6th Jan 2011
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya until this slim but menacing volume landed on my doormat one icy morning.
An author, playwright, and artist (with a recent but internationally acclaimed singing career and recent one-woman cabaret show to boot) living and working in Moscow, not many of her written works have been translated into English.
In Russia however, she is something of a national treasure. Although banned for many years by the Soviet Union, since then all has been forgiven, and then some.
Her novels The Time: Night and The Number One have both been shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize, and in 2008 her seventieth birthday was a government-sponsored celebration on a national scale.
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby is a rich and macabre collection of eleven short stories. Combining allegorical commentary about life in Soviet Russia with folkloric characters and imagery, these are stories centred around prophecies, poltergeists, underworlds, omens, insanity and amnesia.
Paying tribute to the Russian tradition of oral storytelling, some of the stories feature familiar fairytale figures, such as twin ballerinas cursed by an evil magician and a miniature baby found in a cabbage, living in a hollowed-out bean in a matchbox.
But there is no comfort in the readers’ recognition of these magical characters or circumstances, because the worlds Ludmilla Petrushevskaya recounts are always sinister and skewed.
As translators Keith Gessen and Anna Summers explain in their introduction:
Characters find themselves in a strange place without any memory of the accident that brought them there. A middle-aged Russian man wakes up in a mental hospital in New York. Another character finds himself walking along through the winter woods at night, searching for a child he’s never seen.
The readers’ experience is anxious and uncertain, walking a tightrope between magic realism and tumbling down the rabbit hole into the nightmares, dreams and hallucinations of each story’s central character.
Divided into four sections, Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems and Fairy Tales, for me the stand-out stories were Hygiene, The New Robinson Crusoes, and the anthology’s final story, The Black Coat.
Imagine a cross between The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy by Tim Burton and Angela Carter‘s The Bloody Chamber, then add the disorientating description, surreal events and politicised subtext of Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita and you’re about there.
Hunger, war, poverty, violence, disease and infection are recurring themes in many of these apocalyptic worlds, but always conveyed with bittersweet sympathy, hope, and the suggestion of redemption.
Although some of the stories are far more memorable than others, and the stark simple language has led some readers to suggest that some finer nuances may have been lost in translation, There Once Lived a Woman… remains a fascinating tour through Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s dark and poignant underworlds.
There Once Lived a Woman… is published today by Penguin Modern Classics. You can buy it from Amazon for £6.99.