“There Was Once a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s baby: Scary fairy Tales” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, published by Penguin
It was an impulse purchase. I’m not sure what it was that made me take up to the counter the intriguingly titled There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby (subtitled “Scary Fairy Stories”) by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’m not really the greatest fan, after all, of fantasy literature. However, an admittedly quick browse through some of the pages indicated an intriguing literary personality. And I also felt, I suppose, that the very fact of a small-town bookshop (such as I was browsing in) even stocking, amidst all its endless piles Fifty Shades and wannabe Fifty Shades, a book of translated contemporary Russian literature, deserved to be rewarded. Perhaps its management team won’t be sitting down at the end of the week and deciding on the basis of this single sale to stock more translations of contemporary Russian literature; but the part of me that believes still in Santa Claus hopes it will.
Fantasy, folklore, fairy tales … these are not areas of literature in which I am particularly well-versed. I do have on my shelves the complete fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and of Hans Christian Andersen, but despite my having promised to myself that I must get to grips with them some time, all I have managed in several years is to read some of the better-known titles. Having bought the collection by Petrushevskaya, I thought I’d read first a few of the more unfamiliar titles in the two classic collections to give me some bearings, as it were, in this unfamiliar territory. So I opened at random the Hans Andersen collection, and read the first story I came across – “Big Claus and Little Claus”. I must say I was quite unprepared for what I got. I knew, of course, that fairy stories are not necessarily for children, and that many of them are very nasty and violent indeed, but, for whatever reason, I had associated all the nastiness with the brothers Grimm, and had thought of Andersen as more gentle, perhaps even sentimental and saccharine. Such preconceptions were rudely shattered. The framework of the story is a familiar one: there’s a big bully of a Claus who is outwitted by a small, resourceful Claus – a classic, cheerful tale, in other words, of David getting the better of Goliath. And yet, it’s hard to cheer. For instance, when little Claus’ grandmother dies, our hero, not sure if she really is dead, places her in his own bed hoping the warmth may revive her, while he sleeps in a chair. But Big Claus enters that night with an axe, and strikes at the head of – as he thinks – his little adversary sleeping in his bed. The dead grandmother’s head is split open, and as soon as Little Claus sees what has happened, he devises a cunning plan to make money out of it. This involves propping the mutilated corpse of the old woman in the back seat of a carriage, as if she were still alive, and, after a series of stratagems too intricate to be rehearsed here in full, convincing the local publican that it is he who has killed her, and getting him to pay a large amount of money to hush it up. After more side-splitting escapades of a similar nature, it all ends with Big Claus being tied in a sack and thrown into the river. All, no doubt, to much rejoicing.
I had turned to Andersen and Grimm to get some bearings, but I must confess that after reading something like that, what few bearings I had to begin with were all lost. What does one make of something such as this? Sure, it’s black comedy. But I can’t say I laughed. And neither was I horrified, as the violence is too cartoonish to be taken even remotely seriously. It all seemed to be taking place in some remote world into which I had no point of entry. Well, I decided to leave till later my explorations of the brothers Grimm and of Andersen (“some day…”) and embark on my new purchase.
The stories here are dark. Much darker, I think, than Andersen’s story of the two Clauses, because the world presented is not in any sense cartoonish. They seem to inhabit some vague shadowland between life and death. Sometimes, we seem to travel into Death’s Domain; at other times, Death’s Domain seems to intrude into ours. The fantastic, the grotesque, the suspensions of our earthly laws and logic, may be taken as dreams, or as hallucinations, or as mystical experiences – as you will. Each story seems to explore some inner landscape of minds that are staring into some abyss of terror, or of grief, or of loneliness and isolation. In one story, a father who has lost his beloved daughter has her body smuggled out of the mortuary, and pays a doctor handsomely to bring her again back to life; he falls asleep, or falls into a coma, or has a heart attack: we are not quite sure; and he meets his daughter again, and eats a raw human heart. In another story, a woman is convinced – or perhaps she knows – that there is a supernatural presence in her house, and to thwart this presence, she destroys all she has. In another, a man finds himself in the wintry forest at night, in search of a child, his own child, whom he has never seen. In yet another story, a Russian man possibly dies (once again, we cannot be sure) and finds himself an inmate in a psychiatric hospital in America, with no memory of his past life, but with some vague intimations that his soul had once lived. And so on. Human identity becomes plastic, memory becomes easily detached from the past,all solidities dissolve; and the whole seems saturated with a bleakness, and an inconsolable grief. In a couple of the stories – “Hygiene” and “The New Robinson Crusoes” – we seem to be witnessing the demise of the human race itself. As with the fables of Kafka, or the short fictions of Borges, each story challenges us to interpret, but, at the same time, defies interpretation: as the translators say in their introduction, “the final revelation is always somewhat ambiguous, the screw never turns all the way…”
Not being well read in this type of literature, I cannot say to what extent this is a departure from other writings in this genre. But, speaking as someone who generally dislikes the genre altogether, I found myself, despite my usual inclinations in these matters, captivated. What fascinated me was the very real and powerful emotional intensity with which Petrushevskaya imbues storylines that are obviously unreal: the unreality of the events depicted seems to heighten rather than otherwise the emotional content. Where, in the Andersen story of Little Claus and Big Claus, the events were so unreal that I felt no emotional involvement at all, here the unreality seems an aspect of an overwhelming emotional trauma.
I generally find it difficult to suspend my disbelief over long stretches, and, perhaps, had these stories been longer, they would have failed to hold my interest; but at this length, in this form, each seems perfect of its kind, and haunt the mind.
The translations, by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, sometimes threw me by their American diction, but I suppose American readers are similarly thrown by British-isms in works by British translators. However, once I became used to Russians addressing their mothers as “mom”, or to the use of words such as “gotten” (I have no problem with these things in American fiction, but they do, I admit, make me start somewhat in a Russian context), I found the clear and fluent prose communicated very effectively the unearthly nature of these stories. I do wish, though, that dates had been supplied: Petrushevskaya had been born in 1937, and is still, I believe, writing; so, presumably, these stories could have been written during the darkest era of Soviet Communism, or during Perestroika, or in contemporary or near-contemporary times. A bit more information on dates and publication would certainly have helped me contextualise them. But that gripe apart, there is much to be thankful for. Impulse purchases don’t always reap rewards, but this time, I certainly got lucky.