Sunday Book Review 

Disturbing the Comfortable


Published: November 20, 2009

What can you remember from "The Brothers Karamazov"? Perhaps you recall the rampages of the drunken, leering father; the outraged pride of Katerina Ivanovna; the reeking wake of the saintly Father Zosima; or (the grad student's choice) the speech of the Grand Inquisitor. The mind's retention of plotlines, even those from the pillars of the literary canon, is often selective and uncertain. But here's a different question: What can't you forget? One paragraph has haunted English readers ever since Constance Garnett translated the novel from the Russian in 1912. Grushenka, a passionate "fallen woman," tells the tale of a wicked peasant who dies and is dragged by devils into a lake of fire. The peasant's guardian angel tries to save her by telling God of the single good deed the woman performed in her lifetime: she once pulled an onion from her garden and gave it to a beggar. "Take that onion then," God replies, "hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold." If the onion doesn't break, God continues, "let her come to Paradise." But as the angel draws the peasant out, other sinners cling to her, seeking their own rescue, and she selfishly kicks them away. The onion breaks, and down she sinks. Dostoyevsky didn't invent this anecdote; a peasant told it to him. Lessons like this sometimes seem to emerge whole from the Russian soil, but not every writer has the instincts to grab on and hold tight when they surface. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya does.

Every one of the 19 stories in Petrushev­skaya's "There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby" presents an arresting parable of this kind. Timeless and troubling, these "scary fairy tales" grapple with accidents of fate and weaknesses of human nature that exact a heavy penance. While each story seizes the imagination in its own manner, one called "Revenge" features a woman who could be the double of Grushenka's spiteful peasant. Jealous of her neighbor in a communal apartment — an unmarried woman, like herself, whose pregnancy has disrupted their friendship — she booby-­traps their common space with boxes of needles and buckets of bleach and boiling water, hoping an accident will befall the unsuspecting mother's young child. Will the woman succeed in her cruel plan — and, if so, will she be punished? How can justice be served on an unprovable crime? Petrushevskaya has both the answer and the judgment.

Short, highly concentrated, inventive and disturbing, her tales inhabit a border­line between this world and the next, a place where vengeance and grace may be achieved only in dreams. The editor and critic Keith Gessen (author of the novel "All the Sad Young Literary Men") and Anna Summers, a Boston-based scholar of Slavic literature, chose and translated these selections, winnowing them from the large harvest of Petrushevskaya's works and hand-picking stories with mystical resonance or echoes in fable and fairy tale. In their introduction, they explain that the origins of this genre reach back to Homer, to the ritual that classicists call nekyia, communion with the dead. But there's no need to consult the "Odyssey" to understand the author's method — M. Night Shyamalan's film "The Sixth Sense" will also summon the appropriate shiver. In one of her collections, Gessen and Summers write, "Petrushevskaya invented a name for this secondary reality: ‘Orchards of Unusual Possibilities.' " They are orchards you would not want to visit by night.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in Moscow in 1938, at the height of the Stalinist terror, at a time when the Soviet Union was on the brink of war. For decades, censors shunned her fiction because of its impolitic bleakness, and she survived by working as an editor and translator, writing plays and television and radio scripts (when she could), and selling the occasional newspaper article. But with the rise of perestroika and the fall of Communism, she has been rehabilitated, and today is hailed as one of Russia's best living writers.

This slim volume shows why. Again and again, in surprisingly few words, her witchy magic foments an unsettling brew of conscience and consequences. In one story, "The Black Coat," a girl hitches a ride on a cold night, disembarks at a desolate housing project and meets a strange woman who teaches her how to strike matches that may take her out of a nightmarish life — a life she may already have left. In "Hygiene," a repugnant man with a bald scalp "covered with the thinnest layer of pink skin, like the foam atop boiling milk," suddenly knocks on a family's door, bringing news of a deadly plague. A vacationer in "The God Poseidon" runs into a hapless acquaintance in a seaside town and discovers that this friend, "who'd never even had decent underwear," has married and moved into a magnificent mansion. Returning to Moscow, she learns the encounter couldn't have happened. Why? Read and find out.

Petrushevskaya's stories are condensed, incantatory; to describe them in too much detail would rob them of their power. Far better to absorb them unmediated. But one story, "Incident at Sokolniki," is so very short — two pages — that perhaps the sin of exposition can be forgiven. Here Petrushevskaya draws her characters with deliberate bluntness: "Early in the war in Moscow there lived a woman named Lida. Her husband was a pilot, and she didn't love him very much, but they got along well enough." When the husband's plane is shot down, the widow attends his funeral. But two months later, a "strange young man, very malnourished and pale," begins following her. "Don't you recognize me?" he asks. "I'm your husband." Accepting his return without emotion, Lida accompanies him to the forest in which his plane crashed, where he wants her to bury the flight suit he'd left behind in a pit. After hours of shoveling, she realizes her husband has vanished. Back home, exhausted, she falls asleep. "In her dream her husband came to her and said, ‘Thank you, Lida, for burying me". With this visitation, Petrushevskaya conjures a stark and unbreakable bond, all the more powerful in its lack of false tenderness. A husband returns from the grave not to rekindle love or remembrance but to get his ungrieving widow to grant him a decent burial. Duty, not love, is the marriage vow she must keep.

The stories in this exquisite collection — vital, eerie and freighted with the moral messages that attend all cautionary tales — reflect only one of Petrushevskaya's many modes of expression. Readers who would like to experience others can turn to another story collection, "Immortal Love," and her short novel "The Time: Night," which were both translated into English in the 1990s. In those books, writing expansively, even garrulously, she conveyed the rough texture of life (mostly for women) in Soviet and post-Soviet society, showing the world she observed and overheard in all its unairbrushed detail — the poverty, the alcoholism, the illnesses, the cramped living conditions, the disappointed parents and worthless children, the unreliable suitors and resigned women. Russians long ago put a name to this sort of grim, neorealist writing, which has flourished since glasnost put an end to the enforced optimism of the Soviet period. They call it chernukha — from the word cherny, which means "black" — suggesting a pessimistic sensibility.

Lately, chernukha has fallen out of vogue with Russians who seek escape from reality in their reading. But Gessen and Summers have chosen shrewdly. In these beautifully translated pages, they deliver savory tastes of Petrushevskaya's dark perspective, but in portions so small and distinct that the chernukha seasons rather than overwhelms them. We are left hungry for more.

Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.



Book Release: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby

Tales from celebrated author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

By Ben Dickinson

Give the author credit for the most attention-grabbing title of the year. As evidenced above, Petrushevskaya, one of Russia's best-known living writers, likes her fiction grim with a side of macabre. In these 19 tales, the supernatural mingles with the ordinary for reasons the 71-year-old author doesn't bother to explain. Simply put, these stories are incredibly weird. But they linger in the mind as unsolvable puzzles: mysterious and undeniably seductive.

In several narratives, a dead person comes back to life to haunt or console a loved one. In the title story, a woman plots the death of her friend's daughter — she's jealous of the child — and suffers a wicked retaliation. In "The Miracle," a mother finds her son "lying on the floor next to an overturned stool underneath a length of thin synthetic rope." And "The Fountain House" tells the story of a girl who is killed and then resurrected when her father eats a raw human heart. Petrushev-skaya boldly taps into the dark side of human nature. At times, she ventures into the afterlife, as in "A New Soul", where she writes, "It's the former life that's always dearest to us. That's the life colored by sadness, by love — that's where we left everything connected to what we call our feelings."

While it's best to think of these tales as bizarre dreamscapes, Petrushevskaya often leaves you wondering whether the ex-periences of her troubled characters are real or imagined, trans-forming what at first appears to be a harsh point of view into winking black comedy.

Although there's a structural sameness to these stories — a dark beginning, followed by an inevitably shocking and surreal twist at the end — Petrushevskaya is awfully good at those twists. Her suspenseful writing calls to mind the creepiness of Poe and the psychological acuity (and sly irony) of Chekhov. And when she goes full-on gruesome, as in "Hygiene"— about a rat-carried epidemic — well, Stephen King should watch his back. — Carmela Ciuraru.



There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby (Penguin Books), by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, gave me nightmares. This celebrated Russian author (now 71) is so disquieting that long after Solzhenitsyn had been published in the Soviet Union, her fiction was banned — even though nothing about it screams "political" or "dissident" or anything else. It just screams.

These stories work the boundary states of consciousness — between sleep and waking, hallucination and realization, life and death — like a tongue works an aching tooth. You never know where you are or where you're going, because the ground beneath the narratives is constantly shifting. You know only that the world you are in is as bleak as Beckett, as astringent as witch hazel, as poetic as your finest private passing moments.

If there's any justice, this humble paperback will be greeted as the pinnacle of modern literature that it is — but as Petrushevskaya would be the first to say, to hope for justice is to invite mockery. Better to just keep your head down and write... like this.