Saturday, April 30, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's "A Withered Branch"

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 22.

[Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.]

"I met my twin soul at dawn on a narrow street by the cathedral," writes the short-story writing protagonist of Petrushevskaya's piece. She has just arrived in Vilnius, and despite the narrow sexual escape of the previous night, in which her hitchhike-enabling trucker chooses not to rape her, she feels alive. She is open to the world, and in that light, she is welcomed by this "twin" -- "a modestly dressed woman of about fifty, wearing a kerchief," who offers, knowing that all the hotels are full, to let her stay in her home. She is greeted with dinner, given a spare key, treated kindly, and unlike your traditional short story, this does not end badly for either one.

As it turns out, the woman, Jadviga, is just looking for someone with whom she can talk. "She has been quiet, saying nothing to her new neighbors. They would never accept such tragedy, would shun her the way her old neighbors did in Panevezys." It's not clear how long she's been bearing this weight, and the cultural boundary between America -- which practical brags of its suffering -- and Russia makes it unclear if there's something else behind the loss of her husband, daughter, son, and son's husband in what appears to have been an accidental fire. The point, I guess, is that she's not accepted or that she feels unaccepted, and in that, our narrator can relate, for she has an asthmatic son (currently in a sanatorium) and a dead husband who was paralyzed for a fifth of his life. ("By the end he was so emaciated he looked like Jesus.")

The difference between them is that our narrator has something to live for -- her son ("my child, my savior, my treasure" -- whereas Jadviga is the titular "withered branch on a dead tree." Nothing more to the two-page story than this; just a moment in which grief is temporarily alleviated by the simple act of sharing it. Certainly not my cup of tea, but there's nothing offensive in Petrushevskaya's writing, and she lays out desperate times in an almost depressingly neat prose.

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