In recent interviews, Sylwia Chutnik has not concealed the fact that she had no intention of giving her readers a book that would be pleasant to read. From the title character onwards—a baby girl suffering from hydrocephalus, missing limbs, and every possible illness—she never promises her audience the attractions that usually follow from observing the growing or education of a normal child.
However, Diddums is not a normal child, but a symbol, a kind of punishment for the sin of her grandparents, who caused the death of a refugees from the Warsaw Uprising by turning them in to the Germans. The punishment falls senselessly upon their daughter, who gives birth to a monster and who takes upon herself all the sufferings of the poor, the lonely, and the rejected. It is these creatures, rejected and suffering through no fault of their own, that the author usually portrays as women. It is they who are tortured by a history constructed by men, a history full of senseless slaughter such as World War II, and within World War II, the Warsaw Uprising. This history has produced patriotic symbolism, has ennobled torment and sacrifice, sacralize d the spilling of blood. To a certain extent, the heroine of this novel, Diddums’s mother, Danuta, provides a contrast to this symbolism with a symbol of her own—that of the monstrous little girl, representing female downfall and suffering. Toward the end of the book she delivers a pathetic tirade, her own version of the Great Improvisation in "Forefathers’ Eve", the most famous play by Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz. Mickiewicz’s work was an expression of rebellion against a silent God that had been permitting the enslavement of Poland by its occupants; Danuta demands justice for her torments from the world ruled by men and its institutions. Of course, Danuta’s protest comes across as naive, and perhaps even silly (she shouts it at the facade of the courthouse, where she is refused entry because it is a holiday). But the protests of rejected women never reach the right targets, because it is precisely these women that cannot make their way into so-called public discourse, because they do not possess the key, and even when they do protest, they don’t really do it the way they are supposed to, nor at the right time. In the last scene of the novel, when Diddums the symbol appears on the train tracks, run over by a train, and her severed head rolls onward, the shocked level-crossing watchman simply goes back inside his booth and turns up the television.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
The door wouldn’t budge. She tried once more, then yet again. The wind swirled the heavy drops of rain around and they almost blinded the poor woman. She was getting more and more desperate in her attempts to open the door. If not this door, then surely the next would open. She ran up to a whole series of massive portals and tried to force her way inside. In the end something grated and clicked behind one set of doors and the face of a moustachioed security guard emerged.
“What’s your business?”
“Sir, please do let me in. What on earth’s going on here? I’ve travelled for half a day, struggled to find my way around the city, and look what happens, the doors are so heavy, that you can’t get in.”
“Too right you can’t. If you could, then all sorts of people would want to come in to sort something out.”
“But I’ve got proof of payment with me, documents, urgent matters that have been deferred to their detriment for too many years. It’s absolutely essential to deal with them. When, if not now? Who else could do it, but me? My daughter is waiting for her mummy, so I have to do it now.”
“The courts are closed today, you know. Come on, it’s Sunday. Besides we’re in the middle of preparing an inventory of the whole building, making a list of all the robes, wigs, toilet rolls and chairs. It was in the papers that the court would be closed for two days to draw up a list of the things inside. Do not disturb!”
Danuta felt as if her head, already soaked by the rain, had been bashed with a heavy instrument. Unbelievable! So much time had passed, the situation was so pressing, yet they were counting screws inside? And it had to be now, just at the time that she arrived after undertaking the journey to the capital for the first time in so many years. They were making a fool of her. It was insulting and outrageous. She didn’t give a jot, she was going in.
She quickly stuck the toe of her shoe into the closing gap and jammed the door. The security guard became exasperated and tried to pull the door to, yanking it towards himself with all his strength. Danuta felt a painful grip on her foot, but she didn’t step back. No way, she wasn’t daft; she knew what was going on here. They probably saw her approaching through the window, got worried and stuck this old idiot out to chase her away. Pity they didn’t put up barricades –apparently people from Warsaw can’t get enough of them. They sometimes pretend to be at war even if they don’t have a real enemy and fortify the major routes with earthworks. For fun, supposedly.
