We have known Ignacy Karpowicz thus far as a prose writer who has specialised in novels about contemporary Poland, filled with the grotesque, irony, and an off-kilter sense of humour (I’m thinking about his novels Uncool and The Miracle). In his latest book, a novel called Gestures, he has completely changed both the tone and the convention – and now he’s entirely serious. Along the way he’s proven that he’s an extraordinarily multifaceted writer, one who handles various styles brilliantly. This book contains the notes of a forty-year-old man, mainly detailing the last months of his life, and supplied with a brief gloss (this is also the title of the final chapter) through his high-school love – just about the only woman he’s ever loved, and whom he left in her illness back as a teenager. Grzegorz enters “the manly age, the disaster stage” – he may be a sought-after theatre director and scriptwriter, but he can’t cope at all with his life. He’s tortured by insomnia, agonised by various traumas and phobias, has toxic relationships with those nearest to him, is incapable of building a solid bond with women – in general, he’s a powerfully asocial type. His main problem seems to be that he doesn’t know how to live – and what for. He explains it thus: “I’m my the child of my parents, obviously, but also of shortage. There was a lack of basic products: meat, sugar, yeast and toilet paper, but also authority figures and role models.” Elsewhere he says: “My life seems stripped of content. That’s why I’m trying to lend it form.” Responding to what daily life offers him, he makes only studied gestures, like an actor in a bad television series. Grzegorz’s life changes suddenly – and quite unexpectedly for him – when, bothered by phone calls from his widowed and isolated mother, he decides to visit her in his hometown of Białystok after years of absence. It turns out that his mother is very ill, and Grzegorz stays by her side. He tries to think through and work out his past, to put his own life in order. He won’t have much time for it, however – he also finds out that he has cancer. This is a psychologically precise and moving autopsy of a “man in the wake of ordeals.” In a word: bracing stuff.
- Robert Ostaszewski
When my brother had to scramble over my outstretched legs, he’d say: “Take out those transplants."
When Mother was afraid of something, she’d start to eat. She was more scared for others than for herself. Before Father’s death she was coming up on a hundred.
When Father was in a good mood and had the time, he’d give me a piggy-back ride.
When I was in a good mood, I’d think about spending time with my family and friends.
When Zuza started liking someone, she became mean: just in case.
When I visited Grandma as a student, she wept with joy. She died of dehydration. I didn’t come back for the funeral, I was on scholarship abroad.
Mother decided I shouldn’t be informed.
When my brother saw his own blood, he fainted.
When Mother saw somebody’s blood, she began working very precisely, no panic. She would guide one action into the next with a cold scalpel, making small incisions in the fabric of reality.
When I figured out that I wasn’t particularly clever, and only industrious in fits and starts, I wanted to give up working.
When Father died, I thought that my friends had begun to go. I was ashamed: my father was not my friend. Friends can be chosen.
When I visited Kasia in the hospital for the first time, I think that she already knew.
When I look into the future, I see only my parents’ graves.
When I look into the past, I see the future.
Sweat, sebum and milk, saliva, mucus and spleen. These are probably the only things the human body, all tightly packed in itself, can muster up. And the sounds from the vocal cords. Sometimes blood from the nose, or the lungs, in the urine; the elect also have stigmata. And tears, too.
“Who should we invite to your birthday?" Mother asked me again the next day. I’m not sure how to understand this question. Is it automatic (a December stroke)? