There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales
by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Reviewed by Alexandra Schwartz
"Russian literature has been a kind of religion in this country -- a religion based on the moral position of writers, on their suffering," Ludmilla Petrushevskaya once told Sally Laird, her British translator. "All our greatest writers have been sufferers and saints." It was May 1987, and Immortal Love, Petrushevskaya's first collection of short stories, would be published the following year, just in time for her fiftieth birthday. If suffering really could be considered a legitimate qualification for literary greatness, Petrushevskaya had more than earned her due. A year after she was born in 1938, her father abandoned the family, leaving her in Moscow with her mother, the daughter of an eminent linguistics professor. Stalin's Great Purge was under way, and her mother's relatives, old-time Bolshevik intellectuals involved in the revolution, were summarily rounded up for arrest and execution. Though the surviving family members managed to escape during World War II to Kuibyshev, the temporary capital on the Volga River established by the USSR in the face of Germany's advance, they -- like everyone -- starved through the war years. Petrushevskaya was sent away to a children's home, where her ragged compatriots were impressed enough by her particular deprivation to nickname her "the Moscow matchstick."
This brief exile proved to be a blessing. Food and clothes, so hard to come by elsewhere, were in ready supply. Attended to by a group of kindly female teachers, the children could shrug off the twin wartime burdens of fear and adult responsibility. Play, not survival, had once again become the essential business of childhood. (Decades later, Petrushevskaya would recall a performance of a gypsy song and dance that had given her an early taste of the theater, undoubtedly a momentous experience for an author who would initially make her name as a playwright.) But soon her mother and grandfather, who had relocated to Moscow, called on her to join them, forcing her to trade the happiness of a carefree child's world for a claustrophobic domestic arrangement.
Postwar Moscow was flooded with itinerants who had abandoned the ravaged countryside for the city, and housing, chronically in short supply, had reached an unprecedented degree of scarcity. Petrushevskaya's family shared a twelve-square-meter room -- a cubbyhole carved out of the family's subdivided former apartment. Indoors, Petrushevskaya watched her grandfather -- fired from his university position, stripped of his pension, isolated from his students and colleagues -- lurch toward insanity without the dignity afforded by solitude. Outdoors, in the building's yard, she kept to herself, an intelligentsia-bred pariah among working-class children well versed in the lessons of the streets.
Petrushevskaya's adulthood was marked by tragedy: her first husband died at 32 after an illness that had paralyzed him for six years, leaving his widow as the sole provider for their young son. But Petrushevskaya would always remember her Moscow childhood and adolescence as the apogee of misery. The overcrowded apartment, seething with tension between toiling parents and ungrateful children, frustrated spouses and suspicious in-laws, stands at the heart of her unrelenting, often acerbically funny depictions of Soviet life. In The Time: Night, Petrushevskaya's first novel, published in 1992, the poet Anna shuttles with her young grandson between her friends' flats, calculating that the owners of "a nice postwar apartment" will lend her money, barging in on another family just in time to scrounge a meal. Such episodes are not so much personal visits as conscious invasions meant to flout the protocol of a society obsessed with hard-won privacy. Anna's willingness to force her way through others' doors exposes the hostile stinginess of daily life in Moscow, even as her ill-concealed envy renders her ridiculous; it would be difficult to say whether she or her reluctant hosts, who guard their kitchens and bedrooms as greedily as misers, come off as more petty.
If Petrushevskaya's litany of mid-century suffering seems routine -- what, after all, is less remarkable than tales of Russian misfortune -- that's part of the point. Petrushevskaya insisted on locating so much of her work in the "mini-Gulag" of the Stalin-era home rather than on some more specific personal hardship precisely because she recognized that, lonely as she felt in the yard or at the library, another frequent haunt, "there were thousands of children in my position." The housing shortage forced residents living cheek by jowl to retreat into whatever seclusion they could manage to secure, and much of Petrushevskaya's fiction engages in breaking through this barrier to imagine the kind of lives that might have transpired within a hairsbreadth of her own, perhaps heard in fits and snatches through the wall of the adjoining flat. The stories and first-person monologues of Immortal Love are, for the most part, realistic accounts of small lives that gain a degree of dignity by being singled out for recounting: a girl crosses a field in the rain with another woman's fiance and realizes that no further connection between them is possible; a naïve young woman offers her co-workers details of her family life and fails to notice their discomfort at being made privy to so much information. But an eerie existential undercurrent runs through much of the collection, surfacing, for instance, in the tale of a mother who claims that she has had a virgin birth, or that of a woman who doesn't realize her stomach pain is the result of pregnancy until she miscarries.
It is this startling, dark stream that Keith Gessen and Anna Summers have asked us to fathom in their new edition of Petrushevskaya's work. The stories collected in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, many of them translated into English for the first time, cover the familiar domain of domestic conflict and urban despair, but the situations are infused with a strong dose of the supernatural that lends them extreme, often ghastly, consequences.
In "Hygiene," a little girl opens the door to the apartment she shares with her parents and grandparents to find a young man bearing a sinister message:
He said he'd come to warn the family of an immediate danger: There was an epidemic in the town, an illness that killed in three days. People turned red, they swelled up, and then, mostly, they died. The chief symptom was the appearance of blisters, or bumps. There was some hope of surviving if you observed strict personal hygiene, stayed inside the apartment, and made sure there were no mice around -- since mice, as always, were the main carriers of the disease.
The messenger says that he has survived the plague and become immune, and offers to bring the R. family supplies so that they don't expose themselves to infection. After he leaves, they cannot agree on an appropriate response to the threat. The grandfather has refused his help, as have the neighbors, who can be heard laughing at the man through the door; the grandmother thinks of a similar episode in which a stranger came to solicit money for a neighbor's funeral, only to vanish with the alms she had collected. But the father secretly believes the young man's story, though circumstances forbid him from voicing his mind: "These were his wife's parents, not his, and he rarely agreed with them about anything. Nor did they exactly ask his opinion." Over the next few days, it is he who leaves the house to steal -- and eventually kill -- to secure provisions for the family, wiping himself in the hallway with eau-de-cologne upon his nightly return to keep the plague at bay.
The explicit terror of "Hygiene" lies in the prospect of an undiscriminating and unavoidable death, which, when it comes, is gruesome and swift. But its greater, more lasting horror is apparent from the outset in the messenger's stipulation that the R. family remain together inside their apartment. Rather than foster solidarity in the face of disaster, the close quarters exacerbate, to a brutal and grotesque degree, the natural domestic antagonism present in Petrushevskaya's other work; the apartment, silent backdrop to the characters' anxiety, is at once an emblem of the family's distress and a partner to it. When the family quarantines their little girl in her locked room for kissing their mouse-eating cat, telling her to defecate on books and pass her urine out in bottles though she is not yet old enough to wash herself, the home has completed its transition into a prison camp. Petrushevskaya has made good on the promise of her metaphor of the "mini-Gulag." Under the right conditions, it turns out, the figurative lockup has always had the potential to become real. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby
is only the third volume of Petrushevskaya's fiction to be published in English, and the first to arrive since Sally Laird's translation of Immortal Love
appeared in 1995. The general inaccessibility of Petrushevskaya's works in English defies her popularity in her home country but echoes her publishing history there. Though Petrushevskaya began to submit her work to magazines in the 1960s, Soviet political and aesthetic constraints kept her pointed accounts of everyday struggles under communist rule out of the press. "To survive these conditions as a writer you have to have -- I don't know, something out of the ordinary," she told Laird in 1987. That "something," as it later became apparent, was a combination of patience and indomitable persistence. She began to garner attention in the mid-1970s for her plays, and by the time artistic sanctions were relaxed under glasnost, she had gained a following as a mainstay of Moscow's experimental theater. Her first volume of stories was published in 1988; despite her prediction that it would never find the audience her theatrical works had, her fiction has been in print ever since.
The stories that Gessen and Summers have compiled will likely be the first of Petrushevskaya's work that most English-speaking readers encounter, and as such it makes for a compelling if skewed introduction. By combing through her oeuvre for "mystical and fantastical tales," they have assembled a series of works whose striking immediacy is a far cry from Petrushevskaya's more quotidian stories. Her prose is so sparse and succinct that it can seem as if she is rationing her words as prudently as the R. family rations their food; she is like the messenger in "Hygiene," who cannot afford to indulge in any superfluous language that would prevent his message from getting across. "When I started writing properly I stopped trying to imitate and wrote just as simply as I could, without metaphor or simile, in the voice people use to tell their story to another person on the bus -- urgently, hastily, making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off," Petrushevskaya has recollected. "And then you know that the story will get passed on, and that's the beginning of folklore." Set against the extraordinary plots and happenings that characterize this collection, such urgency lends the tales a starkness that rivals the opacity of the magic that drives them. The stories feel elemental and colloquial, their complexity sustained by the simplicity of the telling.
Still, the volume's stress on the supernatural creates a somewhat false impression of Petrushevskaya. The fantastical may be essential to her fictional universe, but by emphasizing it at the expense of the commonplace situations central to her work, Gessen and Summers risk undermining the engagement with quotidian experience that lends power to their selections in the first place. The "scary" of the book's subtitle feels reductively sensationalist, a false advertisement for stories that seek to unsettle and disturb in ways far subtler than such a shopworn word implies. In Russia, Petrushevskaya has published a collection of "Everyday and Magical Fairy Tales," as well as "Real Fairy Tales." The stories in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby
may be linked by their exploration of the uncanny, but, like the best spooky literature, their drama always hinges on actual experience.
