The body of the soul
by Ludmila Ulitskaya
Translated from Russian by Sophie Benech
Gallimard, 208 pages, €18.50
We know the body. But what do we know of the soul, of which we can only glimpse the borders? Like the soul of the violin, the last piece of spruce that you slide into the instrument’s resonance box, and which allows the vibrations of sound to be transmitted, the soul is that indescribable, which gives a breath, a form of unity to life, but which cannot be approached without risk. The immense Russian writer Ludmila Oulitskaïa has accustomed us to these comings and goings between metaphysics and physics, to these back and forths between life and death, of which this former geneticist has not finished exploring the darkest recesses. In The green marqueeWhere Soniechkathe reader was thus attached to destinies over several generations, linked by “this thread of soul”, which she excels at tracking. Here, Ludmila Oulitskaïa operates through a series of short stories, drawing as many portraits of her ordinary “heroes” as she likes, especially heroines moreover, characters from the former Soviet empire, who spent their time in ” lugging suitcases, coffins and potatoes as she nicely describes in her introduction.
A first part therefore focuses on the destinies of women, silhouettes that are sometimes tired, tested, “those gorgeous, superstitious, faithful women, those wildly intelligent women, and those irretrievable gourds». In short, these women who are so many sisters of the writer, strong and united in the face of death, suffering, and the afterlife. Like Alice, who loves life so much that she buys insurance for the afterlife, a small porcelain box in her drawer containing poison. Or Lilia, married for a pair of white shoes, shoes that will prove to be a viaticum against the vagaries of life and separation. Or the poignant story of Lydia and Nina, two sisters, already elderly, whose filial love will be born by finding these few words, in the form of a prayer left before dying by an indifferent mother, and which begins as follows: “blessed are those who look at me with compassion».
The second part of the book, more poetic, almost dreamlike, explores these borders between life and death, without knowing what belongs to one or the other universe. The limits are blurred, as for Tolik, a simple young boy, who has become a strange photographer, whose body, suffering from a form of degeneration, ends up disappearing in the landscapes he has fixed thanks to his lens… This landscape which “invited him to join him, and he felt he was finally going to be able to get inside. The landscape welcomed him».
With her tight, precise writing, focusing on the details of life, Ludmila Oulitskaïa tells through this gallery of portraits the story of a culture, a language, a country, Russia, common “wealth”. of these characters sometimes scattered all over the world. For this dissident, who currently lives in Berlin, writers are the best witnesses of their time. And it is through the story of these heroes described at the level of everyday life, that she shows a capacity to resist all dictatorships, she who likes to recall that now aged 79, she has known many tyrants, Stalin to Putin… Like a cry of hope in the face of the brutality of History, what this lovely collection reveals is the resistance of souls, which you can never completely put to death.