The Women’s Decameron

Voznesenskaya’s THE WOMEN’S DECAMERON is based on an assumption expressed by Olga, the Soviet worker, in her seventh story on the tenth day: “women always find something to talk about once they’ve had time to get to know each other.” The ten women of this frame-tale reveal themselves through stories which are as simple and folkloric as the anecdotes of Larissa, and as complex and labyrinthine as Albina’s rendition of Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA. From “First Love” to “Revenge,” from “Money” to “Rapists and their Victims,” no topic of interest is left unexplored by the new mothers.

Because the stories are starkly realistic and grounded in the present, they begin to build an ever-deepening sense of life in the Soviet Union. The storytellers represent a wide range of economic, moral, and political possibilities. Olga the shipyard worker has had a very different life from Zina the tramp, or Valentina the bigwig. Yet the fundamental similarities of gender, maternity, and human compassion bind these women ever closer, day by day, as their stories unfold.

On the tenth day, the women tell tales of “Happiness,” and Irishka the secretary, who tells the last tale, tries to sum up all of the storytellers’ lives in the rosiest terms possible. Despite this painfully obvious striving for a happy ending, Voznesenskaya’s decameron has an irrepressibly dark side, which is clearly underscored by the words with which the women agree that the book should end: “We can be happy in the life that has been given to us. But we would like life to be more civilized as well.”