In 2009 Joanna Bator’s Sandy Hill was published – an extraordinary novel about the birth and fall of socialist society where the principle of sameness reigned. Cloudalia, a continuation of that story, describes a world where life blossoms thanks to differences.
Sandy Hill ended with a scene in which Dominika Chmura (Cloud), freshly graduated from secondary school, is in a car accident. Dominika is the incarnation of otherness: Jewish and Russian blood runs through her, she has chosen a lesbian for a friend and, on top of that, has an affair with a young priest.
After the accident Dominika spends months in a hospital in Germany – first in a coma, then in rehabilitation. On leaving the hospital she decides not to return to Poland. From now on she wanders the earth, prompted by a vague desire to roam. In Germany she works in a tinned fruit factory; in the USA she is employed as a reader reading books to an elderly woman; in England she serves drinks in a restaurant. Everywhere she meets people, offering a simple yet unusual gift – readiness to listen to someone else’s story. When she arrives in a new place people think they already know her. When she departs she leaves behind a kindly longing.
The novel, though, is not carried by chronology but by the rules of a saga. Characters, however, appear not because they belong to the family but because of fortuitous meetings. The novel has, therefore, the structure of a genealogical bush – an entanglement more like gossip than a chronicle. The narrator, like a medium, passes the voice over to various storytellers: someone’s story takes us back to the beginning of the 19th century when Napoleon rode across Poland and Black Venus was brought to Paris from Africa to be shown as a curiosity in salons and circuses; someone else tells the story of life in Kamieńsko, a small Polish village where, before the second world war, two strange spinsters known as Aunties Tea kept Napoleon’s chamber pot; we hear the complaints of Dominika’s mother, a widow, slowly gathering strength to introduce changes into her life. People’s fates, like branches, touch momentarily so as to go in different directions, then unexpectedly they join. These meanderings of the genealogical bush show that no-one is a separate story and that nobody has merely one place ascribed to them on earth.
- Przemysław Czapliński
Grażynka goes to the forest which starts beyond the strip of fields several times a month. You can see the forest from her window, a dark navy-blue, ragged line of trees on a hill. Nobody in the entire village of Mehrholtz does that apart from her because nobody really knows to whom the forest belongs, and there was once a feud over it which has not been resolved to this day. The forest is surrounded on every side by cultivated, decent fields which have owners, while it belongs to nobody and only one path leads to it from Grażynka and Hans Kalthöffer’s house.
In Mehrholtz they drive to supermarkets when the need arises, and at most walk to the church or bakery. If they are to go for a walk then it’s on special occasions to the park, or in the shopping mall, but not there – to the forest. Such things are impermissible; Grażynka Kalthöffer, born Rozpuch, of Polish and very suspicious parentage, herself is impermissible. There are many in Mehrholtz who would not have let her in if they had had any say. They do, in fact, have a lot to say and do so counting that the weight of collected words will influence the fate of that alien woman. Frau Korn peers from behind her net curtain and later tells others who are interested in the life of their Hans’s wife – and there are many such people – that this Polish woman runs around outdoors like an idiot, plunges into the forest, how impudently she plunges into that forest, I wonder why she plunges into the forest? Frau Zorn, whose observation post is next door, knows the answer because she has an answer to everything; no doubt she goes there to let herself go! She lets herself go, that’s it, agrees Frau Korn. When this basic fact is agreed upon, Frau Korn’s and Frau Zorn’s imagination can let itself go following Grażynka who in the forest lets herself go standing up, holding on to a tree, horizontally in the forest grass, savagely, animal-like, and who knows what other foreign ways, the trollop, eine Schlampe, that’s what she is. The neighbours won’t let Hans’s Polish wife be. Doesn’t she have enough to do at home? There’s work to be done at home, who knows what there might be in a forest which belongs to nobody. And when Grażynka returns from the forest it’s with some stray like herself. A cat, a dog, a Black woman. A Black woman, as black as the devil himself, now Frau Korn repeats with delight, now Frau Zorn. She brought a black woman back from the forest with yellow hair, it’s not normal; here in Mehrholtz people can tell what’s normal and what isn’t normal at a glance, and that’s how things should be. Frau Zorn sighs, Frau Korn sighs, Hans’s should have married a woman from here, his house would be tidier, he’d be fed properly, nutritiously and economically, but now, it’s not enough that he has to feed and dress somebody else’s kids, but that gadabout instead of sitting on her backside has to run around in the forest. She’s in heat not like a wife but like some animal of the female kind, did you see that of late, my dear Frau Korn? I did, indeed, my dear Frau Zorn, assures Frau Korn. Who knows whom she’s going to bring home again. Frau Korn and Frau Zorn hope that they’re going to be the first to know if only they could be vigilant enough at their posts behind the net curtains. They agree that you can expect anything from Grażynka, their Hans’s wife; her eyes are wild, not from these parts, her hair long and dyed. Frau Korn and Frau Zorn believe that a woman of a certain age ought to cut her hair short, dress decently and to keep a proper dog in the farmyard which will bark at strangers before it sees them. And Grażynka? Frau Korn sighs, Frau Zorn sighs. Their Hans’s wife keeps strays which get under the feet, mongrel monsters which fawn to everyone. A dog has to be trained! And so many cats you can’t count them. Frau Korn and Frau Zorn agree that a cat cannot be trained but if it’s not fed it will go hunting so as not to starve to death. Grażynka’s neighbours like counting and counted on their Hans’s relationship with the Polish woman not surviving the winter, not lasting until autumn. They won’t see eye to eye, dear Frau Korn. He’ll throw her out, dear Frau Zorn, out to the east together with those kids and tight dresses. Who’s seen anything like that? They have never yet seen anything like that, neither Frau Korn nor Frau Zorn, and pretend they don’t enjoy looking at something to which they’re not accustomed; they stick to their windows like algae and if they could they’d stick to Grażynka herself. There you are! Grażynka’s off to the pigsty in the morning dressed as if she were going to a fête, frills, polka dots, half her backside showing.
Frau Korn saw with her own eyes, she could swear, when under the false pretext of borrowing a mower she paid her neighbour a visit soon after he’d brought himself this irritating wife from Poland who did not and does not look like a wife; so she can swear she really did see. Frau Korn has a lot of experience in throwing quick glances which pop into the right place like little golf balls, precise and almost without sound, pop, pop. Then with Frau Zorn they discuss and compare the accurate throws. When they don’t have anything new they remember past hits and add new delicacies to them, they turn the triumphs round on their tongues and suck out their sweetness. So Frau Zorn threw her eye at Hans Kalthöffer’s pigsty, and nobody’s got such a modern one in the vicinity, and in the rectangle of light saw what resembled dance-like movements which should not have been there because a pigsty is not a place for dancing, zum Teufel! It rarely happened that Frau Korn had to improve on her first throw but it was only after her second that she saw that Grażynka was indeed dancing. Unbelievable! She did not hear any music, only the snort-like munching of the pigs which also seemed quite mad to her because, in rhythm with the movements of that Polish woman’s backside bound in a red fabric with white polka dots, they were snort-munching to the tune of Makarena. Grażynka was swaying her hips and winding the green hose with which she was washing the floor around herself, or maybe it was a snake because only the powers of hell could incline Frau Korn to dance-like movements, and she almost got a stroke on the spot when she realised that instead of shuddering with horror she was bobbing.
Translated by Danusia Stok