BY ANDREW HERTZBERG
The difficult thing to remember while reading There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself is that the subtitle is Love Stories. The collection of 17 short stories, recently translated from Russian and culled from 30 years of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s career, feature desperate characters in cramped spaces with unfulfilled hopes and dreams. As the absurdly specific and morbid title (and ironically titled stories such as “A Happy Ending”) suggests, this is not a book to brighten your day.
While “The Fall” specifically mentions an enamored couple’s “doomed love,” nearly every love in these 17 short stories is doomed. In “A Murky Fate,” one of the shortest stories, we learn of a woman who takes on a lover who is married, who is selfish, lazy, bald, and generally disgusting. It is an unrequited love but her take away is a contradictory feeling: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.” As a reader, we feel empathy for a woman who can only find happiness through such a vile outlet, disappointment that she settles for it, and anger that opportunity for better has never presented itself in her life. Similarly, in “Father and Mother,” the main character comes from a family that “dysfunctional” doesn’t begin to define, yet “all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” Or the woman conceiving a child the same night her only remaining family member died in “Two Deities.” With so many of these tragic tales strewn together, the reader feels empathy dissolving into pity and eventually disgust for these calamitous creatures.
In “Eros’s Way” are Pulcheria, Olga, and Camilla, three characters at a seemingly dead-end job. But one these characters isn’t worth exploring: “She had other plans, dreams to pursue, so let’s not worry about this Camilla – she didn’t come to the institute from the street, either; she, too, had relatives in the right places.” Postmodern cleverness aside, such focus on the out-and-out losers, as opposed to people who are down on their luck, speaks to a larger shortcoming in the book, which sacrifices character development (and narrative tension) for the sake of brevity.
There isn’t much dialogue in her stories, perhaps the result of the author having been censored. Odd that she was so censored, as her stories don’t go as over the top absurd as they could in a critique of the Russian government. Petrushevskaya’s been compared to Samuel Beckett and Stephen King, but her stories seem to lack this aforementioned absurdity of the former, as well as the suspense the latter is known for. What her stories do offer though is hope in a society where fate is determined from birth, from these doomed loves, from this poverty, lives of “shame and tears,” rampant alcoholism, persistent infidelities and acts of spousal abuse. Curiously, it is these awful things that invariably give these characters purpose. In “The Goddess Parka,” the main character is pressured into becoming involved with a woman he’s not attracted to. But when she skips town, he realizes that “there was no one to resist and his life lost meaning.”
This is not to say that blackness permeates every line of every story. In “Young Berries,” the most heartbreaking story of the collection, a young girl explains a writing composition about autumn, painting a literary picture of “azure skies upon turquoise dusk, bronze upon gold, and crystals upon corals,” dismantling Russia’s stereotypically bleak image as a vast, empty wasteland, devoid of life or beauty, outside of the famous cathedrals of Moscow. But if such a vibrant, vivid, and vital landscape offers the girl a glimpse of hope, it is only a brief respite from her sealed and doomed fate. Yet it is exactly these small glimpses into these characters lives, filled with tragedy and misfortune, that Petrushevskaya wants to show us, and that the definitions of “doomed” or “happiness” aren’t set in stone: a story that begins with someone hanging himself can turn into a love story.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer. In 2013, he’s on a mission to expand his literary comfort zone. His recent reviews explore life in rising Asia and the perspective of women cast in the shadows of their famous husbands.