Saturday, 11 January 2014


Ok, the next collection of short stories could not be a bigger contrast to the elegant, muted fictions of Deborah Levy. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a doorway into an off kilter, parallel world where the worst regularly happens, but where miracles can occur. Reading it felt like having my brain doused in caustic soda.

Petrushevskaya is well known in Russia – practically an institution – but still virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. Her fiction was banned until the USSR fell apart in the late 1980s – only then were her short stories and novel published. These tales – mythical fables and fairy tales – pack a mighty punch. The one that has stayed with me longest is 'Hygiene', a tale of an imagined plague.
Petrushevskaya is particularly good at first sentences: “There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life.” (from 'The Fountain House') “There once lived a woman whose son hanged himself.” ('The Miracle') Bang, straight into the heart of a conflict. Here by contrast is the start of 'Hygiene': “One time the doorbell rang at the doorbell of the R family, and the little girl ran to answer it.” This most innocuous of first sentences lulls the reader into expecting a cosy domestic setting; an expectation that will be met yet distorted in the most appalling way.

The person at the door warns of a spreading plague, advises on body bags and offers to forage for food because he has immunity to the dreadful disease. The family turn him away, and from there, life deteriorates fast. The father of the family goes out each night to procure food, spraying himself with cologne on his return, and burning his clothes. No one else leaves the apartment. But one by one the family become infected and are nailed up in their rooms. Only the family cat seems to be alive, and we assume it has survived by eating the corpse of its former owner. I’m not going to give too much away – just read it -  but suffice to say this is a tale with a proper beginning, middle and end. (And if you like stories about people being entombed alive, once you read this, try Poe’s 'The Cask of Amontillado' )
Horror in literature is surely most chilling when it’s closest to the reality of our own experience. This story seems entirely real and imaginable in its domestic detail of an overcrowded apartment simmering with family conflict. It calls to mind too some of the horrors that people in Russia and the former USSR have experienced over the last century. The siege of Leningrad. Stalinist purges. Starvation. Appalling things experienced by Petrushevskaya herself (see this article by Alexandra Schwarz [@Alex_Lily] ) Perhaps writing about real horror can only be done obliquely, using the realms of fantasy, or fairy tale to explore what is too awful to write about directly.

What redeems this story - and this collection - for me is that even in the midst of utter horror, it contains a twist of hope, threaded into it like a message in a stick of rock – only visible at the very end.
Thanks Yelena Furman and Dawna Kemper who recommended Petrushevskaya, and Benjamin Wessel who reminded me about Poe.

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