Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2021

The Time of Women, by Elena Chizhova, translated by Simon Patterson

Born in 1957 in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Elena Chizhova is a Russian author who explores the scars of 20th century Russian history.  I have previously read and reviewed Little Zinnobers (2000) which followed this novel, The Time of Women, (Время женщин) first published in 2009 and in English translation in 2012.  The Time of Women won the ‘Russian Booker’ and is about the domestic culture of resistance and remembrance amongst three generations of women in Soviet Russia.

The book has multiple narrators across its nine chapters, which require close attention in order to identify the narrators’ identities.  This is made easier by the distinctive voices of the grannies and by the italic text used for the daughter Suzanna/Sofia who is an elective mute.  The first part of the novel is as described in the blurb:

Life is not easy in the Soviet Union at mid-20th century, especially for a factory worker who becomes an unwed mother. But Antonina is lucky to get a room in a communal apartment that she and her little girl share with three old women. Glikeria is the daughter of former serfs. Ariadna comes from a wealthy family and speaks French. Yevdokia is illiterate and bitter. All have lost their families, all are deeply traditional, and all become grannies to little Suzanna. Only they secretly name her Sofia. And just as secretly they impart to her the history of her country as they experienced it: the Revolution, the early days of the Soviet Union, the blockade and starvation of World War II. The little girl responds by drawing beautiful pictures, but she is mute. If the authorities find out she will be taken from her home and sent to an institution. When Antonina falls desperately ill, the grannies are faced with the reality of losing the little girl they love unless a stepfather can be found before it is too late. And for that, they need a miracle.

The characterisation of the three grannies allows Chizhova to depict a varied response to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, as well as the harrowing effects of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad.  It also shows that (quite apart from more favourable lifestyles for party members) class distinctions and resentments still remain in the so-called classless society.  Though the grannies argue — sometimes comically — about how to bring up the child because their traditions vary, what unites them is their love for her.

However, the novel takes a much darker turn when Tonya becomes seriously ill and the child’s future is at risk.  For fear of institutionalisation, Tonya has always had to conceal the child’s disability by keeping her out of school, and Sofia has flourished as an artist under the devoted care of the grannies.  But under the inflexible housing and child welfare rules which applied in Soviet Russia, an orphaned child was destined for an institution and the informal ‘family’ relationships which have sustained her count for nothing.

‘Where’s her husband?’ Solomon knits his brow.  ‘The child’s father. He should take her, at least formally.’ ‘How does that work?’ Glikeria asks.  ‘According to the documents,’ he explains. ‘But she’d live with you.  He only pays alimony.’ ‘There is no alimony,’ Yevdokia curls her lip.  ‘We’re raising her without a father.’

‘That’s no good,’ Solomon frowns.  ‘That means the loss of a breadwinner.  Not only will she be sent to an orphanage, the room will be taken away.  Is she registered here with her mother?’

Yes, they nod.

‘Minors aren’t entitled to rooms.  A commission will meet to decide.’

When Yevdokia hears this, she turns grey.  ‘If they do it by the law, then that’s the end.’ (p.195)

In a poignant episode, Glikeria tries to prepare this child to find her way home in adulthood if she is taken away. She takes her for walks, pointing out the landmarks while explaining that it will look different when the snow melts, and she embroiders Sofia’s initials on her clothes. Yevdokia is furious, she thinks this is giving up and she declares that it’s not going to happen. Ariadna thinks ahead to whether an institution will allow parcels or visits. In a panic, Glikeria even suggests the Goebbels’ murder of his children so that they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the enemy…

‘Come to your senses!’ Ariadna shrieks.  ‘You want to behave like animals?’

‘Oh,’ Yevdokia gets up and turns the water off.  ‘It’s hard to tell who are people and who are animals.  As if we lived in the forest.  Our sins are heavy…These thoughts come along — who knows where they come from…’ (p. 202)

Later, Yevdokia tucks Sofia into bed and warns her what may happen but that she should know that whatever happens, her granny will always be there, outside the fence, for as long as she lives.

(BTW It wasn’t only in the USSR that orphaned children were vulnerable to being separated from informal relationships like this.  There have been quite recent cases here in Australia where there have been custody battles over the fate of orphaned children where there has been no established relationship with biologically-related extended family.)

There is a great deal to like about Elena Chizhova’s The Time of Women, but there are problematic anti-Semitic elements. I object strongly to all forms of racism and discrimination including anti-Semitism, whether casual or explicit.  The Time of Women perpetuates negative stereotypes about Jews and on p.256 includes the explicit lie unchallenged by other characters that one million Jews died in the Holocaust when in fact six million Jews perished across German-occupied Europe, about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, of whom at least three million were in Soviet territory under German Occupation. What shocks me is not just the words in the book, but also the absence of any mention of this anti-Semitism in multiple reviews at Goodreads, and the fact that the book won the Russian Booker Prize.  Did they not notice, or did they not care?

If there’s an argument that the author is just representing reality, it doesn’t wash with me.  If anti-Semitism is so prevalent in Russian culture that it passes unremarked in its award-winning literature, it does Russia’s reputation no credit.

Author: Elena Chizhova
Title: The Time of Women (Время женщин)
Cover artwork by Ivanna Mikhailenko
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2012
ISBN:  9789081883906, pbk., 266 pages
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications.

 


Responses

  1. An intriging sounding book which is probably the kind of thing I would like to read, but very surprising about the anti-semitism – not acceptable…

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  2. I agree with Karen: the anti-Semitism is inexcusable, otherwise sounds very interesting

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  3. Yes, it’s the kind of thing that you come across in 19th and pre-war 20th century writing, and you wince because you know what it led to. But post war, there’s only one acceptable way to depict anti-Semitism in literature and that’s for the purpose of exposing it for what it is.

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  4. Can you determine whether the offensive beliefs are those of the characters or those of the author? I think that makes all the difference. Confronting prejudice on the page can be a powerful tool for change and I wonder if it’s harder to spot that mechanism at work while reading in translation?

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    • I wouldn’t automatically assume that representing anti-Semitism on the page means that the author is anti-Semitic, but when an anti-Semitic comment is made and it’s not challenged by another character or authorial observation or some plot device that ‘corrects it’ then I draw my own conclusions.
      I’ve come to expect it in literature from before WW2 (Shakespeare, Dickens &c) but post Holocaust, I think authors have a responsibility to tread very carefully. As with racism, there must be a purpose for including anti-Semitic or racist content, and the purpose has to be more than just showing that it exists. It could be to show the emotional response of the person being humiliated or offended by it, or it could be to show that there are social or even legal consequences of behaving in that way. It could be part of a parcel of negative characteristics of an awful character, that serve to make the character rejected by others and the reader.
      But none of that happened in this book.

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