Monday, March 26, 2012

The Time of Women, by Elena Chizhova (review)

Review by Miranda Ingram. (©)

Elena Chizhova's 2009 Russian Booker prize-winning novel has had mixed reviews with too many critics claiming that the novel's style makes it difficult to read. This is a great shame as The Time of Women is a funny, clever, moving – and immensely readable – book (although it is possible that the English language translation by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas renders the colloquial Russian easier to read).

It is a story, of course, about women – a young factory worker and her illegitimate, mute, daughter share a communal apartment with three elderly women in early 1960s Leningrad. These "grannies" bring up the child while the mother is at work and, when she is later diagnosed with cancer, plot to save the girl from Soviet orphanages. 

Through this domestic, and essentially female, business of onion-frying, laundry rotas and petty squabbles, Chizhova tells the story of  20th Century Russia - of superstition and soviet realism, factories and folklore, belief and dissidence, rule and oppression, ignorance, hope and, of course, Russia's insatiable appetite for suffering. 

The protagonists' lives are gradually revealed through a series of truncated memories and monologues, which we are invited to listen to through the ears of the bewildered child - even while the grown-ups themselves remain bewildered by their own stories. 

This style gives the novel a deceptive aura of simplicity while the scope of the book is anything but. Indeed, these unfinished sentences and unvoiced thoughts, which seem to have annoyed the critics, are essential to the book which is also about keeping quiet. 

The girl, named Suzanna by her mother but Christened Sofia by the grannies, is mute, but in a world where talking is dangerous, everyone is, to some extent mute and the novel echoes with what is left unsaid, what is best not said, with whispers in corners and the sound of taps being switched on and off to drown out words. 

The book's detractors say it is full of rehashed themes - the communal apartment experience, cancer as a metaphor for a rotten society (Lizok's Bookshelf) – and indeed, the mother's bleeding as her illness progresses is a metaphor for  all the blood spilt on Russian soil.

But, leaving aside the truism that all literature deals with a few basic stories, any writer examining their own country's story is bound to revisit the same themes and Russian writers – and readers – are way behind, say, the Germans, in examining and accepting the past. 

It is a point Chizhova herself makes in an interview with the New York Times (which, shamefully, got the daughter's name wrong throughout the entire article). "Under Brezhnev, people averted their eyes from the past out of fear; under Putin, fear has been replaced by apathy, she says. "For the vast majority of people, the Soviet period simply is not interesting. They do not have the feeling that history continues. It seems to them that in the 1990s, we just started over."

This highly commendable novel demonstrates precisely the opposite – that history is an ongoing story.

Read more about the English language edition and Glagoslav Publications in this post on Tetradki. (includes a video with Chizhova)

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