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Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

"The Fountain House"

August 31, 2009

After last week's insult the fictionalization of Sendak I was hoping for something rather more compatible with long-term expectations of New Yorker short stories than a Russian fable beginning "There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life." The girl is never named, nor is her father, who saves her from the death that, as only he knows, hasn't yet befallen her. Although most of the story is set in a hospital, and some sort of medical miracle is performed, the point of view is resolutely traditional, almost primitive. It is not interested in the things that people like me are interested in. It is interested in faith and awe and dumb determination in the face of hopelessness. And also in a bit of black-bread shrewdness. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya "The Fountain House" feels like a tale told by an elderly housekeeper in the old days. What it's doing in The New Yorker (in a translation by Keith Gessen and Anna summers) is easily explained: next month will see the publication of Ms Petrushevskaya's latest collection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales.

Here's what happens in the story: convinced that his daughter has not been killed in an explosion in a bus on Moscow's Tverskaya Street, a father goes to elaborate lengths to rescue her from an impending autopsy and/or live burial. But he does not put it that way, does not work out the implications of his daughter's status at the morgue.

The father, who was desperate with grief, and who was also a deeply religious man, decided to steal his daughter's body.

This is the language that one would use if the girl really were dead. And what does being deeply religious have to do with anything? It's not hard to guess, and that's just the problem: it's too easy and obvious. One might almost just as well say "who was wearing a green pullover." I don't mean to complain, but only to register that this story seems to resonate at a frequency beyond my range. The best that I can do is to wonder if, in the mind of this unnamed, humble father the girl is not dead and not dead at the same time. Perhaps her body is dead, but her soul lives on in her dead body.

The father steals the body and transports it to the lab of a whizbang doctor to whom he offers all the money that he has. The doctor also feels like a familiar figure from Russian literature.

Although the girl was not accompanied by a medical history, the doctor could see perfectly well that she was dead. But he badly needed the money: his wife had just given birth (also to a daughter), and his nerves were on edge. His mother hated his wife, and they took turns crying, and the child cried, too, and now on top of all this he had been assigned exclusively night shifts. The sum that this (clearly insane) father had offered to revive his dead princess was enough for half a year's rent on a separate apartment for his own little family.

Is the first of these two sentences supposed to be funny? The doctor needs the money because his nerves are on edge. The parenthetical note is either flippant or stupefyingly sentimental. Anyway, the father has retrieved his daughter's body and handed it over to a doctor in the intensive care unit. Then, sedated, the father has a dream, the telling of which requires almost as many words as the action preceding it. The dream's central image is a heart sandwich that the father must conceal from his daughter, lest she eat it and die. So he eats it. Instead of dying, though, he comes to, just long enough to be asked for his blood type. When the amazing doctor learns that the father's blood type is a match with his daughter's, the father is sedated again, and the dream continues but not before the father hears his daughter the real-world daughter "breathing in a terribly screechy way." In the ensuing dream, she appears "like a whirlwind, a tornado." She digs her nails into the crook of his arm but of course it is the doctor, giving the father another shot.

A man is convinced that his daughter is alive. He gets her to a doctor and he gives blood. The daughter revives. The man was right; everybody else was wrong. But you might not be surprised that a father pays keener attention. Maybe he deluded, but his action saves his daughter's life. And that is that.

Now, if someone were to come along and explain to me that this or that detail in "The Fountain house" is a rich Russian symbol, I should be very glad to hear it. I should read the story afresh, and delight in my new understanding. I don't expect The New Yorker to provide exegetical tools; as I say, I'm not complaining here, but simply noting my own limitations. I'd like to think that the story is, in some sense, over my head, beyond the reach of my particular cultural equipment. But what if it's not? What if there is nothing to the story that I don't understand already? In that case, "The Fountain House" is a well-crafted but inert object, more absolutely dead than the doctor thinks the daughter is. In refusing to be sophisticated (or at least somewhat ironic), the story would decline to be interesting. Its intriguing sidelights (the father's piety; the doctor's also being the father of a girl these are the two that I have mentioned, but there are others) would be blind and meaningless.

There is a coda, almost a burlesque, in which the father is re-united with the mother and the grandmother. (The mother: "You! You! Where have you been!") It is all very homely, even droll. In the happy ending, the father escorts his daughter home from the hospital. If the story ended there, we might protest: is that it? But there's a final fillip that makes us ask, instead: what does that mean?

He kept quiet about the raw human heart he'd had to eat so that his daughter wouldn't. But then that had happened in a dream, and dreams don't count.

Given the amount of space that Ms Petrushevskaya gives to recounting the father's dreams, this must be ironic. Further than that we cannot go.

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