MAY 20, 2012
THE TIME OF WOMEN is Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas’s translation of Elena Chizhova’s 2009 Russian Booker-winning novel Vremia zhenshchin. (Modeled on the Booker Prize in Britain, the Russian Booker is given to the best Russian-language text; Chizhova had been nominated for the award twice before). Set in Chizhova’s native St. Petersburg, mostly in the 1960s, when the city was known as Leningrad, this most beautiful, yet most maddening city emerges as a central focus of the narrative, as it often has in Russian literature, from Gogol to Dostoevsky to Andrey Bely. Chizhova’s five female protagonists take turns narrating the story. Antonina (Tonya) Bespalova, a factory worker who comes from the country, falls in love with and is impregnated and abandoned by a slick city guy. Antonina becomes a single mother to Suzanna, who at six years old is mute. They move in with three old women who in effect become Suzanna’s grandmothers: Yevdokia, who comes from peasant stock; Glikeria, whose parents were serfs but who was herself engaged to the count who employed them; and Ariadna, who was born into a prosperous family and received an education that included French. When Antonina becomes ill with cancer, the three grandmothers come up with a plan to keep Suzanna — whom they call Sofia after baptizing her in secret — out of the orphanage, a plot that involves Antonina marrying Nikolai, whom she does not love, in order for him to formally assume the child’s guardianship.
This fairly straightforward plotline contrasts with the novel’s complicated narrative style. The novel’s multiple points of view are not immediately distinguishable. Suzanna’s narration frames the text: the novel bears the dedication “To my grandmothers,” and it begins with a short chapter of Suzanna’s memory of her mother’s funeral and ends with a chapter of reminiscences of her grandmothers. Within this frame, other characters narrate the nine different sections of the novel (the translation offers a Contents section that is absent from the original), each one titled after that particular person — e.g., “The Mother,” “The Daughter.” The other main narrators are Antonina and the three grandmothers, along with Nikolai (“The Stepfather”) and Solomon, Glikeria’s former lover. But there are multiple points of view within the sections themselves, so that, for example, the “Yevdokia” section, which starts out from Yevdokia’s first-person point of view, also contains sections from Antonina’s; at the same time, Suzanna continually comments on the action, with her thoughts interspersed throughout the entire text in italics. Given that Chizhova often omits attribution of dialogue, reading The Time of Women requires vigilance on the reader’s part, especially in the beginning.
The Time of Women, like much contemporary Russian literature, explores the effects of the Soviet legacy on the country’s inhabitants. Describing the Russian people’s experiences, Yevdokia says, “You can’t even imagine in hell the things that have happened on earth,” a line that serves as a distillation of the entire novel. The Time of Women underscores how modern Russian self-identity is inextricably linked with the scars, both physical and psychological, of the Soviet era. On the more “benign” side, Soviet citizens are subjected to daily privations: a chronic lack of housing, forcing Antonina and the three grandmothers to live in a communal apartment and Nikolai to wait years for a room, and a shortage of basic goods, like flour, limited quantities of which require long waits in line. More ominous is the bloodier side of Soviet rule. Political events have a devastating effect on all three grandmothers: Ariadna’s wealthy officer brother is killed by peasant soldiers, while Glikeria’s count fiancé is forced to flee abroad and leave her behind when the Bolsheviks assume power; Yevdokia’s son and his wife, both Party members, perish in the camps under Stalin. For the grandmothers, the event that wreaks the most devastation is World War II and specifically, since they are residents of Leningrad, the blockade — the city’s two-and-a-half year siege by the Germans — as their entire families are killed in this period; their memories and conversations about the blockade form much of the narrative’s texture. Thus, unsurprisingly for a Russian book, Chizhova’s novel posits that the horrors one has lived through form an inalienable core of who one is.
Yet like other contemporary Russian texts — Viktor Pelevin’s works come to mind — The Time of Women constantly references political events, but is far from a political novel. The regime is oppressive, but so is life itself. Antonina is an abandoned single mother who gets sick with cancer; Suzanna is mute; the grandmothers are old and unwell. One of the primary questions the book addresses is how it is possible to resist oppression in any form and at the same time retain one’s humanity.
Chizhova’s novel suggests that such resistance is possible. Yevdokia, Glikeria, and Ariadna turn to religion, secretly practicing Orthodox Christianity, which is prohibited by the atheist Soviet state (the novel’s reliance on the clichéd imagery of the pious grandmotherly types and the number three is mitigated by the fact that the women are thoroughly individualized as characters, and possess all-too-human faults). When Antonina’s impending death threatens to send Suzanna into an orphanage, the grandmothers hope their secret baptism of the girl will give her strength to endure; as Yevdokia tells her, “For God, your name is Sofia. She is the heavenly intercessor … she is the wisest of all … God whispers to her, and she speaks to good people … And those who do not listen have nothing in them but despair and stupidity. But Sofia does not look at them: she knows herself and looks around.” Ariadna turns instead to imagination: she is able to resurrect her dead children through watching footage of the 1941 May Day parade in which they took part: their (potential) images on film make it seem “as if they were alive … neither wars can hurt them, nor diseases. They stayed the way death found them — young and healthy. They’re waiting for their turn: to get on TV.” Antonina too imagines, for herself, a better world.
Suzanna turns to art. The grandmothers’ continual reading of fairy tales to her as a child contributes to her viewing the world as a mixture of reality and fantasy; on the textual level, parts of these fairy tales appear in the novel in italics, so that the narrative itself becomes to a significant degree a mixture of the real and imaginary. Watching her mother struggle, Suzanna invents a parallel universe in which her mirror image lives a beautiful and happy life. The capacity to see things differently underpins her ability as an artist. As a child, unable to express herself in words, she does so in images; as an adult, she becomes a successful painter, whose trademark is non-traditional representation. As she says, “If you draw according to the rules, as they would have you do, all the important things become flat — they sink into the ground.” Refusing to be bound by representational and easily understandable art, her canvases are spaces where a different version of the world exists. In another way, as the novel’s main narrator, Suzanna gives voice to the story of her grandmothers, thereby creating an alternate realm in which they live on after death.
The Time of Women does not make grand pronouncements on the significance of art, but makes a defence of it nonetheless. Despite her success, there are gaps in Suzanna’s knowledge of her past, of herself. Yet as The Time of Women suggests, such gaps in memory and self-knowledge are at least somewhat attenuated through art. Trying to reconnect with her grandmothers, Suzanna says “I … go to the easel again, so that, turning into that different girl of retentive memory, I may listen to their voices.” Art engenders memory, allowing a connection to and preservation of the past; connecting with her grandmothers through her painting, she also preserves their story through her narration. Thus, the novel posits that if there is a way to mitigate life’s harshness, art and its practitioners are central to this endeavor.
Overall, Patterson and Chordas do an admirable job with a difficult text. They smooth over the highly colloquial Russian of the original, language that reflects Antonina’s country origins and the peasant-stock origins of Yevdokia and Glikeria. In Patterson and Chordas’s translation, these characters’ speech is indistinguishable from everyone else’s, and The Time of Women thus fails to convey the different linguistic registers in Chizhova’s novel. A less significant shortcoming are the endnotes that explain some of the less familiar aspects of Soviet culture to English-speaking readers, wherein the explanations are often too simplified to be of much use. Nevertheless, Patterson and Chordas’s translation is a well-executed effort that has now made Chizhova’s affecting novel available to an English-speaking readership.