There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from the original Russian by Anna Summers)

ThereOnceLivedAGirl“This is what happened…”  Suddenly, we’re transported into a warm, cramped kitchen. We wrap our hands around a mug of coffee, move our faces over the rim and breath in the steam.  Close your eyes for a moment. Then lean forward with eager anticipation.  That is the kind of intimacy Ludmilla Petrushevskaya conjures with just four words.  “This is what happened.”  Her newest short story collection There Once Was A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories is about what happened to who, where so-and-so ended up, and you will not believe what I heard.  In a way, these are the stories that we tell each other everyday. Only Petrushevskaya’s narrator is telling them to us from the Soviet Moscow.

In reality, life doesn’t stop with a wedding, with a heroic action, or with happy coincidence, as in films, when a certain person misses his boat (Titanic) or, as in this case, when an unmarried woman of thirty-five decades decides to keep the child born of a random tryst with a boy of twenty.

That is where Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in 1938.  Events from her life could easily be confused with the plots of her stories.  Cramped, communal apartments; abandonment; hunger; death; poverty; and the constant, daily struggle to survive with soul intact – these are the dioramas she constructs for us out of her own experiences. 

Polina’s life reached its final, happy phase when her aunt died and left Polina an inheritance.

And (as the title tells us) there’s also love, though mostly of the maternal variety.  Despite (or perhaps because of) Petrushevskaya’s familiarity with the hardships of the men and women – mostly women – who she writes about, the stories aren’t depressing.  Just the opposite.  Like all “good” gossip, they contain both irony and the desire to entertain.  The storytellers are devoid of malice, speaking with the sing-song cadence of a nursery rhyme.  And while not all her characters find happiness, I believe they do achieve their fair portion of fulfillment.

At an age when most girls are sensitive to beauty and look for it everywhere, Clarissa was a primitive, absent-minded creature who stared openmouthed at trivial things, like the teacher wiping off the blackboard, and God knows what thoughts ran through her head.

There Once Was A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself opens with Loving Petrushevskay, an introduction written by the translator Anna Summers.  All stories need to stand on their own merit but having context can rewarding, particularly with this author.  Because many of these stories contain the seed of autobiography.  For a time Petrushevskay and her mother lived under a desk belonging to a madman (who happened to also be her grandfather). Though it’s not central to that story, one of her characters does the same.  That can’t be an isolated occurence.

A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children and then left.  I was that girl.

Ludmilla’s 2009 collection of short stories:  There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (which I have not read) was subtitled “a collection of scary fairytales”.  It made the New York Times bestseller list. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book did the same.  Everything about this second collection is designed to engage and entertain… to draw the reader in and keep him.

Now pay attention.  This is what happened…

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 14 312152 7

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The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller (translated from the original German by Philip Boehm)

It was brought to my attention that this is a rejected cover design, created by the graphic designer Rebecca Seltzer. To see more of her work, please visit http://rebeccaseltzer.com

The Hunger Angel was my introduction to the work of Herta Müller.  First published in 2009, the same year that she received the Nobel Prize, it is (like much of her work) deeply political.  Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1958.   Müller’s novel deals with the time immediately following WWII when, as she explains in the book’s afterward: “In January 1945 the Soviet General Vinogradov presented a demand in Stalin’s name that all Germans living in Romania be mobilized for “rebuilding” the war-damaged Soviet Union.  All men and women in between seventeen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.”

These laborers suffered under conditionals comparable to those of the German concentration camps.  Starvation, deprivation, exhaustion and humiliation were constant states of being.  But it is the starvation on which Müller focuses.  It is an all consuming thing – embodied  by and given shape as the hunger angel of the title.*  The angel is a construct of the novel’s teenage narrator.  It functions alternately as a metaphor and as a powerful visual.

Unloading [coal] was always a job for two or three people.  Not counting the hunger angel, because we weren’t sure whether there was one hunger angel for all of us or if each of us had his own.  The hunger angel approached everyone, without restraint.  He knew that where things can be unloaded, other things can be loaded.  In terms of mechanics, the results can be horrifying:  if each person has his own hunger angel, then every time someone dies, a hunger angel is released.  Eventually there would be nothing but abandoned hunger angels, abandoned heart-shovels, abandoned coal.

If you’ve read Martin Amis’ House of Meetings – a typically merciless novel which tells the story of two brothers imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag – you may find yourself (like me) making the inevitable comparisons.  Amis’ description of camp life is slightly different, or perhaps it is in his focus where the differences lie.  There seems to be less fraternization between male and female prisoners in House of Meetings; the inmates are Russian political prisoners rather than German; and the violence is endemic.  Müller and Amis are in agreement over the lack of food (I found it interesting that both books contain scenes where prisoners scrabble for potato peels) but hunger isn’t the focus in House of Meetings.  It is a prop.  Amis is telling a  story about violence, jealousy and its aftermath – his writing lacks any hint of the feminine.  (I don’t mean this as a criticism, just as a statement of fact).  The Hunger Angel, in contrast, is about survival.  It is instructive where House of Meetings is dramatic. Müller’s prose may appear gentler than Amis’, but it’s just as effective in conveying the brutal toll camp life takes on the individual.  Leo Auberg (the narrator from The Hunger Angel) and Lev (the younger brother of the narrator in House of Meetings) have similar reactions after their release.  Both men are too broken to return to the people they loved in their old lives.

