Young Berries by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Russia occupies a very precarious place in my life. My partner was born in the Soviet Union and lived through its collapse and then the rebirth of the motherland. One of my closest friends currently lives there. I’ve written screenplays set there. I’ve attempted to learn Russian at least three times with varying success.

There’s also a breadth of Russian literature. Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy. Chekhov. Gogol. Gorky. Yesenin. Tolstoy again. Nabokov. Etc. Etc. What strikes me is they are all men and all giants. But what of Petrushevskaya? Is the problem that she’s alive? Or is it that her work was officially censored for the first 50-or-so years? Both?

I devoured her second translated collection, There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself, in about two or three hours. Basically, I cracked the spine and jumped around in the book and kept reading until there wasn’t more to be read. Maybe I should have read them in the prescribed order, but I did not. Then I had to pick a favorite to talk about here, which was difficult, but I settled on Young Berries without too much angst.

Young Berries is one of the longer stories in the collection. It is about not belonging, shame and the young fumblings of childhood “love.” Like when children confuse violence with being cherished. How often did I hit the boys I liked in first grade? How often did they hit back?

In Petrushevskaya’s story, the young heroine narrowly escapes an act of violence perpetrated by the boys in her class. She and the other girls are unable to entirely comprehend what might have happened, but she becomes infatuated with Tolik, one of those boys. The other girls only know that the narrator has done something to be ashamed of, and for that they shun her. That seems tragic, and it is. But, in my experience, that is basically how children treat each other.

Young Berries appears in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers.

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