottles from the bag. The drunks outside tried to get in behind her, and there was some commotion as she entered the basement.

She was immediately relieved of one of the bottles; the person who did so informed Nadya that Uncle Kornil was very ill and mustn’t be allowed to drink under any circumstances.

He pointed her to a corner where a man lay next to an old wardrobe with its doors missing. He looked like he’d just been picked out of the trash. He lay with his arms outstretched. This was Kornil.

No impressions, no smells, no real sights — there is hardly any distinction between this scene and the one Nadya has just left aboveground. What should be a descent into a scabrous and toxic netherworld is nothing more than an unsavoury trip downstairs. Petrushevskaya opts for plain description and forges an atmosphere shorn of menace. The similes are either misjudged (“Nadya made for the door like a tank”) or stale (“He looked like he’d just been picked out of the trash”). (Later, and paradoxically, in a bid to give more life to Kornil, we are told “Kornil lay there like a corpse”). The author’s approach serves a purpose when describing feeling but not a mood or a scene. It reminds us that these are skeletal fairy-tales when placed alongside Carter’s colourful, gutsy abundance; too brittle when weighed against Kafka’s robustness. In a similar vein “The Black Coat” is underwritten. We find ourselves reading Petrushevskaya and longing to shade in the missing detail. The dark building in which the amnesiac girl loses herself further should be more, namely a threatening funhouse where each room is a hall-of-mirrors which distorts images, discomfits characters and disorientates both character and reader. By the same token we yearn to refashion her endings. When the girl’s mother says “Dear God, what a terrible dream I’ve just had,” the wearyingly familiar ground annuls the other shock Petrushevskaya has for us.

Her tales are Kafka-like rather than Kafkaesque, as the latter carries with it an in-built set of tropes and themes. But unlike Kafka, Petrushevskaya tells rather than foretells, choosing to illustrate the quotidian misery of Soviet and post-Soviet life, not what future miseries might be in store. There is grievance and criticism to be found in these stories but no one-man armies railing or flailing ineffectually against tortuous laws, warped justice and amorphous authority. The most Kafka-like stories in this collection deal with the topos of persecution: “The New Robinson Crusoes,” in which a family are on the run in the “forgotten country” to escape an unnamed foe, and “Hygiene,” which has a family barricading themselves indoors to protect against a life-threatening epidemic. Both families are therefore retreating, with outside and inside flip-sides of the same coin. Tellingly, the family in “Hygiene” is the R. family, redolent of The Trial’s Josef K., and later Coetzee’s Michael K — broken, stubby, abbreviated names (like the m-d) for withered, worn-down characters, and their close confinement in their prison-cell home brings to mind the Strafkolonie and Michael K’s holding camps. Once again they are characters we are not fully allowed to get acquainted with. Petrushevskaya holds too much back, sometimes only doling out shadows: In “There’s Someone in the House” the m-d encounters scavengers in the gloom who behave “like shades of men — shy, unnoticeable, dark.” And in ‘The Shadow Life’ we hear that “her mother had been young still and might have fallen into that shadow life, from which so many people never return.” Not only single characters but whole families in her stories drift across the page and perform deeds but who are ultimately unknowable. Families are usually fragmented wholes in Petrushevskaya’s world anyway, with members dispersed, marriages shattered and homes broken. “All those family dramas straight out of Turgenev,” our m-d says when recalling what it was like to have a family, but the cruelty among family members, ranging from bickering to hatred, with scars left festering and feuds unresolved, lies in stark contrast to Turgenev’s essentially redemptive tales, even when they do come at the cost of unfulfilled love.

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