This new set of stories by Jacek Dehnel includes all the features that are already familiar to readers of his novel Lala: inter-textual games of post-modern provenance, and a camp mixture of style and elegant phrasing. I think elegance is the key word in describing Dehnel’s prose – that is what gives it flavour, even when, as in Balzaciennes, he is telling what are essentially “straight stories” (a flamboyant reference to David Lynch’s film is quite appropriate for prose that is so full of cultural clues and references). The book consists of four novellas about: the unhappy marriage of the daughter of a rich textiles merchant and a young painter from the self-promoting world of Warsaw celebrities (Meat Cold Cuts Clothing Textiles); the small-scale family saga of the landowning Zarębskis, who have trouble making ends meet in the communist era and the new independent Poland (Tońcia Zarębska); the tale of a young man who escapes from cheerless reality into the world of old-fashioned style and manners, and makes a living teaching etiquette and good taste (The Private Tutor’s Love); and the story of the unsuccessful come-back of a third-rate communist-era chanteuse (The Splendours and Miseries of a Stage Artiste’s Life in Her Well-Earned Retirement). Taking his inspiration from Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, Dehnel attempts to depict a sort of cross-section of modern society, except that it is a rather an unusual one. Typically, as he writes about the present day, he says a lot about the past; some of his characters, such as Adrian Hełsztyński in The Private Tutor’s Love, are deeply immersed in it, and ignore the modern way of life. Is this Dehnel’s oblique way of judging our “here and now”? Perhaps. However, I think what really counts in his new stories is not so much his correct diagnosis of reality, as his stylistic skill and attention to detail. In short, this is prose for connoisseurs.
- Robert Ostaszewski
In this extract from “The Splendours and Miseries of a Stage Artiste’s Life in Her Well-Earned Retirement” Polish singer Halina Rotter has been persuaded to return to the stage by an insistent agent who has arranged for her to make her first appearance in Moscow. But he is not there to meet her at the airport, and the accommodation he has arranged is very shabby.
Halina heard the mobile phone ring, and hastened to undo the zips and pockets of her handbag, because for obvious reasons (“Moscow! The Wild East! Thieves and muggings!”) she had hidden it deep down, but as she hadn’t yet got used to all the nooks and crannies of her new bag it took twice as long as with the old one. Finally she answered it.
“Sznurkowski here. Miss Rotter, something’s come up.”
“Oh, hello, I was just about to call you – you know, I realise Moscow is a crowded place, but this hotel…”
“Miss Rotter, dear Miss Rotter, the hotel is a minor detail.”
“…I don’t have to have a suite in the Kremlin, but…”
“Hold on a moment. We’ve got a problem.”
“With the show. We’ve got a problem with the show.”
“Indeed! Because it’s coming right up! Haven’t they sold any tickets? I did warn you I’m no longer… I was never…”
She almost said “…I was never a singer”, but she bit her tongue.
“The point is this. We employed you…”
“Employed? All along I’ve been told it was an invitation to work together.”
“Let’s not split hairs, Miss Rotter, OK? We’ve been working together, because Kołymski had no dates free.”
“Jarek Kołymski, don’t you know that name? You must do – the homo, I mean gay, glasses, with a sort of slicked-back toupee, tight trousers, real name Żuk, Jarosław Żuk. ‘Portugueeee-se tan-go! Portugueeee-se tan-go! Above there hangs a mango, below the steppe’s in view!’ ”
“You’re trying to tell me who Kołymski was? I know, everyone knows, he was performing before you… what am I saying? before your parents were born. But what has he got to do with it? What has he got to do with me being in Moscow at the Hotel Proserpina, where the toilets are blocked and there’s a cockroach the size of a sparrow on the wall?”
“Kołymski didn’t have the dates, right? He didn’t. He was going off on a tour of the health spas, mainly Ciechocinek, but also Kołobrzeg, Buska and Polanica Zdrój, where the retired folks are. It’s really well paid, I could organise one for you in the spring…”
“What has Kołymski got to do with it? I’m asking you nicely.”
