Thursday, October 19, 2023

Book Review: The Body of the Soul by Ludmila Ulitskaya

The Body of the Soul is a short story collection written by the acclaimed Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya and translated to English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher, Yale University Press, through Netgalley in exchange for honest feedback. Ulitskaya started her career as a scientist and, after a while, turned to literature, becoming one of the most important contemporary Russian writers.

I was drawn to the book by its title. It's undoubtedly one of the most philosophical ones that I've encountered recently. Normally, we consider the soul to be something that is outside the confines of a physical body. So, how can the soul have a body? Is the body of the soul in the title a physical one, or is it metaphysical? The body of work of a writer is a collective term used to indicate the writer's creative output, and it need not be physical. Is the term body in the title intended to be used this way?

The book has eleven short stories that are divided into two parts: Girlfriends, which contains four stories, and The Body of the Soul, which has the remaining seven. All eleven stories have certain common themes that bind them together, though structurally they are varied. The stories in the section Girlfriend explore power dynamics in relationships and how the end of a relationship affects these dynamics of domination and submission. Each story surveys this theme from different angles.

The opening story, titled The Dragon and the Phoenix, portrays the relationship between a dying Azarbaijani businesswoman and a more subordinate Armenian woman. In the story Aisa Buys Death, a middleaged, lonely woman with suicidal intentions falls in love and postpones her intentions. A Foreigner is the story about a Russian girl marrying an Iraqi student after being compelled to do so by her mother and finding him missing during her pregnancy. Blessed Are Those Who.. is the story about two siblings confronting their mother's past after her death. The stories in this section struck me with their raw realism. The stories demonstrate different situations where characters take control of themselves or relinquish it and alter their lives.

The second part of the book, which contains seven stories, infuses a subtle element of fantasy as it progresses. We find the life of a lab researcher getting transformed after her visit to a slaughterhouse, a Kafkaesque twist in the life of a woman who finds herself without an appetite, a surreal relationship that has to come down to dreary reality, a talented photographer with a withering body trying to stay alive through his photographs, a toy that gets passed on through generations, an autopsy that shows the presence of the supernatural, and a librarian with boundless memory forgetting words and falling into a world of wordlessness. The second part has shorter stories, with more surrealism and certain Kafkaesque tendencies.

This collection explores relationships with stories that progressively transition from ordinary to fantastic. Each of them has a spiritual quality to it and portrays the metamorphosis of the soul of its protagonists to a higher level. This is achieved either by taking control or giving it up in their relationships, with others whom they love, with the surroundings where they live, or with themselves. When the transformation or transition of an entity happens, it implies the presence of a body, either physical or abstract. So, I believe the title refers to this quality of the soul that transforms itself.


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