Survivalist Fairy Tales

Keith Gessen translates a bold Russian storyteller.

Keith Gessen, co-founder of n+1 and author of the novel All the Sad Young Literary Men, is brainy. His magazine gauges “the intellectual situation” in every issue, and his sad young men think—especially about themselves—far too much, incessantly brooding over their identities, careers, sex lives, and Google mentions. All of which makes his latest project surprising. With help from Slavic scholar Anna Summers, he’s translated a selection of stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, a virtual unknown here in the United States but a big deal in her native Russia, where she’s the doyenne of the post-Soviet literary scene. Translation, granted, is a cerebral endeavor, but the evidence from There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is that Petrushevskaya is far more interested in brutish coping than in brains, or brooding, or “the intellectual situation.”

Most of the tales in this collection—written between the late 1970s and the last decade—contain supernatural elements: A magician turns two skinny ballerinas into one supremely fat circus performer in “Marilena’s Secret.” In “The Cabbage-patch Mother” a woman frets over her tiny daughter, Droplet, who sleeps in a hollowed-out bean. In “The Fountain House” a father brings his dead daughter back to life with a blood transfusion. But it’s one of the few stories entirely devoid of magic, “The New Robinson Crusoes,” that most clearly distills the Petrushevskayan ethos.

Originally published in the Moscow magazine Novy Mir alongside extracts from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, “The New Robinson Crusoes” concerns a family on the run. From what, exactly, is never explicit, but the subtitle “A Chronicle of the End of the Twentieth Century,” a fleeting mention of “Party headquarters,” and a rough location “somewhere beyond the Mur River” are enough to convey upheaval—of the social-political variety. The teenage narrator and her * parents pile “a load of canned food into a truck” and take off for “the far-off and forgotten country,” where they learn to work with their hands. They plant potatoes, make soup from weeds, and do their best to survive harsh winters.

Toward the start of this relocation, the narrator jokes that of her three new neighbors, there is only one “human being,” since Tanya is a convicted criminal and Marfutka has “reverted to semi-savagery.” But by this standard, her own family members aren’t quite human, either. They are “far from the world” and rarely even turn on the radio; they spend their time trying to satisfy the most basic of animal desires: hunger. Nor do they think—at least not in the sad-young-men sense of ponderous reflection. Indeed, the closest approximation to thought is fear-inspired planning, as when the narrator describes their escape from the city as “outsmart[ing] everyone.” The family proves its “smarts” once again by constructing a backup retreat even deeper in the woods—which comes in handy when refugees invade the village. To be smart is to anticipate trouble and hide. It depends on a knack for becoming primitive; for de-evolving and making do with ever-lower standards of living: from the city, to a cabin in a village, to a hut in the forest.

Many of Petrushevskaya’s stories fit roughly into a category of literature that Franco-Bulgarian structuralist Tzvetan Todorov calls the Fantastic—simply put: texts that cause the reader to hesitate between natural and supernatural explanations for the events described (like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw). Is there a menacing, ghostly presence wrecking the old woman’s apartment in “There’s Someone in the House,” or has she gone mad? Does Uncle Kornil in “The Miracle” have the power to grant wishes, or is he a grandiose alcoholic? But the characters experiencing these events don’t share the reader’s chin-scratching impulse. Like the castaways in “The New Robinson Crusoes,” they’re too busy trying to navigate through bizarre—and often brutal—situations to ponder the big question: Is this really happening, and why?

For the most part, the fact that Petrushevskaya’s characters live in survival mode rather than think mode is value-neutral—not good or bad, per se, just the way things are. One story, however, suggests that people are actually better-off when they focus on necessities. The protagonist of “There’s Someone in the House” has extra time on her hands; not as much as Gessen’s characters, say, but she can idly watch “television until she falls asleep. She watches intently, her face pressed to the screen. She immerses herself in its bluish rays, floats off to foreign worlds, becomes frightened, intrigued, heartbroken—in short, she lives.” She lives alone but detects a ghostly visitor who’s bent on destroying all her stuff. After it breaks the shelf that holds her record collection, she decides to fight it by taking the initiative: Instead of waiting passively for the creature to do its dirty work, she smashes things up herself, starting with the plates and cups.

Her last move before abandoning the ruined apartment is to nudge her cat into the stairwell. She expects it to spring into the street but, instead, it freezes up and prepares to die. The cat isn’t ready to start a new life. At this point the protagonist snaps out of her folly: “[A]s often happens when one member of a family is momentarily indecisive, afraid, or hysterical, the other takes heart.” Suddenly faced with a life-or-death situation, she forgets why she was so troubled, tidies up, coaxes the cat into eating dinner, and realizes that most of what she destroyed was superfluous, anyway: “[A] person can make do without all sorts of things, so long as she’s still alive.” She also acknowledges that the ghostly visitation to which she took offense was really just life itself: "[I]n all these apartments above, below, and to the sides, people are living, living people, and some of them are moving, something is breaking or being fixed, something is falling or cooking. ‘That’s life!’ says the woman loudly.”

Although Petrushevskaya has generally avoided explicitly political themes, her work was banned in the Soviet era. Gessen and Summers suggest in their introduction that it was too dark and forbidding to gain official approval. There is, it’s true, plenty of despair here. And what happiness the characters do achieve is never of the ebullient variety. But for the reader, anyway, there’s also great satisfaction in watching the characters get by—escape or “outsmart” whatever’s after them, or just throw everything away and think, “That’s life.”

Correction, Oct. 12, 2009: This article originally referred to the narrator of “The New Robinson Crusoes” as a teenage boy. She’s actually a teenage girl. The English translation actually never specifies the narrator’s sex. But in Russian verbs are gendered, making it clear that the speaker is female. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)