'There once lived a woman who was so fat, she couldn't fit in a taxi, and when going into the subway she took up the whole width of the escalator.' She was really twin ballerinas who became victims of a magician.
Children's fairy tales? There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour's Baby is a most unusual collection of urban folk tales, dark and creepy with extraordinary plots and here and there a hint of humour. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's stories are published under Penguin's Modern Classics list and she is said to be one of Russia's most acclaimed authors. She has written 15 collections of prose and her novel, The Time: Night was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1992.
Her short story collection pulls you into forests, empty rooms in derelict buildings, hospitals, death, decay and other such dimensions, the stuff that nightmares, or scary paintings, are made of. If you need cheering up, they're not for you. They contain a strong scent of sadness, lost moments, missing children, neglect and distorted images. They trickle off at the end without satisfactory closure, open-ended so that readers can draw their own conclusions. They left me asking 'So what? What was all that about?' The trouble with an open end is that readers can feel cheated and unfulfilled.
What pulled me into them and eventually hooked me in the final section was the author's astonishing imagination, her flair for pacing and strong sense of place; but above all, her originality of plot and diversity of conflict. Like Alice's adventures, they contain one twist and turn after another. There are only so many stories to be told - seven it's said - and though they are re-told in many different ways, so often aspects and incidents seem undeniably familiar; here, we are presented with new and original ideas that aren't.
Themes cover loss, death, homelessness and poverty and loss of identity. They feature grotesques, bundles of clothing, rags, cloaks with hooded faces. Stories are told in a surreal world of unconsciousness, dreams or through near death experiences. As for fairy stories, we don't know what happens to Snow White in her coma but these stories unfold in that twilight state. It was almost a psycho-analytical experience of activity in the author's mind, like troubling dream sequences in need of interpretation.
It was therefore no surprise to learn from the translators' introduction that Petrushevskaya's writing had been banned in Russia. Her stories about Russian women were too dark and direct for Russian taste. Her plays were shut down. It was only with the breakdown of the Soviet Union that she was able to publish her work and become the national literary figure that she is today.
The stories are divided into four sections. To read the story Revenge from the first section: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, follow this link at Penguin Classics: http://www.penguinclassics.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780718192075,00.html