The New Adventures of Helen

The brutality of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories can be seen in the titles of her previous collections such as There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself. Even here, however, we can see the influence of the fairy tale, and, in her latest collection, The New Adventures of Helen (translated by Jane Bugaeva) she takes this one step further, leaving behind the frequently distressing realism that has characterised her work to write a series of ‘magical tales’.

The title story, for example, concerns the return to earth of Helen of Troy which, according to Petrushevskaya, happens once every thousand years. Fearing that “Helen’s rebirth was always followed by long, brutal wars, not to mention unpleasantries like the annihilation of entire nations” a wizard has crafted a magic mirror which renders any user invisible. Like a number of the stories, while it may not exactly be ‘feminist’, it certainly contains a commentary on the way women are viewed both in fiction and society. This begins when Helen, shortly after stepping from the sea like Aphrodite, decides that a prostitute she encounters is “the epitome of beauty,” going as far as using a piece of foil to replicate her gold tooth. The wizard, meanwhile, has planted the mirror at the market because:

“For a woman not to be drawn to a market was inconceivable.”

Naturally, he is correct, and Helen soon makes her way to the market where her beauty has every stall owner chasing after her – until, that is, she looks in the mirror:

“And instantly the golden light went out, and everyone lost interest in her.”

But, as Helen soon discovers, while “being beautiful wasn’t easy,”

“…being completely unnoticed was no picnic either.”

The story ends happily for Helen, who finds love without starting a war, just as it does for Nina, the protagonist of ‘Nose Girl’. Like Helen, Nina is very beautiful – apart from her large nose. She begs a wizard to rectify this, which he does at the price of her thumb. The way she is treated instantly changes, as evidenced on the train journey home:

“…she was offered a bottom bunk and gifted lemonade, bouquets of roses and several boxes of chocolates.”

But all she can think about is the young man she met on the train on her way to the wizard, so much so that she loses another digit asking the wizard to locate him, only to discover he is dying (and you will soon guess the price for saving his life…). Both Helen and Nina may be vain, but they are also resourceful and good hearted. The same is true of the (seventeen-year-old) queen in ‘The Prince with the Golden Hair’ who finds herself expelled from the palace because her son is born unexpectedly blonde. His hair is, of course, real gold, and also glows in the dark, qualities which, alongside her own quick wits, allow her to survive a series of adventures including a sea journey, a traveling circus, and a prison break.

The elderly Queen Lir (from the story of the same title) also undertakes, more voluntarily, a series of adventures. Here, more than ever, Petrushevskaya places her fairy tale characters in a contemporary setting, with cardboard pasta boxes, garbage trucks and walkie-talkies all mentioned on the opening pages. The Queen has no practical skills or knowledge having, for example, never cooked anything in her life, and asking at one point for “a phone that can make calls.” The comedy is, at times, slap stick, as when she decides to keep her clothes on when washing so they are washed too, and then proceeds to tip the wrong bucket (one she has been using as a toilet) over herself. Yet, although she is obviously the butt of the joke on this occasion, it feels as if Petrushevskaya admires her ability to survive against the odds – a trait that all her female characters share, including the sisters in ‘Nettle and Raspberry,’ who are rivals in love, and ‘Two Sisters’, who find themselves transformed from elderly women into children.

The final story, ‘The Story of an Artist’, initially feels a little out of place as it tells the tale of a penniless painter “so poor he couldn’t afford pencils or paper, let alone paint or brushes.” Here there is a genuine pathos to the poverty as the artist lives in “a small corner under the stairs” (a cupboard) having been swindled out of his apartment, and is harassed daily for the rent he owes for this tiny space. Petrushevskaya describes his existence with a detail that feels earned:

“The artist wandered the streets, resting on random stoops and retreating into stores for warmth…”

Here, too, though, an element of magic will come to his aid with echoes of the opening story as he discovers that what he paints immediately disappears.

The stories in The New Adventures of Helen are thoroughly entertaining, often funny, but still retain a vein of darkness (like all good fairy tales). While the contrast between her royal characters and the poverty of their subjects is generally used for comic effect it is also accusatory. Her heroines are far from paragons, but they are always admirable in their determination to survive and prosper. Above all, it is a treat to have more of her work available in English.


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10 Responses to “The New Adventures of Helen”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It *is* a treat of a book, isn’t it Grant? It’s my first encounter with her fiction and I loved it, though I suspect this is much lighter than her other books!

  2. Julé Cunningham Says:

    After reading a couple of Petrushevskaya’s darker collections, I’m looking forward to reading this one.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I really want to try this author at some point, and these stories sound very imaginative and thoughtful, but I wonder if I might fare better with her earlier work (i.e. the stories/novellas with a stronger footing in realism)? Not that I don’t enjoy fairy tales or myths, but I have to be in the *right* mood for them, if that makes sense. Also, I didn’t realise she was still writing and producing such creative work – that’s really good to know!

  4. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Such an interesting author, creative mind and incredible life experience(s) from which she draws upon.

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