Yelena Chizhova is the first St. Petersburg novelist to win the Russian Booker Prize in the 17-year history of the country’s most prestigious independent literary prize with her novel “A Time of Women.”
The novel looks at the consequences of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad during World War II. The siege is the setting for the lives of three women who are the novel’s central protagonists. Two of them have lost everything: their husbands, children and parents. The third, although much younger, is also deeply touched by the war.
Chizhova was given the prize at an awards ceremony earlier this month. Her victory was not entirely unexpected as she was short-listed twice before. The work is very much in line with Chizhova’s previous four novels, all of which focus on dramatic moments in history.
Andrei Ariyev, editor of the St. Petersburg literary journal Zvezda, which published “A Time of Women” in its pages and nominated it for the competition, said at a gathering to celebrate the victory last week that “A Time of Women” corresponds to Alexander Pushkin’s definition of the novel as “a historic epoch presented in the form of literary narration.”
In an interview, Chizhova said she based the novel’s central stories on what she heard from her grandmothers and others of their generation. The book produces a collective image of manifold suffering: those who remained in the city throughout the siege, those who were evacuated via Lake Ladoga, the many who were killed in the bombing and those who came back to live in the harsh poverty that followed the war.
Nevertheless, the author shows the misery indirectly, and a mood of tolerance and love prevails in the narrative. The technique of the composition is complex. It is narrated by an authorial voice into which extracts from the younger girl’s diary are inserted, providing the perspective of a 6-year-old.
Life proceeds on several levels. It is in the communal flat where the three women live, outside in the streets, in a church, at a factory, in food lines, in their conversations where they talk about their past, the years before the Revolution, their lives during the siege and the years of war; and then in the girl’s head, as she listens to all this, absorbing everything and then recording her impressions in her diary and drawings.
At first it seems that fate has been cruelest to the two older women, who are in their 50s, because they have lost all those who are dearest to them. They have seen better times and can compare them with the present. Antonina, on the other hand, is a representative of the younger, postwar generation. Her life is one of overwhelming poverty and hunger. She raises her 6-year-old mute daughter on her own and lives in permanent fear that Sofia will be taken away from her and put in a state institution for handicapped children.
Sofia has no father and lives in extreme poverty, but she is the recipient of so much love that her childhood might easily be envied. The two older women, her neighbors, bestow their love upon her, standing in for both her parents when Antonina dies. Despite all this gloom, Chizhova manages to take readers away from the darkness and raise them up to the sky.
The girl grows up, enrolling in the Arts Academy, and we follow her life into the 1970s as the novel touches on issues such as emigration. Sofia hesitates as she faces the dilemma of whether to leave the Soviet Union and start a new life or stay near the graves of her loved ones. She feels that leaving them behind would be a betrayal. She stays to be with the souls of those who loved her so much knowing that they would have sacrificed their own lives for her without a moment’s hesitation.
Russia has not given us much in the way of uplifting and optimistic novels in recent years and the Booker has repeatedly been criticized for being clubby, remote and giving the award to books that no one reads. This year St. Petersburg has turned the page.