Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s slender, fragmentary memoir, The Girl From the Metropol Hotel, is strangely much closer in tone and craft to Soviet absurdist poetry than it is to these classic memoirs. That poetry is exemplified by authors such as Daniil Kharms and Aleksander Vvedensky, known for their farcical depictions of early Soviet life in all its casual brutality ... The translator Anna Summers’s inspired introductory essay helps to present this book as a memoir of war, events therein echoing the misfortunes currently inflicted on other young girls from Ukraine to Syria and beyond. In this context, Petrushevskaya’s powerful memoir reminds us that, as Ingeborg Bachmann once wrote, 'war is no longer declared, / it is continued.' Like a stained-glass Chagall window, Petrushevskaya’s Soviet-era memoir creates a larger panorama out of tiny, vivid chapters, shattered fragments of different color and shape. She throws the misery of her daily life into relief through the use of fairy-tale metaphors familiar to fans of her fiction ... Ultimately, the girl emerges not only uncrushed but one of Russia’s best, and most beloved, contemporary authors, which brings to mind Auden’s famous words about Yeats: 'Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.' This memoir shows us how Soviet life hurt Ludmilla Petrushevskaya into crystalline prose.
Devastating, unjudgmental, and curiously uplifting, the memoir is a profound testament to the power of the creative, loving human spirit to vanquish brutal circumstance ... the stories she tells of her motherless days in Kuibyshev are not cast down; they show a girl of unerodable pride and defiant character, intent on finding joy ... A Moscow court 'rehabilitated' Petrushevskaya’s family long ago; but her memoir moots the original charges, indicting nothing but history. The bard has filled in the glowing page.
Like many memoirs of the Stalinist period, Petrushevskaya's stresses the redemptive power of art. One of her brightest memories is of being allowed into the warm technician's booth at the Kuibyshev opera house and watching Rossini's The Barber of Seville, performed by the evacuated Bolshoi Theater ... Her memoir has the fairy-tale ending its plucky heroine deserves. She graduates from journalism school, specializing in humor writing, and joins other students on a trip to northern Kazakhstan to work as a laborer and learn about the lives of "the people." There, she meets the Moscow journalists who launch her literary career. We already know she'll become a famous writer, but may not have guessed that, in her sixties, Petrushevskaya will start a second career as a cabaret singer. Writers of fiction can afford not to draw too sharp a line between the realistic and the fantastical—not every memoirist is so lucky, or so deft. Petrushevskaya is blessed with good material, but it also helps that she was teaching herself how to reinvent it before she could walk.