Elo Viiding - Foreign Women
Elo Viiding leads us on a chase in Foreign Women, a chase of laughter that encourages us to first laugh here, and then there, directing our attention toward and away, until finally we are laughing at the absurdity of everyone, everywhere.
The focus of the short story ostensibly begins on these foreign women, newly arrived to Soviet Estonia. They smoke, they wear make-up, they drink. They talk with men and laugh like men. They swear. “All sorts of interesting things were always happening to them”, Viiding writes. They
would often be woken up by the clanking of some triumphant janitor's buckets as his shapeless body hauled these by their door; or else their sleepy eyes would find the crumpled corpse of a cockroach, pregnant with young, in their morning cup of coffee, the creature having been squashed by the blow of a spoon.
Much more interesting, certainly, than the Soviet women, who,
with their gaunt faces, exhausted on account of being deprived of spare time, loved to smile and chuckle over and noisily publicize the stories of the dishonourable declines that had, like lightning, followed the scandalous acts of any proud but treacherous members of their gender to have dared express some discontent with the status quot - the better to feel that they were secure in the unshakeable sanctuary of their own high social standings, which had been obtained only after terrible effort and anxiety in that male-dominated world.
At first, Viiding leads us down the easy path. We suspect this is a story seen through the clear but innocent eyes of a young girl, one who notices the glamour of the foreigners, and rejects the strengths of the women she knows from home. But that's only at first, for Viiding is adept at slowly, ever so slowly, tipping the scales until we see the foreign women in a ridiculous light, and the Soviet women positively, and then – she tips them again.
Viiding uses the conceit of the intellectual male, which should read the scuttling, ineffectual, even lazy male, as the connection that binds the women, and with this scalpel she slices both groups of women. The foreign women are liberated, but they are dependent on drugs and cigarettes; they are wantonly sexual, but they rage against their impotent husbands; they travel the world and tell stories in husky voices, but they
were never able to pay attention to anyone else's problems for more than a few minutes at a time. Not that this really mattered:
no one in their right mind would risk confiding anything in them, with their big mouths, firm convictions, and sharp tongues.
But the Soviet women aren't any better. Their husbands sit locked up in tiny rooms writing furiously for censored magazines while they do all the physical labour necessary to keep a house running smoothly – including working for the wages that pay the bills. Viiding writes,
A good woman, with whom a proper Soviet intellectual would want to live - working, eating, sharing their home, sleeping - was always bright, alert, effective, discreet, handy, and well-liked; she never whined, never drank or talked too much, knew when to make herself scarce, knew how to sacrifice her own needs when necessary; was simultaneously ladylike, childishly dependent, politely adult, and wise as an old sage.
In short, such a woman is a saint, and we can be judicious enough to agree that she likely doesn't exist. Viiding's narrator, again probably a small female child, views the activities of everyone she sees with just the right amount of absurdity and skepticism. She sees through the seriousness by way of cataloguing the ridiculous next to the bizarre, and noting that they often directly contradict. What eventually builds is a tower of nonsense as the women on both sides become caricatures, alternately sympathetic and not.
Not even sex is safe:
Of course, by giving such daring presents, they were risking some of the more patriarchal family fathers breaking off their friendships, but since these women represented the better, capitalist, free world, they were usually forgiven.
Viiding goes on to note that,
Various pink Taiwanese sex toys were, in any case, often given to the children to play with, while the sex manuals, intended to enlighten and embolden, were usually used to light the stove.
The sexual enlightenment of the foreign women couples nicely with the plainer attitudes of the Soviet women, and both pincer neatly the Soviet men who, to put it bluntly, are sleeping with everyone and winning nothing but contempt.
Foreign Women is a difficult story to quote from, because the whole needs to be understood to make sense of the parts. These quotes, for me, are quite funny, but then I have read what comes before and after, and I know the entirety of the text. For someone who hasn't? Perhaps they aren't funny. Viiding builds her text carefully, but the effect is to race along, roaring through the falsities of life and refusing to allow the idols to remain whole.
It's a great story, one that rewards an open reading, and one that is consistently funny, the way the best satire can be.
Foreign Women by Elo Viiding is a short story from The Dalkey Archive Press’ publication, Best European Fiction 2010 (edited by Aleksander Hemon). This review is part of a series intending to examine each story from the collection, in an effort to broaden awareness of both the project itself, and the excellent array of authors contained within.
Other titles under review from the Best European Fiction 2010 anthology include:
---Belgium: Toussaint, Jean-Phillipe - Zidane's Melancholy
---Bosnian: Štiks, Igor - At the Sarajevo Market
---Bulgarian: Gospodinov, Georgi - And All Turned Moon
---Croatian: Ušumović, Neven – Vereš
---Danish: Aidt, Naja Marie - Bulbjerg
---French: Montalbetti, Christine - Hotel Komaba Eminence (With Haruki Murakami)
---Hungarian: Konrád, György - Jeremiah's Terrible Tale
---Icelandic: Bragi, Steinar - The Sky Over Thingvellir
---Italian: Mozzi, Guilio - Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read
List of title published by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Reviews of other short stories from the Best European Fiction 2010 Series
Links provided by The Dalkey Archive Press: