For the past few months, between online hostel-hunts and mini-meltdowns over confusing train timetables, I've been reading contemporary fiction from the countries we're visiting and cursing myself for not having already read more. (In the middle of this post, I dashed over to the Penn library to hustle up a couple more tales of contemporary China: Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China and Ma Jian's novel The Noodle Maker. More on those later...assuming I get to them.)
Petrushevskaya's grief-stricken characters (mostly women) are just trying to survive in late-20th century USSR/Russia. In these short, spare, and off-kilter fables, they often find themselves in the middle of roads or other unfamiliar spaces, awoken as if from a dream, not knowing how they got there, or even, in some cases, who they are. Ghosts appear and food is rationed, and life changes dramatically, as in the title story, when the birth of a child poisons a relationship between two close female friends.
Meanwhile Sorokin's cast of thousands is, as the title implies, waiting in line in Moscow sometime in the late 1970s. As they stand there in Godot-esque fashion, they speculate on the quality of the goods they're waiting for, how long they'll have to hang on to get them, and why it has to be this way at all -- sometimes drinking, sometimes sleeping, sometimes playing ball or making love, but all without surrendering their coveted places in line. The novel is composed of a steady stream of untagged dialogue, which sounds confusing but isn't -- at least no more than necessary for a novel about mass confusion. [*After writing this, I read Sorokin's post-Soviet afterword to the novel, in which he compares queues to church services. In the Russian Orthodox tradition parishioners stand, and the sentence "I stood through an all-nighter" can apparently also be translated as "I stayed through the all-night mass" or "I stood in line all night." The queue, says Sorokin, whose work was banned during the Soviet period, ritualized the collective body.]
Of course these themes are also classically Soviet and Russian, at least as far as American audiences have encountered them. (Or as far as my experience trying to buy train tickets on Russian language websites would suggest.) But now, after months of planning and years of hearing about Mother Russia, I'll finally get to experience it myself -- with The Brothers Karamazov coming along for the ride.