21 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are grouped into four sections: “A Murky Fate”; “Hallelujah, Family!”; “My Little One”; and “A Happy Ending.” But there is little in them that readers might associate with true love or happy endings. Instead, Petrushevskaya delivers a smoking, cast-iron skillet upside the head: promiscuity, serial mendacity, domestic violence, dangerous liaisons, ineptitude, ignorance, geriatric romance, and cringing fear. Love stories? Seamy debacles. Hookup sagas set in a grim Moscow and environs. Coupling stories fraught with meanness, misery, and egregious misunderstanding. Workaday women sharing sour, collective apartments and tawdry, loveless lives. Young women who flower, suffer abuse, and wither. Collision stories: hapless women, old before their time, thwarted by brutal men. Though the men hardly fare better.

In “A Murky Fate,” an unmarried thirty-something living with her mother engineers a drab tryst with a man who services her with perfunctory courtesy and patronizing affection. But in her sterile office-life world, this confers a blissful memory: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”

“The Fall” offers a dry comedy of manners at a state-run seaside resort where vacationers escaping the rainy north come together only to multiply one another’s misery. A gaudy temptress attracts a mooning pack of suitors before efficiently selecting her tall, confident “Number One.” They find the sex lovelorn travelers yearn for, only to fall prisoner to their coveted exclusion and inevitable teary separation: “Our golden couple has departed. The delicate Carmen and her faithful husband, Number One, are jetting through the frozen air away from each other, back to their children and spouses, back to the cold, and to hard, grim work.”

In “The Goddess Parka” a schoolteacher called A.A. goes to summer in the country, rents a porch on a cabin, and falls sway to old Aunt Alevtina who plays Yentl to his bachelor, setting him up with young Nina, but it’s a hard sell: “Nina didn’t impress A.A. She was heavy, very shy, with large pale eyes. But he did notice her casual, almost indifferent manner when she was examining some old prescriptions of Alevtina’s—the manner of a true expert.” Only Alevtina’s funeral provides the maudlin catalyst the shy couple requires to find one another and fall into what promises to be a mechanically indifferent relationship.

Alcoholism, an exposed nerve throughout the collection, drives the story of Ali-Baba, a scheming addict who hocks her mother’s first edition volumes of Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok for drink and drug money. One of Blok’s own poems speaks perfectly to Ali-Baba’s dead-end existence:

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century—
Nothing will change. There’s no way out.

You’ll die—and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal’s rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.1

-10 October, 1912

It’s a tale of misery masquerading as self-preservation, as Ali-Baba attempts to escape from her so-called “life partner”: “[He] had tossed her over the railing of his balcony for stealing his booze. She hung four floors above the ground, clutching at the railing, until two truck drivers forced their way into the apartment and rescued her.” Ali-Baba’s own weird magic is that of a strange survivor; her Cave of Sesame is state-mandated rehab to which she gravitates, but only on her own sick terms. This involves a tryst with the drunken Victor, who is as crocked as Dostoyevsky’s Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment. When Victor pisses the bed, she ODs on sleeping pills and wakes up in the psychiatric hospital to fresh sheets and three squares a day.

“Two Deities” offers the awkward mismatch between thirty-five-year-old senior editor Genya and Dima, a simple, office courier of twenty. A single drunken encounter—on her mother’s sofa—after an office party, produces a child, and they become reluctant, embarrassed parents: ordinary failures in the public eye, but gods to the child who has, unlike so many, a reliable mother and father.

Sweet, virtuous Oksana in “Like Penélope” (as in Cruz) faces the common, nearly impossible challenge of finding love while trying to eke out some kind of modern life: “Oksana studied forestry in a third-tier college—the only one she could attend for free. Upon graduation she could expect to get a clerical job in a state agency tallying birches and firs on paper. She and her mother shared a two-room apartment in a standard concrete building.” Their drab, nondescript warren of misery is a standard location for these tales:

“In one respect their housing situation stood out: right below them, on the third floor, lived an incredibly noisy family of violent alcoholics. Every night the floor shook with screams, banging, and knocking; the lady of the house regularly interrupted her partying to stumble outside and yell “Murder!” and “Help!” Oksana tiptoed past their ravaged door; outside she dressed in dark clothing and wore her hat low over her face.”

