Having got into a groove with some stories translated from the Russian for #WITMonth, I was a bit tempted to continue in that vein. I’ve had a major reshuffle of the Russian shelves, incorporating all the piles of books lying around the house so they were all in one place (and making careful note of unread titles whilst doing so!) And in the middle of this, I decided that instead of popping “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated by Anna Summers) onto the shelf with her fictions, now would be a good time to start reading her!

Petrushevskaya is probably best known for her collections of short stories, with provocative titles like “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”; and her reputation has continued to grow in recent years. “Metropol…” however is a memoir; and the subtitle ‘Growing up in Communist Russia’ gives a hint of what can be expected. Although short, this is no light read…

Petrushevksaya was born in Moscow in 1938, in the titular Metropol Hotel, and lived there until 1941. At that point her father, a Bolshevik intellectual, was named as an enemy of the state. Petrushevskaya and her mother fled to Kuibyshev and from then on her childhood was one of suffering and constant change. As un-persons, Ludmilla and her mother lived on the poverty line, and the young girl was shuffled between relatives and homes, scrabbling to survive. Becoming feral, she often survived by scavenging and begging, and later attempts to teach her or ‘civilise’ her met mostly with failure – Petrushevskaya was a real wild child.

That feeling of coziness, of home, when a match strikes and a tiny circle of light appears, always returned when I had to settle in a new place. Never have I been frightened by circumstances. A little warmth, a little bread, my little ones with me, and life begins, happiness begins.

The book follows her life and travels until she finally grows up enough to become educated and get a break on Soviet radio. However, there are times during the story where it’s touch and go if she’ll make it. Yet, despite this grim subject matter, Petrushevksaya tells her story with a light touch, and it’s never less than readable. Told mainly in calm tones and often through a child’s eye, Ludmilla somehow travels through life avoiding the really bad stuff and makes it to adulthood – a true survivor.

As I said, this is grim stuff in places; and at times, when there are particularly threatening events (she finds herself potential prey of boys and men), Petrushevskaya switches to the third person, as if she can only relate her story by considering it as having happened to someone else. However, despite this, the book is incredibly compelling, and Petrushevkaya never indulges in self-pity; whether sleeping under a table in a communal apartment or in the Officers’ Club (where she finds shelter by breaking in), queuing in the bread line and getting served last, or pretending to be an orphan, she’s matter-of-fact and intent on survival. It’s this element, I think, that makes the book and its content less crushing than it could have been in someone else’s hands.

Back in Kuibyshev, her mother and sister accepted her disappearance without much joy. Her name was never mentioned again. On the other hand, so many people had vanished from their lives. At that time it was common – people disappeared without a trace, like the character in Daniil Kharms’s famous poem about a man who walked out of his house and was never seen again. Later the poet himself vanished. (On her mother’s disappearance)

One aspect of the book which was perhaps a little shocking was the willingness of Ludmilla’s mother to leave her with relatives or in homes and just go off; I guess needs must, and I’ve no idea how hard it was to live through the War and then post-War in Soviet Russia. However, it’s clear how much Petrushevskaya misses her mother and I did find this very moving. The daughter did, of course, survive and went on to have a fascinating life and a career, moving into the limelight after Perestroika and the fall of Communist Russia; and she’s now a multi-faceted artist, producing visual art and embarking upon a singing career as well as her writing.

There is nothing more beautiful than the steppe. Nothing. Even the ocean is smaller and ends sooner. For the rest of my days I will remember the sunrise over the steppe: a recently ploughed purple earth and an orange sun trembling over the horizon like an enormous egg yolk.

“Metropol…” is a gripping and enthralling read from start to finish, and the book is enhanced by the images included; some are personal photos from the author, and some photos to illustrate places and times. These add much to the narrative, and as an aside, I was really impressed with the quality of reproduction. I’ve read a number of paperbacks in recent months which have photos inserted into the main body of the narrative, and these are often muddy and of poor quality. I don’t know if it’s because my copy of the book is a US Penguin edition and the paper quality is better, but the images are really clear and well reproduced, which definitely enhanced the reading experience.

So my first experience of reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was a really powerful and memorable one. Her prose is excellent, her experiences unforgettable and her vivid portrait of life in Soviet Russia quite unparalleled. I loved making the acquaintance of Petrushevskaya for #WITMonth and really must get to her fictions soon! 😀