Weightlessness is one of the best women’s novels in recent years: it’s universal, it opens itself up to many different interpretations, it’s complex and rich in meaning. Like in Fiedorczuk’s earlier collections of stories, women are the main characters in this novel. We observe her three heroines from their childhood in a small town near Warsaw, into adulthood in the big city. Each of them – which is a common motif in Fiedorczuk’s works – comes from a different social group, but they are all linked by a feminine sensitivity, in the ways in which they perceive the world, and by their similar relations with their surroundings. Each of them clashes with her own body, with her parents’ indifference, with male violence. Zuzanna is the daughter of a professor, who sent her to art classes. Now an adult, Zuzanna is a wealthy, well-educated and sophisticated woman. She’s a typical representative of the middle class: single, self-absorbed, in constant pursuit of some kind of better version of herself. Her childhood friend, Helena, is different – she’s the daughter of a tailor, and she herself does physical work: she works as a maid in a hotel, raises her two children, and visits her mother in a hospital, who is dying of cancer. Their school friend, Ewka, is the diametrical opposite. Born to Maria, a hobo who rummages through trash, she is sent to a special school in Warsaw. As an adult, she’s homeless, living on the streets, with all of her energy consumed by her search for the next drop of alcohol and a warm place to sleep.
Weightlessness is a sociological novel which demonstrates how women are unable to go beyond the restrictions which have been imposed upon them by their social class. Their intelligence, ambition, sensitivity and interests make no difference – they’re destined to reproduce the fates of their own mothers.
In this novel, Julia Fiedorczuk gives us decidedly more, for the weightlessness of the title also has a metaphysical meaning, connected to the inability to become rooted in one’s own life. Each of these women tries, in some way, to tame her own body, her fate, and the place where she has ended up living. Her body, however, remains unknown, her own biography appears to be foreign and incomprehensible, and her family – strangers. Thus, the entire everyday effort is bound to the taming of surroundings and the confirmation of one’s own existence.
The greatest value of Fiedorczuk’s novel lies in this clash between sociological observation and metaphysical order, and in fact a new quality is created here. The author thus manages to create a story from paradoxes, to reveal the complications of a seemingly simple life, and to present a woman as a human being, without any rose-tinted, sentimental embellishments. In Weightlessness, a battle with dust assumes the proportions of a philosophical act (leaving a trace of oneself in the world), and a search for the self takes place in alcoholic hallucinations. Fiedorczuk draws portraits of girls as creatures that are simultaneously sensitive and extremely cruel, reproducing in their world the kind of relationships they see between adults. Zuzanna says to her doll, “Stop wailing,” and Ewka beats a dog that nuzzles her. As adult women, they also turn out to be equivocal: they hate male domination, but they submit to it and take advantage of it, and they don’t speak out about the violence they experience.
- Paulina Małochleb
Translated by Scotia Gilroy
Ewka didn't need a watch to warn her that they would be shutting the allotment gardens soon. She could tell from the angle of the sun. Or maybe not even from that, but from colours themselves. The sky paled, everything else becoming darkened, in sharper relief. This was the moment Ewka would have to try slipping into the allotments without being spotted by the caretaker.
The gate squeaked slightly. Ewka closed it behind her carefully, and looked around. Nothing. Not a soul. She started walking, slowly, yet assertively, clutching under her arm a carrier bag with the word Triumph emblazoned across it. Instinct led her on. That, and the vision of an empty little house on one of the allotments. The dream of comfortable rest. It had been a long day, long enough for her to get drunk twice and sober up twice. The unoccupied cottage was a bright spot on the map of the city, a map Ewka had etched into a place more permanent even than memory, a pulsating brightness, calling her onwards.
She turned into another lane between the parcelled-off allotments. Round a corner, she could hear the sounds of a group of friends, entertaining each other round a barbecue. The smell of roasting sausage was torture, but this made no impression on Ewka, who was used to torture. She straightened her spine and walked on, as if nothing, as if she too had every right to stroll this evening time down Cat Alley between lilac bushes. She looked ahead, the sounds of conversations over the barbecue fading, only to then explode in a final salvo of laughter. She swore under her breath, but without conviction, feeling too tired to curse even. The empty cottage had to be near, and the thought gave her new strength. Led on by this invisible lighthouse, she turned again, this time into a slightly wider alley, which intersected the allotments from one end to the other. The setting sun was right up ahead. And against its bright disc, a fair way off still, she saw the form of the allotment caretaker riding along on his bike.
It was one of the few moments when she displayed any sort of reflex action. Turning on a heel, she instantly double-backed into Cat Alley. This time the murmuring around the barbecue didn't dim. She stopped by a gate opposite, placed her bag on the ground and pretended to fiddle with the lock. A woman's voice called out “Eh, we'll have to finally change that padlock one day...” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the caretaker cycle past and vanish from sight. She returned to the main alley, glanced around with greater care, spotting no sign of him. The light on the map inside her head was glowing steadily. Maybe... there and there, Ewka thought. There. Behind the jasmine, on the right. She felt terribly tired, but the awareness that her destination was so close gave her an added boost. This time, before turning another corner, she stuck her head out from behind the fencing to check if the coast was clear. And clear it was. Not a soul to be seen down the darkening alley.
