Zośka Papużanka made her debut as a novelist in 2012 with A Domestic Charade, which was very well received by critics and readers alike. This exquisitely written novel tells the tragi-comic tale of a dysfunctional family and the psychological misery its members bring upon themselves. In her new novel, He, Papużanka develops this formula to a major extent. Once again she writes about problems within a family, focusing on a central character who is “uh-oh”, in other words a loser, and once again she weaves a complex narrative, from a variety of viewpoints and using different styles, where tragedy is combined with bitter humour. Except that in He she places the emphasis differently from in A Domestic Charade, and tells her story on a smaller scale. If A Domestic Charade can be defined as a “disjointed” family saga, He could be called a piecemeal psychodrama about the relationship between a mother and her son.
The main axis of the plot of this novel is the story of the difficult relationship between Śpik (meaning “dozy”) and his mother. Śpik, the “He” of the title, was born physically able, but with distinct mental and intellectual defects. He started to speak late, and even then he didn’t say much. He had learning difficulties, failing to absorb knowledge at all, and at school he was victimized and made into a scapegoat. The only thing that ever really interested him was urban transport, in particular trams – he knew everything there was to know about them, and could quote the timetable by heart. Śpik’s mother soon realized that her first-born son was not like other children and that he would never meet the traditional expectations, neither hers nor anybody else’s – he would never be a sweet, pretty, clever child. Nevertheless she loved him, and did her best to understand him and help him in life. But her love was underpinned by resignation. The less she expected of her son, the more she confirmed her belief that he would never be able to manage without her care, and the more dependent she made him. But she also made herself dependent on him. Śpik and his mother were tied together by a toxic bond, which neither of them was able to break. The mother quashed her son’s attempt to become self-reliant when he found a job as a tram driver, and he yielded to her will. They were stuck in an emotional stalemate, sinking deeper and deeper into eccentricities bordering on madness – both doomed to failure.
Papużanka never says exactly what is wrong with Śpik. He probably had a low IQ, and to some extent showed symptoms of Asperger’s or autism[A1] . I think this is a deliberate strategy. Above all, she has firmly planted her central character in the reality of a Polish school in the late communist era, and has peppered her novel with anecdotes from that era. At the same time she has aimed to create some stereotypes – Śpik’s working-class family is typical, with a factory-worker father who’s permanently absent (both physically and spiritually), the big bad school is also typical, a place where the indistinguishable head teachers rule over an indistinguishable crowd of pupils in navy-blue tunics. The narrator, a girl in Śpik’s class, perceives herself and her contemporaries like this: “We were all, regardless whether we were believers or not, this applies to everyone, an element in the collective and common features of the collective”. Only Śpik did not fit into any collective, and as a result acquired the role of an outsider, in reality as well as emblematically, someone inconceivable and unacceptable both for those in closest proximity to him and for the people who only had incidental contact with him. Śpik was always the one on the sidelines, whom it was better not to notice, to avoid having to contend with otherness that defies comprehension. Nor could the mother really see her son, but just an agonizing projection of her own fears and frustration.
As I’ve already said, in this novel Papużanka has devoted a lot of space to depicting everyday life in Poland at the end of the communist era, presenting details of the 1980s with detachment, underlined by irony and humour, and by pinpointing the absurdities of those days. In fact she writes the same sort of things about it and in the same way as other novelists born in the 1970s, such as Mariusz Sieniewicz or Michał Witkowski did at the start of their literary careers. Yet the real value of Papużanka’s new novel does not lie in the social, but the psychological sphere. In the past few decades many Polish authors have tackled the topic of dysfunctional families, but perhaps none of them has dared to go quite so far in their description of the painful areas within relationships between family members, or has gone ahead with such a thorough vivisection of their main characters’ psychological deformities and complications as Papużanka. And nobody has ever done it in such a refined style before.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones