“Why are you saying these things, Zoya Ivanovna?” – I say and my hands are trembling. – “Am I burdening anyone? I work two shifts to support her. And she only was at the nursery for three months, and she doesn’t go to kindergarten.” – “You should be grateful the foreman lets you work two shifts. And mind you: in America they drive people like you into the street. They don’t stand on ceremony with mothers like you. Go and think it over,” – she says, – “Or it’ll be too late.”
(from The Time of Women, page 129)
The Time of Women by Elena Chizhova won the 2009 Russian Booker Prize and is finally available in English, translated by Simon Patterson. It is set in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and follows the story of three elderly women who live in a communal apartment with a young woman and her illegitimate daughter. Antonina works hard to put food on the table and leaves her daughter, Suzanna, baptized Sofia by the “grannies,” at home in the care of Glikeria, Ariadna, and Yevdokia. Though very bright and a budding artist, Suzanna is mute, so Antonina keeps her away from the school offered to the children of the factory workers for fear she will be institutionalized if her condition is discovered.
The grannies remember the country before the Revolution, before communism, and they remember the starvation during the Leningrad blockade of World War II. They come from different social classes, but each of them knows what it means to be hungry and scared and how it feels to have lost their families. They talk freely of their experiences and their tragedies in front of Suzanna, who internalizes and merges these stories with the folk tales she is told. The grannies grow to love Suzanna, and when Antonina falls ill, they must go to great lengths to spare her from a hard life in a Soviet orphanage.
I have never read a book about the post-Stalin Soviet Union, so I was intrigued by The Time of Women. Though it seems that people no longer live in fear of the secret police, living conditions aren’t ideal. People are still hungry and must line up for food, there is a waiting list for apartments, and the factory workers are searched when they leave to make sure they aren’t taking home food and drink to their families.
However, this was a difficult novel to read. It took me about 40 pages to get used to the shifting point of view between mother and daughter. There was a mixture of the first person and third person, and several times I had to figure out who “I” referred to. It was difficult at times to keep track of the various characters, especially those who only turn up here and there, and to gauge the year and the setting. Chizhova assumes the reader is familiar with the history of the Soviet Union, and because I prefer historical details mixed in with the fiction, I felt lost at times, which was helped along I’m sure by the disjointed structure of the narrative.
There also was an overuse of ellipses, and the conversations were confusing because the speaker would change mid-paragraph. I wonder whether these issues have anything to do with the quality of the translation? There is no way for me to tell, but I have read many translated works, and I never felt as confused as I did while reading this one.
Still, I can’t help but feel that The Time of Women is an important book. It certainly has much to say about the lives of people in the Soviet Union before, during, and in the years shortly after World War II. I thought Antonina’s story was heartbreaking; she worked so hard to care for her daughter and the grannies that she really had no life outside the factory and their home. I don’t feel like I ever really knew Suzanna, aside from an oddly placed chapter set when she is older that breaks up an otherwise more linear narrative, and the last chapter from her point of view is rambling folklore of some sort that probably was meant to be symbolic and meaningful but went right over my head.
The grannies were the most intriguing characters, with their stories and their arguments. When they are chatting, it feels like you are sitting down with them at the table, listening to the tales of sorrow that shaped who they are. Even when they are moody and demanding, you can’t help but like them and respect them for all that they endured.
What struck me most was the difference between the generations. Chizhova pits the grannies, who have seen unspeakable things, experienced starvation and loss during the war, and are skeptical of communism, against the younger generation like Antonina, who has her eyes set on the day when one can go to the store and enjoy an abundance of food and other goods without needing money. The younger generation believes the ideal is possible because they lack the wisdom and the years of the older generation, while the truth is somewhere in between.
Disclosure: I received The Time of Women from Glagoslav Publications for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.