“Well, he’s cancelled his tour. There was some sort of financial row, I think he quarrelled with the people in Szczawnica, I don’t know exactly what it was about, but it was to do with money…. and all those manageresses and women in charge are all in one big conspiracy, so when he cancelled one of their concerts, they teamed up on him, and he had no penalties in his contract for breaking the agreement, so the whole thing’s screwed. It’s on ice. And as you know, he’s incredibly popular in Russia – Kolee-mski, Kolee-mski, they chant, there are posters advertising him everywhere, they’re all pushing and shoving to get in.”
“They were supposed to do that for me too.”
“But not like that, Miss Rotter, not like that. We make a lot of money on Kołymski straight off, on the spot, without any extra work, without having to warm up the information channels…it’s fine. And to the last minute we weren’t sure it’d come off, so we kept you in reserve as well. So this is what we’ll do: you sit tight for a bit longer, a couple of days or so, and I’ll try to arrange something else for you, because we’re giving that date to Kołymski. But now I must fly, good bye.”
And he hung up.
At that point she lost her temper and called him back immediately.
“In reserve?” she screamed. “In reserve? You can keep an NCO in reserve, Dariusz. You made an agreement with me, in fact you persuaded me to agree to all this, you didn’t just make an agreement, you forced one, you organised all this, you told me to take lessons, to come here, to stay in this blasted Hotel Proserpina, and now you’re telling me I’m in reserve?”
“Now now, please don’t get upset…”
“Don’t get upset? What would you do in my place? Do we have an agreement or not?”
“Technically speaking, we don’t. We haven’t signed anything.”
“But the arrangements… it was all discussed in advance. You could have backed out, and not persuaded me to do this in the first place…”
“I could have, but the situation was different then. The Russian side wanted to have someone in reserve as a back-up.”
“In reserve as a back-up! And along came General Kutuzov. I want to know when the concert is, when I’ll get my dress for the show and where the pyrotechnicians will be from, dammit!”
At that moment, as she imagined it, Dariusz Sznurkowski’s true character appeared on his face, everything that lay hidden in his low forehead, his hairy cheeks that reminded her of kiwi fruits, his pimples, that entire phrenological exploding bomb, everything that would destroy him in years to come – oh, she hoped so, how she hoped it would! – destroy his future wife and his future children too, change their evenings into non-stop quarrels, the daughter into a desperate drug addict and the son into a drag queen or something even worse.
“Listen… lady,” he said, “I’ve been kind, because I was poking your granddaughter, but now that’s it, game over, now we’re going to be frank and open. You had a chance? You did. On your own responsibility? Too right. Kołymski turned up, so now you’ve got no chance. Do you really think we’re going to bend over backwards just to promote some old bag no one remembers, some commie-era nineteen-sixties has-been, as one wise guy put it? Hello – this is Planet Earth, this is reality calling! Time to retire, Granny, time for a pair of slippers and a cup of herbal bloody tea.”
And then there was just the dialling tone, and here, beneath St Basil’s fairytale Cathedral, looking like a cake topped with colourful icing served up on Putin’s great table, Halina Rotter realised that she’d been absolutely right the very first day when she’d wanted to throw Dariusz Sznurkowski, stage impresario, out of the door.
She had agreed to his proposal, but not because she was avid for fame or wanted to stand in the spotlights again, amid sprays of sparks designed by Austrian pyrotechnicians, surrounded by supple dancers from Vladivostok tensing their muscles under tight leather costumes; of course she had always enjoyed taking a bow on stage, signing autographs and giving people pleasure with what to her mind she did best, which was singing. But she had learned to live without that, she didn’t expect to get heaps of letters, to be carried shoulder high, bathed in Russian champagne or awarded a Gold Disc on live TV (with a break for a yoghurt ad). But there was something else, something greater she was hoping for: her life, which could still be improved and set on a better path. With nicer furniture, an annual autumn trip to a warm country and long summer walks along the Polish coast between Sopot and Oksywie. Did she want youth? She wasn’t that naïve, but as for some illusion of youth, why not? An affair with an attractive director who’s been around the block, or a distinguished professor, a little flirting at the occasional banquet, maybe a bit of a face-lift, just a tiny one. But mainly she wanted to feel that she had found her place in life and was creating something that would remain, something more lasting than invoices for buying and selling countless blocks of pine and oak. Concert tours, Austrian pyrotechnicians and crowds of Russians chanting “Rot-tier, Rot-tier,” would just be a minor extra – the point was a sense of fulfilment.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones