Tatyana Tolstaya's "Night" relates the story of a middle-aged, retarded man and his eighty-year-old mother, who has devoted her life to caring for him in their Moscow apartment. Characters on the edge of society, such as Alexei and Mamochka, are not unusual in Tolstaya's stories; in fact, she acknowledged in an interview with Publishers Weekly that she writes of Russians who are "always a little bit crazy."
Most of Tolstaya's stories, including "Night," are set in a Russia experiencing the tremendous and sometimes traumatic changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Berlin Wall has been torn down, and the monolithic Soviet Union, with its numerous communist satellite states, is crumbling apart. Russian society is economically and politically fragile, and this is reflected in the vulnerability of such characters as Alexei and Mamochka. They scrabble for a living by selling the cardboard boxes Alexei glues together, and they must tiptoe around the neighbors with whom they share cleaning and cooking space.
The Paris Review published "Night" in 1991 for Western audiences after its Russian publication in 1987. For both her first collection of short stories, On the Golden Porch, and her subsequent collection, Sleepwalkers in a Fog, which includes "Night," Tolstaya received high praise for her magical language and inventive use of imagery.
In the Morning
‘‘Night’’ begins as Mamochka and her retarded adult son, Alexei, wake up in their communal Moscow apartment. Alexei wakes from fantastic dreams filled with dragons, dwarves, and mushrooms, but Mamochka's rising is much more ordinary: she is occupied with replacing her false teeth, reattaching a hair piece, and clothing her stout frame. Alexei waits in his bed for his mother to ‘‘give the order’’ to get up and begin his day.
One dangerous person does nearly trip up Alexei's otherwise smooth morning—the Sea Girl, as he calls her. The Sea Girl fascinates and excites Alexei, although he is clueless about sexual attraction and finds that women terrify him. ‘‘It isn' t clear what they're here for, but they are very unsettling,’’ he thinks about women. The Sea Girl winks at him in the hallway, attracting Alexei's attention, but Mamochka comes to the rescue, chastising the woman for going after ''a sick man'' and behaving like a ‘‘shameless hussy.’’
After breakfast, Mamochka sets Alexei up at his work table in the apartment, where he glues cardboard boxes for a pharmacy. From this work his mother collects a bit of money. Mamochka putters around the apartment while he works, eventually falling asleep in her chair.
In the Afternoon and Early Evening
Alexei hates to part with the boxes he has made and angrily thinks about seeing people throw them in the trash after they leave the pharmacy. Once he found some of his boxes in the apartment house's trash and began screaming, ‘‘Who dared do this? Come on out, why don't you?’’ Mamochka arrived and calmed him down, but Alexei's violent behavior frightened the apartment's residents.
While Mamochka is asleep in her chair, Alexei decides to keep two of the boxes for himself, hiding them under his pillow. When she wakes up, they walk to the pharmacy to deliver his boxes, and he tries...
(The entire section is 794 words.)