Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Irina Grekova’s Widows and Orphans

Вдовий пароход (The Ship of Widows), Irina Grekova’s short 1979 novel about widows living in a communal apartment during and after World War 2, is far more enjoyable than it probably sounds. Grekova somehow manages to balance the nastiness and small kindnesses of everyday life and avoid excessive sweetness or bitterness. For this optimist, the result is a strangely satisfying book that emphasizes what I think I’ll call equivocal redemption and the ups and downs of interdependence. (I won’t include too much detail, in case you want to read the book.)

Grekova begins the novel with first-person narration from Olga, whose husband was killed at the front. Olga’s mother and daughter die during World War 2 bombing in Moscow. Olga is severely injured but recovers enough to walk with a cane and use her musical education working at an orphanage. She receives new housing in the communal apartment, nicknamed the ship for widows, and develops her closest relationship with Anfisa. Anfisa gives birth to a son, Vadim, whom she conceives outside her marriage while serving as a nurse during the war.

Grekova supplements Olga’s first-person narration with third-person accounts of happenings in the apartment, giving the book both immediacy and background details without a soap opera feel… even as Vadim grows increasingly recalcitrant. Vadim is a superfluous boy for the communal apartment era: he is likened to Byron, loves to call things lies, and lazes around and smokes when he’s unhappy. He’s a dark cloud with a superiority complex, and he gets lousy grades.

Anfisa raises Vadim mostly as a single mother: though her husband returns and treats Vadim well, the husband is not around for long. Still, Vadim’s upbringing is almost as communal as the apartment: the widows help at times, and Anfisa takes Vadim to work, switching from the orphanage to kindergarten as he grows. Grekova’s treatment of these aspects of World War 2 demography and reality – the shortage of men, the influx of orphans, the lack of childcare – feels more like statement of fact than complaining, despite the very clear and painful picture of hardships.

I’ve seen Grekova categorized as an urban writer. The Ship of Widows has a Moscow feel, but it was the psychology of the characters and communal living that drew me in. Yes, it’s absolutely obvious that conflicts arise because opposing sides all believe they are right, but somehow that idea felt fresh in Olga’s telling: she knows she’s as guilty as her apartment mates. There is also a discussion of grief, in which Anfisa describes Olga’s grief as “благородное, без стыда” (“noble, without shame”).

Though Grekova seems to have chosen her characters to represent various segments of society – one widow is religious, another is a former singer, and so on – she first creates and treats them as people rather than symbols, ensuring their dialogue and situations feel real rather than overly symbolic or relentlessly dreary.

The Ship of Widows is available in Cathy Porter’s English translation, from Northwestern University Press.

The Ship of Widows on Amazon


  1. Interesting -- I'd never seen her pseudonym given as "Irina Grekova" before (she's always, in my experience, called "I. Grekova," which is how she signed herself, to suggest the Russian word for Y), but Google tells me it's fairly common. In any case, I own Вдовий пароход, and (as usual) you make me want to read it!

  2. It's funny, Languagehat, my books both say И. Грекова (I. Grekova), too... but I first learned her name as Irina Grekova from a friend, and guess the name really stuck with me!

    Yes, thank you for mentioning that "Grekova" was a pseudonym. Just to fill in the information, in case anyone's interested, her name was Еленa Сергеевнa Вентцель (Elena Sergeevna Ventsel) and she was also a mathematics professor.

    As you can tell, I enjoyed Вдовий пароход a lot. I had a hard time putting it down and read it quite quickly over the weekend.