Friday, April 8, 2011

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This book lurked on the periphery of my consciousness for a while, I kept seeing it out of the corner of my eye but could never quite catch it to buy (mostly because I couldn’t remember Petrushevskaya’s name or the title of the book neither of which trip off the tongue for me). It was Novel Insights review of Petrushevskaya’s mini modern classics outing that made me really want to read this collection and last month’s trip to London which gave me the chance to pick up a copy whilst all things penguin were on my mind. (Not for sale in Leicester, or at least not anywhere were I looked, and that’s a shame.)

Petrushevskaya is billed as one of Russia’s best living writers (which I’m not qualified to comment on, but on the evidence of this collection she’s certainly very good in translation) and apparently Penguin put this straight into the modern classics range. I’m always on the lookout for something that fits the Angela Carter shaped hole in my life and Petrushevskaya certainly does that – there’s a darkness as well as a stripped back to the bone quality that they both share. I don’t think its coincidence that my favourite section of the book was ‘Fairy tales’ and that within those ‘Marilena’s Secret’ (about a tremendously fat woman who is really two ballerina sisters trapped in a single body) really stood out, it’s definitely the most Carter-esque.

Some of the very Russian allegories and the ‘Songs of the Eastern Slavs’ were probably a bit beyond me, I enjoyed the writing but was essentially unmoved by them. ‘There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby’ (the title story not the whole book) just baffled me although perhaps if I read it enough times something will fall into place – which is one of the great things about shorts; any time I have twenty minutes to spare I can have another go. Mind you I could have been a whole lot more baffled and not have minded a bit thanks to that last section of ‘Fairy tales’ all of which got through to me one way or another – perhaps because they came closer to having conventionally happy endings.

In fact the only fly in the ointment was that this was an obviously American translation which shouldn’t really matter but I found (of all things) the use of the word Mom really annoying, perhaps because it just felt so un European and in this context that seems at odds with the general mood, or perhaps because in my head it always reads like a spelling mistake. It’s also maybe a quirk of reading books in translation – English English translations generally fool me into thinking I’m reading the original authors words, this American English version made me far more aware that I was reading a translators interpretation – or maybe I’m thinking about it far too much.


  1. I tried this one out but couldn't get into it and ended up abandoning it maybe sixty or so pages in! If you're looking for contemporary Russian lit, I loved Medea's Children, a novel by Ludmila Ulitskaya.

    Just out of curiousity, what would you expect in place of 'mom'? Because 'mum' wouldn't be any more Russian, hehe. They use 'mama,' which I guess the translator could have just left in? Or perhaps they should do a British version and an American version, changing words for each? (Just for translations though; I think it's silly when publishers change British-isms for the American readers.)

  2. Eva, The last section of the book was by far the best (for me) and worth having another look at if you didn't make it that far.

    Mama would probably have worked really well. Americanisms don't normaly bother me, though the writers I love (John O'Hara, John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B Hughes...) are all a from a differant era anyway with differant slang so probably sound no more American than they do British these days.

    I don't read a lot in translation, certianly not enough to have properly taken on board that I'm reading something essentially written by two people. With this book I couldn't ignore that because I became really aware of the translators voice, which is probably a good thing but it was occasionally distracting.