Her mother, Nina, holds a thankless job editing textbooks, but she is a charitable soul. She takes in Klava, an old Ukranian friend hiding from “shakers”—violent loan sharks pursuing her son, Misha. Nina’s charity, vexing to her daughter, eventually brings Oksana face to face with Misha, and the hint of a dangerous, derailing passion.

“Father and Mother” is a short study in Dostoyevskian madness wherein young Tanya longs to escape from her endlessly warring parents; the father a carefree soldier, the mother a negligent harridan with an unwashed brood:

“The squalor of that household was beyond description, because the mother did her housework sloppily, saving her energy for the high point of her day: for eleven at night, which bled into midnight and later, so the children got no sleep and couldn’t get up in the morning for school. The mother went further in her sacred rage, appearing at the officers’ mess with the little one and kicking her husband as he walked out the door, as if to disprove the conventional wisdom that such methods never brought anyone’s husband back (quite the opposite). Leaving behind her children unfed, she’d chase her husband through town, screaming the most horrible things—that, say, she had found bloody rags tucked in a hole in the wall and that Tanya had had a miscarriage by her father.”

This passage eerily echoes the wrenching battles between Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov and Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova:

“Ah!” she cried out in a frenzy, “he has come back! The criminal! the monster! … And where is the money? What’s in your pocket, show me! And your clothes are all different! Where are your clothes? Where is the money! Speak!”

And she fell to searching him. Marmeladov submissively and obediently held up both arms to facilitate the search. Not a farthing was there.

“Where is the money?” she cried—“Mercy on us, can he have drunk it all? There were twelve silver rubles left in the chest!” and in a fury she seized him by the hair and dragged him into the room. Marmeladov seconded her efforts by meekly crawling along on his knees.

“And this is a consolation to me! This does not hurt me, but is a positive con-so-la-tion, ho-nou-red sir,” he called out, shaken to and fro by his hair and even once striking the ground with his forehead. The child asleep on the floor woke up, and began to cry. The boy in the corner losing all control began trembling and screaming and rushed to his sister in violent terror, almost in a fit. The eldest girl was shaking like a leaf.

“He’s drunk it! He’s drunk it all,” the poor woman screamed in despair —“and his clothes are gone! And they are hungry, hungry!”—and wringing her hands she pointed to the children. “Oh, accursed life!”2

The most experimental tale of the bunch—inspiration for the collection’s macabre title—is “Hallelujah, Family!,” a complicated, multi-generational, matriarchal tangle of several daughters born out of wedlock, written as a chain of 45 numbered paragraphs, confusing enough to sometimes require embedded reference numbers:

36. [Victor had] accumulated several notes from Zhanna as well as a number of letters from Alla with pictures of little Nadya, who was a replica of Victor plus dimples and curls. His mother also wrote—that Alla’s life with her mentally ill mother (2–5) was becoming unbearable, that the crazy woman had put washing detergent in Nadya’s cereal and wouldn’t let Nina Petrovna see her own granddaughter.”

All this collective madness finds balance in Petrushevskaya’s superb narration: clever, sardonic and maternal, a terse, almost breezy, delivery with spare, tasteful description, and an economy reminiscent of other masterful meditations on troubled relationships: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Thomas Farber’s Who Wrote the Book of Love? Praise, too, for translator Anna Summers who renders these blunt tragicomedies with crisp phrasing and textured color appropriate to their wretched situations: “The baby was covered with a septic rash—his whole little head felt like a cactus due to the tiny bumps.”

These unsparing, unbearably human stories would kick their way through a Las Vegas wedding chapel like a regiment of angry Spetsnaz, their ethos being that the brutal disappointments of modern life are simply unexceptional; shreds of love and companionship are small triumphs; a squalid affair is better than a spiteful marriage. But a few of these tales, at least, harbor shades of love, tenderness, affection, resolution, and forgiveness, the nitty gritty workaday side of living together that is part and parcel of redemption. I had to read the book twice to zero in on this fact because the first pass, despite Petrushevskaya’s sardonic flair, brought only a wave of depression, an impression of wicked, gleeful anti-love stories with unbelievable twists of suffering no one should have to live through. One especial example is the tale of “Milgrom”:

“Her husband dumped her, literally kicked her out of the house, and took away her child, a little boy. First he took Milgrom out of her Lithuanian village—she was a rare beauty, sixteen years old, but she didn’t speak any Russian, just Yiddish and Polish—and then he divorced her; you could do that then—with total freedom he went and divorced her. And he brought another woman to live with him and told Milgrom to leave. So she left. She was eighteen years old. She nearly went crazy; she spent all her days and nights on the street across from her old window so she could see her child.”

