Breathless

Włodzimierz Odojewski
Breathless
  • Rosner & Wspólnicy
    Warszawa 2002
    110 x 190
    504 pp
    ISBN 83-89217-03-1

Odojewski’s collection of stories, Breathless, could be termed a mosaic novel. In it, the author links texts from his 1987 book Unremembered, Unappeased with eight earlier works, creating out of this completely new constellation an exceptional and unique whole that, while resisting uniformity of plot and setting, demonstrates consistency in its structure and formal pattern.The basis of this pattern is the protagonist and events from his life. A forty-something emigrant who leaves Poland around 1970, he was born too early to have missed the Second World War and too late to have taken part in it: he never killed, but he did witness death. His youthful loves are inextricably intertwined with the experience of evil — superimposed on his first sexual experiences are images of violence, of people humiliated, corpses mutilated. After the war, he finishes his studies, becomes a journalist, and secures a job, at each stage compromising himself in various ways. Utterly exhausted by the uncertainty of life in Poland, he decides to emigrate. Along with his wife and child, he settles down somewhere in Germany/Britain/United States, where he finds work as a journalist/scholar/writer. These biographies, though different in their particulars, are assembled as variations on a life — a mosaic that coheres into the biography of an emigrant striving to make a life for himself. He has to do this because his existence after leaving his country is neither settled nor satisfying. Basically he lives in the moment, supported by long-cherished dreams that had once given him confidence in a future when he would be able to speak the truth without having to fear the consequences. He does succeed in fulfilling this dream of a truthful and secure life, but in the interim it has lost its meaning. The protagonist lives his life in the shadows of three historical complexes. The first of these is an initial wound from wartime, from a history that to each of his first experiences added cruelty, violence, and crime, preventing the protagonist from distinguishing a pure and innocent initiation into life from the horror of humankind’s cynicism, baseness, and capacity to violate any ethical limit. The second complex is that of the emigrant’s feeling of guilt stemming from his memory of petty compromises and concessions to Stalinist terror, committed in order to save his own neck. And finally the third complex, that of inarticulateness. Now that the protagonist is able to write and speak freely, he encounters an insurmountable barrier around his own past. The coils of common and private histories, the knots of experiences both sublime and base, the feeling that some prior wholeness has been lost and the awareness of one’s own alienness — all of this makes it impossible to articulate the truth: even if it could be expressed, no one would understand it; and even if someone understood it, he or she could not experience it. Torn apart by contradictory aspirations, the protagonist develops a method of acclimatisation: since he cannot orient himself in his new surroundings, but also cannot recover an earlier integrity, he begins to return down the track of his memory and transforms his life into a continuous process of recollection. He chooses a life betwixt and between.

- Przemysław Czapliński

Excerpt

So he stood there completely motionless and, it seemed to him, without taking a breath either, for a minute or even more. Even so, he did not hear her steps in the hallway or on the stairs. But then he heard the sound downstairs of the front door creaking shut. Only then did he go to the door to the hallway and close it behind her. And then he started to feel once again the usual solitude weighing on him, and he thought of the hours reading the newspaper or listening to the radio that awaited him. Like a slave to some blind addiction, wandering up and down the frequencies station by station in order to fish out from the whirlpool of those same words as ever scant crumbs of the truth, to reconstruct from them, from the same place and with a singular tenacity, what had happened, convinced from the start of the pointlessness of his labours. And later to continue raking over the old wounds until the pain paralysed him and his consciousness dulled. And maybe in the end even to write more anguished letters to Johanna, equipping them with those last words: ”My love, good bye…,” still not believing, still unable to believe, that what they signified truly was the end. Because he did not even need to close his eyes in order to hear her steps returning. Never would he not sense her quiet presence even in the depths of darkness. Or the smell of her hair spilling over the pillow. The rhythm of her breathing. Never would his eyes be sated on the sight of her. Nor would he forget those last hikes they took while on holiday, in the sweltering, heather-bound hills of eastern Burgenland, where already you can feel the spacious breadth of the Hungarian plain. How they descended to the bottom of a valley where there was an abandoned mill and where an icy stream flushed into a pond through its half-ruined sluice. How Johanna, standing on the dock, took off all her clothes and leapt in where the water was deepest. And later on her skin, before the sun had dried it, had taken on the most beautiful, delicate rose sheen and felt like satin to the touch. Nor would he not recognise her faint footsteps disappearing down that shady trail between red maples in the hotel garden in Verona, down which she had once left him. In order to tell him later, her voice suffused with a certainty that he had heard neither before nor since: I’ll never ever leave you. Or not desire to sleep next to her. Like during those humid nights when their throats would clench shut and their hearts stop beating back then on the Adriatic where they had met. And in the summer and in the winter in moments of uncertainty. And even now. In this spa town on the slopes of the Black Forest. In the wind’s furious rushing outside the windows, in the thrashing of branches against trunks, in rain and snow battering the panes, it is the sound of her breathing I will always hear. In between the sleeping pills and the alcohol, between the stabbing pain in his chest and utter numbness, between the cry of despair and increasing indifference, he would never stop repeating her name. Not even in the blackest moments. And he knew that regardless of whether they were exchanging incantations of love in either of their languages, or merely the gibberish of useless words, hollow and echoless, her hand would always be there, reaching out to his hand, her voice responding to his voice. And yet he was already quite sure it would happen. Despite the fact that he still hadn’t told her everything, about the white birch forest he’d got lost in once as a child, sobbing desperately, or about the moist, salty cheek of his mother, whose very touch could pacify his pain like no one else, or about the corncrake on the river at daybreak, where the house he was born in had stood, or the exhilarating sight of fields unfurling in the wind, the billowing green and flaxen crests and shifting troughs of grass rushing westwards across that continent all summer long, nor about what was most precious, most cruel and timeless in her, though he’d told her often enough about himself and her, how more than once he’d got tangled up in his novels, how it would no doubt happen again. He knew that what would happen would happen suddenly and violently, and already he’d lived through the scene many times both in dreams and awake, as if in slow-motion. It would happen, though not because it was the time allotted him by God and fate (but let’s keep God out of this, he thought), but simply because he wouldn’t be able to take it any more, he would stop being able to stomach the torment, insanity, remorse, and sadness. Aware that he would have neither strength nor courage to actually say goodbye to her, he decided then and there to beg for forgiveness in letters: ”My dear, if you want to grow old together with someone, you need to live with him for more than just a year or two. Not even five or ten years is enough. You need to share over the course of many years not only your bodies, mutual work, commitment to goals, battles, successes, and happiness, but also the disappointments and disasters, not to mention memories. So please, forgive me, we haven’t much time…”

Translated by W. Martin