Challenge 476 Response
“A Very Convenient Affair”
with Maria Kontak
The events take place in 2000, twenty-five years after Ellie’s study program in Moscow in 1975. Ellie accepts an invitation from Katya, the daughter of her Moscow landlady Mariya Petrovna, to attend Mariya’s 100th birthday party.
This is essentially a story about how lack of living space in Soviet Russia negatively impacted people’s lives, bringing on unnecessary tension and a warring atmosphere in the household, where people vied for room.
Grisha hates Ellie because she was the third signature on a legal document that barred him and his pregnant wife Katya from moving into the spacious room that Ellie rented from her landlady, Mariya Petrovna. The cramped small space next door, where the young couple lived, was not enough to house them and a set of twins as well; Katya had an abortion.
Grisha became so distraught by the circumstances that he fled to Israel. In his mind, he blamed Ellie for complicity in his mother-in-law’s scheme to keep the couple out of the larger living space, which had three rooms: hers, the room she rented out to Ellie, and the room for her “favorite” absent daughter Sonya.
It was the landlady’s favoritism of Sonya over Katya that shaped her perspective on the housing issue, but Ellie unknowingly became complicit in this blockade to keep Grisha and Katya out of the large flat.
As for the references to War and Peace: No one wants to dwell on war, especially not young people, but it does happen. The kids in Ellie’s class demonstrate that. They have no appetite for discussing the topic, how it comes about, what it leads to, or the role of the individual in war.
War and Peace is handy, because it serves to link Ellie to her own youth, when she was also so wrapped up in life — peace — that she was oblivious to the domestic war in which she was an unwitting participant.
The references to Blok are just for atmosphere. Neznakomka is a character in his poem who wanders the night alone. I wanted to embellish Ellie’s sense of isolation when she is standing on the balcony at night, finally aware of the evil that has transpired.
In hindsight, I think I should have dwelt more on the severe housing shortage in the Soviet Union. It might have helped North American readers of today understand Grisha better. But that was something the Russians had to take for granted. And frankly I had gotten so tired of the story that working in an explanation would have been a grind.
Thanks again for the thoughtful questions.
And thank you for the very informative responses! This exchange is the sort of thing I like to think is good for the morale of readers and contributors alike.
I can see why you might tire of the story. It deals with Soviet life before 1989. And people like Grisha and Katya would have already been sick of it in 1975.
I understood that living space was a big problem for the young couple. What I missed was the undercurrent of tension between the landlady, Mariya Petrovna, and Katya. But the important thing is that Ellie learns 25 years too late what she needed to learn when she first came to Moscow. And that explains why, at the end, Ellie, too, is one of the walking wounded.
In any event, the characterization and atmosphere alone make the story fascinating, and the premise itself is a bonus.
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Kontak
and Bewildering Stories