BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Author: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers
2009, Penguin Books
Here’s one thing not to do with these stories. Don’t leave them on your bedside table so you can read one each night before going to sleep. They aren’t the scariest stories you’ll ever read, but they are warped little tales that will send your dreams off in strange directions over barren, unmarked terrain.
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is one of the best-known Russian authors writing today, and this collection offers English-speaking readers an introduction to the supernatural side of her work. These stories range from classic ghost stories to apocalyptic allegories, with a few lighter touches in between. They all bring the straightforward manner of a fairy tale to a contemporary Russian landscape, where there are asylums and hospitals instead of dungeons, and where destiny can take the form of true love or mandatory government service.
The title of the collection is a spin on the first line of one of its shorter pieces, called “Revenge”: “There once lived a woman who hated her neighbor–a single mother with a child.” There’s nothing subtle or understated about Raya’s seemingly inexplicable hatred. She dumps a box of needles on the floor in the hall and tries to spill bleach under Zina’s door where the baby is learning to crawl. Her apparent insanity and her callous murder attempts might make her an obvious villain, but as the story twists and twists again, Raya becomes the center of a five-page story overflowing with moral questions without being overly moralizing.
“Twist” here should not be read in the conventional sense of a plot twist or a surprise, though this collection certainly contains surprises. In Petrushevskaya’s hands, “twist” should be read to mean “tightening,” like putting one more twist in a rope, or cranking the wrack one more notch. The turns her stories take do little to relieve tension or resolve mystery; rather they keep each one taught beyond its final moments.
In “Revenge,” we learn that Raya and Zina used to be friends:
Two unmarried women living in a communal apartment, they had a lot in common. They even shared friends who came by, and on their birthdays they gave each other gifts. They told each other everything. But then Zina became pregnant, and Raya found herself consumed with hatred.
While this early revelation may come as a surprise, it doesn’t explain Raya’s rage or its extremes. Instead, it raises the stakes. Raya is not only hateful; she’s jealous and rejected, seeking to harm someone she once loved, and who still looks on her as “practically an older sister, who would never abandon her in a time of need.” In the end, “Revenge” is not only a story about hatred , but about envy, dependence, obligation, and resentment.
In another story, a father tries to save his dying child by performing a gruesome act in a bizarre dream and in another, a girl wakes from dream to find herself in a foreign place “dressed in a strange black overcoat.” In each case, the easy plot twist might be showing that what was thought real was dream or vice versa. Here though, the resulting story is always something else, a hybrid of dreamlike reality and nightmarish fantasy, a challenge to the division between concrete and imaginary realms.
It’s Petrushevskaya’s ability to twist her stories in just this way that gives them their amazing compression. The whole book weighs in at just over two hundred pages, and most of the stories are less than ten, each one packed with mistakes and regret and long-awaited moments of redemption. If this technique carries over into her other, reportedly realist, fiction, then I’d expect to start seeing more translations in English very soon.
Similar reads: The Time: Night (Ludmilla Petrushevskaya), A House of Pomegranates (Oscar Wilde), The Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schulz)