"A Withered Branch" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya translated from the Russian by Anna Summers Originally published in the April 18, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Back in 2009, Petrushevskaya published “The Fountain House” in The New Yorker (Aug. 31, 2009). What a strange story about a bus crash, a death, a body stolen from a morgue, and a resurrection. I didn’t understand that tale well, but I enjoyed reading it. I can say again with “A Withered Brach” that I didn’t understand it very well — only this time, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. It’s not that I disliked it. I enjoyed the writing — the way Petrushevskaya leaves much unsaid — and the emotion is felt. It’s just that when I closed it, I was left wanting more, and not in a good way. Of course, I would appreciate anyone’s efforts to help me get more out of it.
The story takes place in 1973. The narrator has just strolled into Vilnius, a city in Lithuania which was at the time in the USSR. The first paragraph has the narrator gasping in relief when she gets there: “I was alive. I almost cried with joy.”
She had made her way to Vilnius by hitchiking.
We ate. They drank all the vodka. I told them I was on the wagon. Then the thug (my driver was peeing behind a tree) asked me whom I was going to sleep with that night. I said, “With Alexei” — my driver — “of course.” The thug didn’t argue: I was Alexei’s passenger. When Alexei came back and we got in the truck, he asked me a question. I told him that I couldn’t, that I was sorry; he didn’t insist — he was tired and drunk.
The remainder of the story shows the narrator making her way with no real home, depending on the kindness of strangers. One in particular is her “twin soul,” brought up in the very first sentence. I don’t want to go into details about how they’re twin souls, but they share tragedy. By the end, the twin soul is “a withered branch on a dead tree.”
I find it interesting that I like how Petrushevskaya leaves much unsaid, refers to emotional hot points in asides, and at the same time I felt that the story was lacking something. It’s short enough I’ll reread it, but on a first impression, I’m a bit disappointed.