’s latest book is a contribution to an international publishing project that is inviting modern writers to retell ancient myths. Tokarczuk has chosen to revive one of the oldest myths known to the world, first recorded by the Sumerians more than two thousand years before Christ. It is the story of the moon goddess Inanna, who descends to the underworld, ruled by her sister Ereshkigal, and is eventually rescued from death by another god. But Ereshkigal demands a substitute to take her place, and according to various versions it is either Inanna’s husband who dies in her place, or his sister who offers to die instead of him. Tokarczuk’s telling of the story takes elements from different versions and uses the peripheral characters, mainly the goddesses’ loyal servants, as narrators. Her telling brings out the echoes in the story that reappear in other ancient cultures, where many myths tell of a descent to the underworld followed by a return in exchange for a sacrifice, as a parallel with the annual cycle of nature, or the cycle of human life.
As Tokarczuk writes in her informative introduction, researching and writing the story was like “a sort of literary archaeology – putting together an entire tale from pieces, and on top of that bringing it as close as possible to the modern reader. This task really did remind me of digging up the broken pieces of an ancient pot that once served its purpose and was used to the full by someone, but which nowadays is not just incomplete but the designation of which is no longer entirely clear.” Thus to some extent the meaning of the myth is lost, and Tokarczuk leaves us to read our own messages into her reinterpretation. While making the story accessible to the modern reader with hints at contemporary settings (like an ancient play produced in modern dress), she also retains the mystery and awe that we should surely feel when entering the realm of the gods, using a poetic style and rhythm reminiscent of ancient epic.
In this extract, the servant of the underworld goddess leads Inanna – renamed by Tokarczuk as Anna In – to his mistress’ malevolent presence.
- Antonia Lloyd Jones
4. The Descent
It is no pleasure to bring news to my mistress. It is no pleasure to stand before her, it is hard to utter a sound. I, Neti, a heap of bones draped in threadbare fibres, I, Everyman the narrator, shudder as I draw near to her. Around her it is always several degrees colder, as I have verified. I have come to know the language of her hissing, electrified hair that she combs malevolently without respite. I have to lower my gaze – my mistress is not a pretty sight.
“A personage has come who claims she is your sister,” I say nonchalantly, trying my best not to imbue my words with any emotion.
The comb stops dead. Briefly, the hair falls silent, but her lips darken, going black as pitch – a bad sign for me.
“How does she look?” I hear her say.
I try hard to remember exactly what I saw a short time ago through a chink in the door. My memory is weak, accustomed to the gloom, to patches of shade – it is wholesale rather than retail. How does she look? It was a pleasant sight, warm, dry and bright. The perfect thing for my rheumatism.
“She is wearing a bizarre cap with horns covering her hair, which is tied into hundreds of little plaits, and a necklace made of sky-blue stones…” – and what else, what else can I think of, poor me. No one dresses up like that here. What else am I to say? I can never tell the difference between a skirt and a frock. “She has some sparkling gems on her breast, and a great ring on her finger, maybe of gold, one hundred percent pure, so large she could kill with it. She has a silver bodice or camisole over a brightly coloured frock.
”I search my mind for suitable words – I am never able to name items of clothing. Frock, skirt, bodice, waistcoat, frock coat, tailcoat… the city folk are endlessly inventive. And yet it would be quite enough for all human clothes to be simply called a “sweater”. “She is holding something like a compass and a pictorial map, and her hands are all covered in tattoos.” After a while I add my own comment: “It’s not very feminine… She has made up her eyes with stylish graphite-grey eyeshadow. A handsome woman, young and healthy,” I say, while thinking this is the beginning of trouble.
I hear the comb start up its motion again, and the hair crackles angrily. But the voice, her voice, is strangely calm: “Go back and let her in, draw back the bolts and let her come in if it matters so much to her.
”Nothing could have surprised me more that that answer of hers. I would sooner have expected a fit of rage, an underground storm, or an earthquake, the scream she emits when she’s in a fury, or her sharp fingernails. In the blinking of an eye, in the batting of an eyelid, I lift my gaze in amazement, but instantly drop it again – it’s not a pleasant sight. Perhaps I misheard?
No, not at all. She clearly repeats: “Let her come in, but tell her to leave her suitcase outside and take off all her necklaces, one after another, and she is to wash off her make-up and take off all that trash. This is not a ball or a fashion parade. She is to stand here naked, the way I know her.”
“Coldly,” is all I say – I prefer that word to any other. It serves me for “yes”. I pass no comment, I never have an opinion. My feet splash in the shallow, cold water and slap against the flagstones that have never seen the sun and have grown mossy with longing for it. Like me. But what do my bones want the sun for? They’re never going to flourish anyway.
I set the gate ajar and a little light falls in from outside. It blinds me. There stands the young lady, waiting. I repeat my mistress’ words to her, precisely, mechanically, I am an automatic porter with aching bones, it’s all the same to me. I have no heart, I have no regret. In my bones there is no sympathy. I won’t get involved in this.
“Was she pleased to hear I had come?” asks Anna In. But I have no intention of answering her. What would I have to say to her? Was she pleased? That’s a good one.
As her foot crosses the threshold, as she slips into the darkness like into a black stocking, for a moment I feel like seizing the girl, twisting her arms and throwing her out of here. And shouting: “Go away! Get lost!” But I can keep my self-control, I’m far on in years. So without really counting on a reply I merely ask: “Do you know what you are doing?”
“Yes, I do,” she says.
I like that. Sometimes such worn out, wilting, fatally weary people come here. They bang on the door so hard they must think this is a sanatorium. There’s a tiny little garret for them here, a sweet little quarantine until they recover. I’ve had quite enough bother. I am an official, I just carry out orders, I’m commissioned to work here for eternity.
“Was she pleased to hear I had come?” the woman asks again, as we move into the depths.
“You are not allowed to say anything here, so forget about words,” I whisper reproachfully. “From now on you are not allowed a single word, and in any case your chatter is of no use here. It’ll be nothing but an echo that bounces off the walls. The words will come back mangled, like war-torn, invalid words. If we could talk as freely here as you do up there, everything would be different.”
I lead the girl down a wide corridor with rusty tracks running along it. We are walking up to our ankles in water, hence my pains. Anna In furtively inspects me, and I can feel her gaze. It is warm, let her look. I am not ashamed of being nothing but a heap of bones gnawed away at by rheumatism and held together by crocheted sweaters. Falling means risking their total disintegration, and so I place my bare feet carefully on the slippery bottom.
At a creaking iron door I tell her to take off her cap and I cast it into the water. She looks better without it anyway. She does want to protest, but holds her tongue at the last moment – it’s all right, she has understood – here nothing is said. Then we go downwards until we reach a half-rotted wooden door. Here I tell her to leave her necklace. I examine it again before casting it into the water, but its value does not show up well here. The stones will soon fade and the strings will rot through. City jewellery! The same goes for those huge shining gems – what light will they reflect, what will make them sparkle? They’re out of place here – my mistress doesn’t like gewgaws. No reds or pinks, and she can’t stand blue. Instead she likes black and grey and khaki. She has an interest in sculpture – she appreciates stalagmites. She likes music, especially the monodic kind that’s based on a single sound and remains monotonous, now softer, now louder, a whole concert for several days, sometimes three months on end. It calms her. She likes one colour of painting – black, and contemplates its shades with an expert eye. No, no baubles. Still far to go? Anna In must surely want to ask. But I won’t answer. What would I have to say to her?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones