Saturday, March 23, 2019

Switched at Birth: Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped

It’s taken me a month or two to get up the gumption to write about Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Нас украли, история преступлений (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) but that’s less a factor of the love/hate spectrum (I’m on the really-liked-to-loved end) than of the simple fact that it’s very hard to describe. Sometimes time smooths over the complications, leaving contours that are helpful in writing meaningful summaries. We’ll hope that’s the case with Kidnapped, though I fear I’ve failed us all, including the book. I think the best way to do the novel justice is to suggest that you read the summary I linked to above, on the English-language title, since Petrushevskaya’s literary agents offer an excellent plot outline. And I’ll attempt to address some of what struck me most.

The novel begins with two young men bearing nearly identical passports – their names and birth dates are the same – flying off from Moscow to Montegasko. (Or maybe Montegasco, that’s more pleasing to the eye, isn’t it?) “Doesn’t exist,” I wrote in the right margin with “not typical kids” at the bottom of the page. We already have mysterious doubles (cue up “switched at birth” plus a mother’s death in childbirth and a fictitious family situation to satisfy bureaucracy) and a faraway, make-believe place. Petrushevskaya is already telling yet more scary fairy tales, this time about brothers who are both lucky and unlucky, not to mention about horrendous relatives to escape, magically good developments, and Soviet bureaucracy. As well as multiple mentions of Lloyd’s of London, thanks to the sinking of a ship during the “бешеные” nineties, years that are, literally speaking here, “rabid,” though we might call them “frenzied,” “mad,” and/or “violent” since the nineties, the age of vouchers, were basically was a horrible shipwreck for so many.

Petrushevskaya doesn’t focus solely on the boys, though: we get lots of backstory about their families, some of it told in chapters that read almost as set pieces detailing family abuse and abuses of power, as in the case of unscrupulous hospital workers. I could probably write this post as a list of tropes, many of them thoroughly bared: lonesome princess, foundling who will live like a king, a character feeling alone in the world and wanting to go to Moscow, and even an outright mention (in dialogue) of the sense of a soap opera involving babies switched at birth. And then there are all the sociocultural and sociopolitical myths and mores, with mentions of Soviet-era diplomatic ways (I loved the interrupted line, “And we, simple Soviet diplomats…”), the KGB, and the trauma of changing times, like those afore-mentioned nineties. I give Petrushevskaya particularly high marks for writing an ending that was so funny that I completely forgot what happened: beyond noting stereotypes about Russian life (vodka included, of course), there are interrogations (with lie detector) where Petrushevskaya notes an interpreter’s infelicities. It’s great stuff.

The strangest, scariest, and most magical part of all this is that Petrushevskaya somehow or other makes everything fit together and read as a real novel. Referring to some sort of literary alchemy or sorcery is perhaps most fitting since she seems to do the impossible, blending so many storylines, genres (the back cover’s statement from Petrushevskaya mentions detective novels), characters, locations, ways of life, and myths into a relatively seamless novel, a book that kept pulling me along. It kept me up at night, and even, yes, made me laugh out loud. It’s Petrushevskaya’s finessed hodgepodge of familiar elements and odd surprises that makes the book read so well – there’s something masterful in how she refreshes old stories in Kidnapped, using her distinctive style and contemporary twists as she toys with her material and characters. Her NOS(E) award, from the panel of critics, was thoroughly deserved. I think it’s time to reread her Время Ночь (The Time: Night).

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: London Book Fair trip report. And then a book that I won’t name, lest I jinx myself yet again. I’ve done a lot of required and recommended reading in recent months but am very happy to be back to free reading now!


  1. I don't know why I'm still circling Petrushevskaya nervously when I should just jump in - especially as I have The Time: Night lurking!


    1. Oops, sorry to be so late, kaggysbookishramblings! I understand your nervous circling very well. Sometimes expectations get the better of me, too, and I delay. The Time: Night is certainly a great place to start with her writing!