Yet Milgrom—years later an old crone and expert seamstress—is able to bring happiness to a clumsy, unskilled girl who is starting to feel her own beauty for the first time. Milgrom sews her a garment worthy of her young spirit:

“The girl puts on her dress; looks in the mirror; escapes from that sweet-musty smell, out into the street, the sunset; and walks by countless doors and windows, behind each of which, she thinks, live only Milgroms, Milgroms, Milgroms. She walks in her cool new black dress, and she is seized with happiness, filled with joy.”

It’s those rare gems of happiness that illuminate, and sometimes ennoble, these mad stories, the silver linings to their gray, leering cloudscapes.

1 Translation from Russian by Alex Cigale (as published by Offcourse at http://www.albany.edu/offcourse)

2 from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pocket Books, 2004; trans. Constance Garnett).

21 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Brendan Riley on There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, from Penguin.

Brendan has written reviews for Three Percent in the past, and has worked for many years as a teacher, translator, editor, and writer. Brendan’s translations include works by Juan Velasco, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Filloy, and Carlos Fuentes.

Petrushevskaya’s previous collection published in English, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (Penguin Books), came out in 2009 and was on NPR’s/Jessa Crispin’s 2009 best books list. Here’s a bit of Brendan’s review:

This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are grouped into four sections: “A Murky Fate”; “Hallelujah, Family!”; “My Little One”; and “A Happy Ending.” But there is little in them that readers might associate with true love or happy endings. Instead, Petrushevskaya delivers a smoking, cast-iron skillet upside the head: promiscuity, serial mendacity, domestic violence, dangerous liaisons, ineptitude, ignorance, geriatric romance, and cringing fear. Love stories? Seamy debacles. Hookup sagas set in a grim Moscow and environs. Coupling stories fraught with meanness, misery, and egregious misunderstanding. Workaday women sharing sour, collective apartments and tawdry, loveless lives. Young women who flower, suffer abuse, and wither. Collision stories: hapless women, old before their time, thwarted by brutal men. Though the men hardly fare better.

In “A Murky Fate,” an unmarried thirty-something living with her mother engineers a drab tryst with a man who services her with perfunctory courtesy and patronizing affection. But in her sterile office-life world, this confers a blissful memory: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”

“The Fall” offers a dry comedy of manners at a state-run seaside resort where vacationers escaping the rainy north come together only to multiply one another’s misery. A gaudy temptress attracts a mooning pack of suitors before efficiently selecting her tall, confident “Number One.” They find the sex lovelorn travelers yearn for, only to fall prisoner to their coveted exclusion and inevitable teary separation: “Our golden couple has departed. The delicate Carmen and her faithful husband, Number One, are jetting through the frozen air away from each other, back to their children and spouses, back to the cold, and to hard, grim work.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brendan Riley on Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas and published by Grove Press.

This is Yan Lianke’s third book to come out in English translation, the first two being Serve the People! and Dream of Ding Village. (Interestingly, this is his third translator, with Julia Lovell having done Serve the People! and Cindy Carter having translated Ding Village.)

In terms of Brendan Riley, he was born in Dunkirk, New York in the Year of the Fire Horse. He holds degrees in English literature from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. He has worked for many years as a teacher, translator, editor, and writer. An ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, he also holds certificates in translation studies from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His translations include works by Juan Velasco, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Filloy, and Carlos Fuentes.

Here’s the opening of his very positive review:

A rich, beautifully written, consistently surprising satire, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses boasts an elaborate, engrossing plot with disarming twists and compelling characters both challenged and challenging. It leads the reader on a strange pilgrimage—often melancholy but certainly rewarding—through a China by turns traditional, modern, and fantastical.