That’s the way snobby urbanites treat country people. That’s it, they think a daft country bumpkin with chicken feathers still stuck to her shoes has dragged herself up here wanting to wrangle over her boundary dispute. Of course, they’ve got their own serious crimes to deal with here, criminal networks to unravel, drug rings to deal with.
Screw that! A mother’s and child’s life is more important than contraband and pimps. Let’s end the age of discrimination against people with country ways! Enough’s enough.
“Woman, get your clodhoppers out of the doorway or I’ll cut them off.”
“Cut your own bandy legs off, you so and so. My daughter doesn’t have any legs and she gets by. I’m not afraid of becoming a door amputee, I’m not a weed. I don’t intend to give way, I’ll stand here as long as it takes, I’ll wait until my case is reviewed and won and that’s final. I’m telling you for once and for all that I’m fed up with being harassed: I’ve suffered enough because of the neighbours.”
The neighbours drop things on her doormat: bits of bread, bits of doughnut, pretzel sticks and chewing gum wrappers. They put tomatoes and plums underneath the doormat. They scribble on the fencing with a green marker pen, they shout “Jews out” in German under her window, they jam up the keyhole of her private letter box with chewing gum and they make the doorbell ring by sticking gum on the push button at the gate. There’s more: they feed the birds right next to Danuta’s house on purpose, fully aware that birds will be birds – they peck, then digest and let out the rest – in this case on the pavement right outside Danuta’s house. That’s not all; she suffers from cold sweats and increasingly frequent pains in the veins in the crook of her arm due to her helplessness in the face of Nazi racism. She’s going blind and she’ll soon have to wear glasses with a prescription of minus one hundred.
”Well then?” Danuta shouted at the old geezer from the other side of the door. “Do you think I don’t know my rights? That I’m just a simple woman from a God forsaken place in the country? Right. Well, so what? According to section 666 subsection kk, I have rights. When is this hellish ordeal going to come to an end? How dare you treat me like this! Furthermore, you have engaged in highly shameful abusive behaviour towards a woman, towards me, while on duty as a security guard and you’ll shortly be summoned to court for it. We’ll meet again in front of the judge. I’ll defend my honour and good name to the last, do you hear me?”
All this time the bloke was trying to dislodge Danuta’s foot from the doorway by kicking it and at the same time trying to shut the door. Thoughts flashed through his mind about how incommensurate his earnings were to the effort required to do his job. Why did the all the nutters always turn up on his shift? Maybe there was something about him that attracted the mentally unstable.
Recently some dirty tramp had tried to insist on entering the court precinct with an enormous meat cleaver, saying he had an appointment with some lady lawyer about his future plans on the matrimonial front. Then there was the time a few weeks earlier when this woman arrived for her court case with her dog, a Doberman, which howled from the moment it entered the building. When they tried to quieten the dog down and requested that it be taken out of the building, the woman reacted in an agitated manner. In the end he got bitten by the dog and the stupid woman lay down in the archway of the metal detector while still holding onto the dog’s lead and broke the mechanism. They had had to call the police. Not to mention the other occasion when he was bitten, this time by a man who took a run-up and tried to jump over a barrier, which you normally open with a special pass.
The woman was still yattering on. “Listen lady, come on Tuesday, come the day after tomorrow. Since when have government offices and courts been open at the weekend? Come on, lady, for pity’s sake. Barging in and demanding to be let inside. Whatever next! Do you think I’m a doorman or something, some sort of keeper of the keys to heaven?”
Taking advantage of a moment’s inattention, the old bloke pushed the woman’s foot out and slammed the door shut with a thud.
There was thunder, rumbling and bats outside. It had now become wholly apparent that nothing would get sorted out today; not even a bundle of the most authoritative documents in the world, all duly stamped would help. Not even the signature of the Holy Father sealed with an impression of his lips would do the trick. It would be of no significance at all, you could just stick it you know where.
There are matters which just cannot be sorted out, where all an outraged citizen can do is to heave a deep sigh, breathe out heavily and go home.
Dark clouds had completely covered the sky by now, so you couldn’t tell whether you were on earth or in hell.
Translated by Kasia Beresford