Müller chose to write The Hunger Angel as a series of self-contained anecdotes versus a continuous narrative, exploring every aspect of camp life – the work details, the inmates, the capos, relations between men and women, relations to the Soviets, etc.  It was planned as a joint venture between herself and her friend, the poet Oskar Psatior.  His experiences as a teenager are the basis of the story.  He died before the book came to fruition, but Müller had taken copious notes during their conversations.  A year after his death, still grieving I’m sure, she began writing.  The structure –  written in short chapters that often run tangential to eachother – creates an emotional proximity between the teller and the reader.  Müller has recreated the experience, the intimacy, of listening in to a conversation.  I was emotionally engaged despite the restrained tone in which the stories are told… often becoming outraged, upset and heartbroken by what I was hearing/reading.  It was as if Leo was someone I knew personally.  I responded as if we were friends.

*I thought it would be interesting to point out the significance of titles, both their connection to the text and their influence on the reader.  The Hunger Angel was originally published in English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me (the German title was Atemschaukel). These two titles convey carry and convey completely different meanings.  For example:  the former implies poetry and the latter disassociation.   In my opinion the gap in this case is so large as to possibly change how a reader might perceive/decipher the author’s intent.  Am I alone in finding the differences between the two titles jarring?

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9301 8

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Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated from the Russian by Arch Tait)

The title Daniel Stein, Interpreter is loaded with meaning. The novel’s namesake and hero is a Polish Jew gifted with languages. He survived WWII by acting as an interpreter for the Germans, the Belorussians and Soviets. Each time the city of Emsk changed hands, so did Daniel. At times re-translating the same documents over again for each new occupier. It was through his position that he was able to save the lives of hundreds of men, women & children – both Jews and non-Jews.

After the war Daniel converted to Catholicism and immigrated to Israel as a monk in the Order of Barefoot Carmelites. There he built a sometimes controversial congregation that embraced both the Christian & Jewish faiths. He took on a new role as interpreter – elucidating church doctrine and dogma. He taught that Christianity is an extension of Judaism. He lobbied and eventually sued to gain Israeli citizenship as a Christian Jew.  His teachings, while not entirely unique (we’re told there were rabbis who felt the same), were revolutionary.

People wrote denunciations against him. I had one sad little paper here for a long time which Daniel brought. He was summoned one time by the abbot and given a notice to attend the Office of the Prime Minister. Daniel came and sowed it to us, wondering what it was all about. This was after his court case. All that fuss in the press seemed to have died down. I looked at the paper and the address there was not the Prime Minister’s Office at all but the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet. Something along the lines of your CIA. I told him not to go. He sat there, said nothing, scratching behind his ear. He did that when he was thinking.

“No,” he said. “I shall go. I’ve been dealing with these services the whole of my life. I worked in the police, and I was in the partisans. By the way, I have two medals, one with Lenin on it and one with Stalin. I even worked for the NKVD for a couple of months before I ran away.”

In case there’s any doubt – Daniel Stein, Interpreter is about religion.  As such the text sometimes takes dense, philosophical tangents.  I’m not particularly religious, yet I found the book fascinating.  It might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with either the Jewish or Christian faiths to understand all the nuances of the story being told.  I think other readers will shy away specifically because of the religious subject matter. They shouldn’t. Because it is an interesting, well-written and – though it might seem a contradiction –  accessible.  A story that is also about the difference a single person can make in the world by (forgive the cliché) doing what they believe is right.  In a way, Ulitskaya redeems both these religions by demonstrating in Brother Daniel what they might represent.

___________

Ludmila Ulitskaya is an award-winning (most recently France’s Simone de Beauvoir Prize in 2011) Russian author. She was nominated for the Man Booker International in 2009. She’ll be speaking at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in NYC. Daniel Stein, Interpreter celebrates the life of the real Brother Daniel Stein by piecing together a fictionalized history of letters, recorded interviews, diary entries and transcripts spanning a period from 1960 up to almost the present day.  She numbers and dates them (i.e.-the letters, interviews, etc.) like items in an auction catalog. She even inserts her own correspondence about the writing of the novel in a post-modern twist.

I am not a real writer and this book is not a novel but a collage.  I snip out pieces of my own life and of the lives of other people and glue together “without glue” (pause…) “a living tale from fragments of days.”

Ulitskaya’s prose is consistent and she establishes strong identities for each of her characters. Their voices remain interesting – though at times some of the female characters become a little homogeneous. Regardless, we get to see Brother Daniel’s life through multiple lenses.  As he sees himself – in unvarnished, practical, matter-of-fact terms.  And also a more complicated figure – as viewed by his friends, family, colleagues and the institutions whose lives he touched.  It is a life interpreted for the reader.

The plot and portrait are developed with subtlety, forming a story that has no arc other than what can be found in the life of this man.  Ludmila Ulitskaya accomplishes this – without emphasizing the emotional peaks or valleys.  She minimizes the drama, breaking Brother Daniel down to a series of anecdotes and burying the significant events amongst the trivialities of her characters’ daily lives.  This author chose to leave a good portion of the ‘boring bits’ in the book. The overall effect, once you realize what she is doing, is startling in its breadth and accomplishment.

Publisher:  Overlook Duckworth, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 1 59020 320 0

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