She turned into it. This part of the allotment gardens was less well-kept, overgrown with old trees and bushes. Some of the lawns hadn't been mowed in ages. In this sea of greenery, in the shade, Ewka suddenly felt the cold. A shiver shook her, but she was close. The light inside her intensified. Maybe there, she thought. One more corner to turn. Following the setting sun. The process of imagining how comfortable she would be in just a moment almost hurt. Even if someone had shat in there again. And so what. Andsowhat andsowhat andsowhat.
And that was when, without warning, a woman holding a giant bunch of lilacs appeared right at her feet. Ewka first saw the cloud of white flowers, thick and heavy. The smell alone was enough to crush her, but her own stinking firewall stopped any other smells from getting through. The woman had emerged out of one of the more overgrown allotments and was closing the gate behind her. She had appeared next to Ewka, as if out of nowhere. And suddenly, and close enough for the two to make eye contact, Ewka and the strange woman, even though no one had ever before made a point of noticing, of staring into her eyes. The woman, an elderly lady in a thin, light-coloured raincoat covering a rotund body, topped off with a bright red hairdo of carefully considered proportions, stopped dead in her tracks. Ewka instantly knew playtime was over. Over and out. Over and done with. For a moment they both stood there, staring and staring back, Ewka and the woman, until the latter uttered:
“But you're not... allowed here.”
“Why the fuck ain't I?” Ewka was aware enough to snap back. “It was open, so I walked in.”
“How can you speak to me like...” the woman countered. “Why such language?”
Ewka shrugged her arms. The light inside her died like an extinguished match, the cold around them moving closer in. A shiver ran through her.
“We close up for the night,” the older woman went on. “Right now, only the owners can...” She closed her gate, taking up position in the centre of the narrow alleyway, barring Ewka's progress. “We all have to keep some sort of order around here,” she went on explaining, as if expecting to be understood. But Ewka was in no mood to be understanding. Quite the opposite, in fact. She started walking again, in a sudden burst of willpower. With no direction in mind but onwards. Straight at this bloody keeper of public peace. And her vast shield of white lilacs.
“What are you doing?” the woman protested, but she had to move aside, Ewka moving forward with unstoppable determination. She walked on, without looking back. The older woman cried out, “Security! Security!”
Ewka kept on walking. Only a few more steps and she would be turning, right into the path of the setting sun, the last corner to turn, for beyond it, only a few plots further, there was a wooden palace waiting for Queen Ewka, her bed all laid out in wait for her royal highness.
“Guard!” the woman screamed. Only a few more steps. Just a couple.
“What's going on here?” asked a hoarse, male voice. Ewka heard the sound of a slowing bicycle. She kept on walking.
“She almost knocked me over,” the woman kept on with her lamentations.
“Hey!” the man called out. “Where do you think you're going?”
“She almost had me down,” the woman repeated.
Ewka was still walking. Slowly, proud, erect, towards her palace. She reached the crossroads. And turned. The last corner. The sky filled with an orange glow, drawing her onwards. Just a little further. Just a little...
“Stop!” the guard hollered. But Ewka kept up her momentum. A second later, she once again heard the bicycle's brakes, only this time inches from her back. Someone tugged at her shoulder. “Oi, get the hell out of here! No sleeping on my watch.”
She finally stopped. The sun was vast, loaded, burning into her eyes. A shiver shook her again.
“Go on, get,” the man said, slightly more softly. The woman came running with her lilacs.
“You can't talk to people like that,” she countered.
“But you're the one who called for help! So what do you want me to do now?”
“Yes, but... she's still a human being. Miss?” the woman turned to the now finally motionless Ewka. “Perhaps you could go find a shelter? You know, I see such places on TV all the time...”
“Now they're going to get all pally,” the guard mumbled. Ewka took a step forward. “Oi!” he yelled, “The way out is that way. And if I see you round here again, I'll call the law on you.”
“I'll walk you to the gate,” the woman offered.
“Once more and I will, I'll call the cops,” the guard repeated.
Ewka closed her eyes. The sun really was burning brightly now, a warning red. All that was missing was fiery warmth. But maybe that was the shade. Maybe the cold blowing in from the woods. Maybe the damp from the earth.
“Let's go, come on,” the woman implored.
Ewka turned and, without waiting for her companion, headed back the way she came. It felt as if someone was rewinding a dream. And the watching of it, going backwards, was torture, though again Ewka wasn't too... fussed, considering she was so used to tortures. Sunlight now pressed against her back. She felt terribly tired, though she knew she wouldn't rest, not until she'd had a drink, no fucking way.
The woman kept following. She was smaller than Ewka and took tiny steps. To keep up, she had to trot.
“Maybe some kind of hostel? And why are you out on the street? Why won't you get a job?”
Ewka walked on. They had arrived at the main alleyway, only now they were walking away from the sun, the bloody disc now starting to dip behind the trees anyway. Ewka couldn't see it, could only sense the superficial warmth it had been giving off. She felt even colder than before.
Ewka turned into Cat's Alley. The smell of grilled sausage assailed her with even greater cruelty than before. The people around the barbecue seemed to be having a jolly old time. A kid was screaming, but no one was paying it any attention. Nor did they notice the two women marching slowly past.
- Translated by Marek Kazmierski
This translation was supported by the Sample Translations ©Poland program.