The novel centers on the history and destiny of Liven, a remote village in northern China populated by invalids. To be a citizen of Liven, one must be disabled in some way great or small. But so sweetly harmonious is the bucolic life there, some even maim themselves to be allowed to take up residency. Liven’s origins lie in a mythical past of heavenly days before the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the convulsions of the twentieth century, including the Communist Revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Despite being a village of cripples, Liven is not a crippled village: symbiotic hard work ensures its people a life of plenty. As the shadow of modern times falls on China, Liven finds itself at odds with the world at large, populated by able-bodied “wholers.” From the first page, its fortunes take an especially strange turn with the onset of some paradoxical weather: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.”

High praise for translator Carlos Rojas’s discovery of the ideal English name for Lianke’s mythical Chinese village. In his concise, enlivening preface Professor Rojas explains that the Chinese verb shouhuo, which he translates as “to liven . . . is composed of two Chinese characters that literally mean ‘to receive life’, but in the novel’s regional dialect are used to refer to enjoyment, pleasure, or even sexual intercourse.” This pitch-perfect target-language key at the heart of Rojas’s translation—an impressive feat of lucid, flowing prose—provides an effective comic touchstone; the novel’s exegesis begins and ends with the village’s axiomatic name. It also raises the possibility for Liven, and its unforgettable story, to assume a permanent place in the popular literary imagination.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A rich, beautifully written, consistently surprising satire, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses boasts an elaborate, engrossing plot with disarming twists and compelling characters both challenged and challenging. It leads the reader on a strange pilgrimage—often melancholy but certainly rewarding—through a China by turns traditional, modern, and fantastical.

The novel centers on the history and destiny of Liven, a remote village in northern China populated by invalids. To be a citizen of Liven, one must be disabled in some way great or small. But so sweetly harmonious is the bucolic life there, some even maim themselves to be allowed to take up residency. Liven’s origins lie in a mythical past of heavenly days before the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the convulsions of the twentieth century, including the Communist Revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Despite being a village of cripples, Liven is not a crippled village: symbiotic hard work ensures its people a life of plenty. As the shadow of modern times falls on China, Liven finds itself at odds with the world at large, populated by able-bodied “wholers.” From the first page, its fortunes take an especially strange turn with the onset of some paradoxical weather: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.”

High praise for translator Carlos Rojas’s discovery of the ideal English name for Lianke’s mythical Chinese village. In his concise, enlivening preface Professor Rojas explains that the Chinese verb shouhuo, which he translates as “to liven . . . is composed of two Chinese characters that literally mean ‘to receive life’, but in the novel’s regional dialect are used to refer to enjoyment, pleasure, or even sexual intercourse.” This pitch-perfect target-language key at the heart of Rojas’s translation—an impressive feat of lucid, flowing prose—provides an effective comic touchstone; the novel’s exegesis begins and ends with the village’s axiomatic name. It also raises the possibility for Liven, and its unforgettable story, to assume a permanent place in the popular literary imagination.

Lenin’s Kisses divides its narrative into three essential areas of focus. The two main protagonists are Grandma Mao Zhi, matriarch of Liven, and County Chief Liu, a government functionary who presides like a minor deity over his district of Shuanghuai. Between them they represent the dangerous, unrelenting tension between traditional ways and modern bureaucracy. Caught within their powerful yin-yang vortex is the wonderful, absurd, and utterly hapless Liven Special Skills Performance Troupe.

A devoted revolutionary who sees her dreams turn to nightmares, Mao Zhi symbolizes the sufferings and endurance of twentieth century China. When communism arrives she discovers that her village is neither recognized by the government nor shown on any map; she petitions that it be allowed to join the world and, after grueling pilgrimages to various seats of government, Liven is welcomed into the new China.

But when Mao Zhi tries to govern Liven through common sense and traditional wisdom, especially when it comes to helping the village endure China’s cataclysmic famine which followed Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward, all of Liven is denounced for counterrevolutionary activity, simply because they sensibly stored up their harvest against impending starvation. Nevertheless, the villagers are accused of greed, and the rest of the country comes calling to appropriate all their grain, tools, and livestock. Ironies abound: to save her people, Mao Zhi, ardent daughter of the revolution, must accept the charges of her accusers in the new Maoist cadres.

As I write this I’m examining a grim black and white photograph from the Cultural Revolution: two suspected counter-revolutionaries are pinioned atop a farm truck packed with loyal Maoists; placards hanging round their necks declare their anti-revolutionary crimes; the truck is surrounded by a teeming crowd, all “struggling against” the offensive criminals. This picture is nearly identical to one of the more harrowing scenes of tribulation which Lianke describes, when Mao Zhi is forced to answer for the crimes of Liven. Summoned to the district capital, Mao Zhi prudently confesses to being a counter-revolutionary, and is spared, while the other “criminal” by her side has his brains blown out. Thus, despite the multiple positive implications of its name, Liven becomes a fallen Shangri-La, and Mao Zhi will spend the rest of her life trying to redeem it and restore its happy past.

Grandma Mao Zhi’s counterpart is County Chief Liu, who concocts an improbable scheme to purchase Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed corpse from a cash-strapped Moscow. His chuckleheaded assumption is that, once installed in a gleaming new mausoleum atop Spirit Mountain, the corpse will attract endless hordes of paying tourists, thus ensuring the district a livening mountain of money, more than it can ever spend.

This feckless communist-cum-capitalist party cog who, despite delusions of grandeur, is doomed to failure, provides the satirical alloy to the sombre tale of Grandma Mao and Liven. When Liu visits Liven during its annual livening festival, some of the disabled villagers honor him with a performance of their many unusual skills. Paraplegic Woman can embroider a butterfly on a poplar leaf with astonishing dexterity. Blind Tonghua can hear a feather land anywhere on the stage. One-Legged Monkey can outrun an able-bodied man and perform an amazing long jump. In their quaint freak show Chief Liu spies his golden goose: a special skills performance troupe to tour China and raise the millions needed to purchase Lenin’s corpse. Granda Mao Zhi bitterly agrees to his mad scheme with an equally quixotic proposal; in exchange for granting the troupe permission to tour China, she secures Chief Liu’s promise to allow Liven to once more withdraw from society in order to rediscover its heavenly days of livening.

The novel’s structure offers only odd numbered chapters which are meant, according to Professor Rojas, to signify Liven’s (and China’s) off-kilter progress through modernity. Most are followed by a variety of endnotes for “Further Reading”: some, with blunt-toothed sarcasm, constitute a simple, obvious gloss, while others go much further field, flowering out into complex, full-fledged chapters.

Liven’s saga is both moving and gut-wrenching as well as mordantly, brutally, bitterly funny; it spares neither its characters nor its readers the multitudinous disasters of human folly. The novel is a veritable Chinese Box of absurd tribulations, each one containing its own Russian matryoshka doll. But the figurine’s faces are painted in outrage, mirroring the reader’s disbelief at Liven’s seemingly endless misfortunes.

Sometimes the plot’s style reads like a modern fable of the kind found in Hesse’s Siddhartha or Flaubert’s Legend of St. Julian Hospitaler with its flat recounting of grief and endurance in the face of impossible suffering. During one particularly grueling episode, the special skills performance troupe finds itself held prisoner inside the splendid new Lenin Mausoleum, built with the profits from its hundreds of high-priced, sold-out shows. Their jailers are none other than the band of “wholer” roadies who’ve shepherded them around China for the past year. Jealous of the cripples’s vast earnings, they hold them ransom against themselves, extracting their every last yuan by selling them food and water at outrageous prices. And when the suffering cripples of Liven have, once again, given their all, the demands only become more outrageous.

Betrayed by every other social arrangement–feudalism, Marxism, communism, Maoism, bureaucracy, capitalism, show business, and the tenuous honor among thieves–Liven finally has nothing but itself, alone among the remote mountains of Balou with the blossoms floating on the spring breeze as in the famous 5th century poem “Peach Blossom Land” by Tao Yuan Ming. For a moment, the message seems to be that compassionate solidarity with our lowest common denominator might be the true path, but in the end Liven is no staging ground for revolution, simply a threshing floor, a harsh oasis, a lonely last resort. Lenin’s Kisses, however, offers an irresistible attraction for readers of powerful, uncompromising satire. So pucker up, buttercup.

....
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