Ludmilla Petrushevskaya doesn’t have your typical artist’s temperament or habits. She wears huge black hats and performs cabaret songs at Moscow night clubs. Her paintings hang in Russia’s major museums. She writes animated films. Did I mention that she is 73?
Still, she became one of the most famous and influential and critically-acclaimed Russian writers in the world. Her collection of short stories, There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales has recently been skillfully translated into English by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers and won the World Fantasy Award in 2010 for Best Collection. Here’s a bit about one of the best contemporary writers in Russia and her new English collection.
For a long time, Russians were afraid of Petrushevskaya’s writing. It was too dark for them and many of her themes showed men and women who were without hope. Her plays were more popular with the people, but were often shut down by Russian authority.
After the Soviet Union began to collapse, writers like Petrushevskaya whose work had never been allowed to be printed were circulated throughout the country. When her first collection Immortal Love was published, when Petrushevskaya was 49, she became widely read throughout Russia. However, some Russians still don’t like her--she is too despairing; she doesn’t live the proper lifestyle of a writer.
The controversy surrounding Petrushevskaya is not too surprising, judging from her collection in English. The collection centers around one of Petrushevskaya’s prominent aesthetics or themes--the idea of the nekyia. The term nekyia first appeared in Homer’s Odyssey during which Odysseus drinks human blood so he can talk to the dead. It literally means a night journey or a talk with the dead.
There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is divided into four sections. The first is called the Songs of the Eastern Slavs and features stories where ghosts interfere in the lives of the living. An especially haunting story called “A Mother’s Farewell” examines paternity after the child’s family is all dead.
The next section is titled Allegories and features four stories with less obvious commonalities than the last. The first story titled “Hygiene” is about the response to a family and a town during a quick-killing epidemic. The next story is a rather beautiful one called “A New Soul” about twin souls finding each other in more than one bodily incarnation. The last story in the section is one of the strongest in the collection. It's a story called “The Miracle” about a mother’s choice about what to do about her rebellious son.
The third section is titled Requiems and features stories about dream instructions and the coming-togethers of real and imagined lives. The final section of the book is probably the most expected from the book’s title. Petrushevskaya proves to be a deft writer in the magical realism vein, with stories about a father who creates a family out of thin air and a woman who finds a tiny girl on a cabbage leaf.