Friday, January 2, 2015


Sub-heading: "Three novellas about family", and that's precisely what we get from Russia's foremost modern chronicler of the burdensome human condition. These are stories that were suppressed by Soviet and post-Soviet authorities in their time, presumably for being too "real", as they contain zero explicit anti-government samizdat. I loved the other Petrushevskaya collection I read last year, "There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, And He Hanged Himself", and this one's nearly in that league, albeit in overall abbreviated form, making for an exceptionally quick read. It's really just one long short story called "The Time Is Night", along with two short stories - each a haunting overview of a middle-aged Russian woman in a degraded and pitiful state. I certainly mean pitiful as in "have pity", which you will need to find plenty of in exploring the harrowing inner lives of women struggling with familial, state and communal oppression. Yet Petrushevskaya's also a wonderful black humorist, and she limns her litanies of domestic horrors with absurdities that, if they don't make one laugh out loud, at least lessen the crushing existential burden somewhat.

"The Time Is Night" is truly the centerpiece of this one, and is by far the best of the three stories. A 50-year-old would-be poet, Anna, recounts in "writings that were left behind" how she tried to keep life from unraveling while trying to care for her grandchild, whom her daughter Alena had abandoned at her doorstep while being herself abandoned by two husbands. Her son also comes and goes into her life after getting out of prison, all the while pursued by thugs who are looking to administer some serious post-lockup beatdowns for god knows what. Anna moves from soaring, poetic calls to her higher nature to the day-to-day mundane and drab realities of Russian life, with a dying mother, a bare refrigerator and not a whole lot of money. She's an invisible woman - a common complaint of the middle-aged in any society - but even more acute in a society teeming with alcoholic, misogynist men and chronically unemployed children who hate you. 

Petrushevskaya gets her digs into societal absurdities where she can, such as when Anna picks up some journalistic work for an acquaintance: "I urgently covered her back when she needed a piece on the bicentennial of the Minsk Tractor Plant" (a plant, which, suffice to say, had not been in existence for 200 years). Anna, who barely has anything to cling to in life, suffers a series of emotional indignities that culminate with the removal of even the last bits of joy in her fragile life. There's a lot of societal guilt-by-association implied by these tales. It's clear that Petrushevskaya was chafing in a big way, and still is, even after the glorious transition from Communism to Putinism.

The other two stories are good, but are slightly lesser works. The best of the two is "Among Friends", which details the incestuous inner workings of an adopted "family" of sorts, a collection of codependent adults who get together once a week to drink and talk. These apartment gatherings were as close to "civil society" as individuals within the Soviet Union ever came, but when our narrator finds circumstances spinning out of control and that threaten to ruin the life of her son, she engages in an absurd bit of violent self-sacrifice that, through this catalog of emotional horrors, Petrushevskaya almost makes sound banal, normal and wise. I'll never be a lonely and overburdened middle-aged Russian woman, but I think I've got a pretty decent sense of what it might be like to be one via this author's unsettling and highly textured writing.