In "The Arm," the piece that opens the collection, a colonel who receives word from his wife that she may die before she sees him again rushes home just in time to find that her prediction has come to pass. After he begins his journey back to his base, he discovers that his party card has gone missing, and is directed by his wife in a dream to find it in her coffin, but to avoid lifting the veil from her face. When he fails to restrain himself, the focus of the story becomes the nightmarish world that the colonel enters upon his return trip. But it has been set in motion by the loss of his party card, an event with frightening repercussions that are entirely distinct from the consequences of lifting the veil. Without his card, the colonel is temporarily stripped of his former status and any coherent sense of identity. He has become a no one, transformed into a member of the living dead not by magic but by the patently real strictures of party bureaucracy.
When Petrushevskaya was growing up, Soviet children were taught the slogan "Fairy tale has become reality," illustrated by songs such as "Ever Higher":
We were born that fairy tale might become reality
To conquer the vastness of space
Reason gave us steel wings for arms,
And in the place of a heart they gave us a fiery motor.
As party directives mandated the creation of Socialist Realism, the arts were prodded and warped to promote the notion of the USSR's collective destiny. Yet myths are not quite fairy tales, and the official Soviet conception of the fairy tale was much like a Disney reinvention of a Grimm story, piling on the glitz and excising any hint of unresolved violence or danger. "A fairy tale fulfills the role of a social utopia," Roman Jakobson
declared in an essay to accompany the classic 1945 edition of traditional Russian fairy tales that Aleksandr Afanasyev
had collected during the nineteenth century; but this isn't necessarily the case.
Fairy tales map the territory of the abnormal as it affects individual lives. For all their usual happy endings, they don't resolve the inexplicable with the neat conclusion of a collective myth, and they don't offer a vision of redemption for society as a whole. Reason has no place in a genre that deals with the purely unfathomable, and Petrushevskaya's tales are all the more seditious for accentuating that point. Grisha, the protagonist of "A New Soul," becomes hysterical when his son is conscripted into the army, until he suddenly "wakes up" as a Russian immigrant in the United States. He has been placed in a mental hospital, and upon his release feels despondent until he falls in love and returns to Russia, where he meets his new wife's son, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his own boy. Is the immigrant Grisha a figure in the original Grisha's hallucination, or vice versa? Are we meant to believe that an incredible transformation actually did take place? Petrushevskaya refuses to tell, and ends her story with a shrug rather than a moral: "and no one ever did explain it to either of them."
Jakobson, like many of his fellow Soviet linguists and scholars, looked to fairy and folk tales as genres that could be manipulated to express the ethos of an "epoch when borders between utopia and reality are being effaced," as he wrote in his Afanasyev commentary. In his hope for a society that could transform itself from ugly duckling to swan, he gave little consideration to the possibility that reality, with all its flaws, could one day prove far more desirable than any manufactured utopia. As far as metaphors for the Soviet project go, Jakobson might have considered "The Black Coat," the final story in Gessen and Summers's collection. The story's principal character is "a girl who found herself in an unknown place, on a cold winter night.... The girl didn't remember her name or who she was." The girl doesn't know where she's come from or where she's going, and is motivated to move only to get out of the cold. Alone, terrified, with no sense of her identity or past and seemingly condemned to a phantasmagoric existence in which all of reality's borders have been rubbed out, the girl cries, "I want to wake up.... I want to end this horrible nightmare."
Petrushevskaya's own brand of fairy tale straddles the line between reality and utopia, intermingling the dismal oppressiveness of life in a Moscow apartment with the joy that can be found in a children's home. "I think of myself as a documentary writer," she has said, "collecting documents about people's lives and reworking them." As a collector, she has far more in common with Afanasyev, who followed the example of the Grimms by compiling the homespun tales of the peasantry, than with Jakobson. But inasmuch as she has refashioned stories gleaned from existing lives, Petrushevskaya has managed to amend a central facet of the typical fairy tale: the all-powerful ability of the external agent, whether Cinderella's godmother or the gray wolf of "The Firebird," to determine the hero's or heroine's fate. Even when confronted with acute pressure and unremitting bleakness, Petrushevskaya's protagonists can find ways to shape their destinies when they choose to think -- and act -- on their own. It's as if, as Petrushevskaya writes of one of her heroines, they have passed the hardest test of their lives. Alexandra Schwartz is a former Nation intern.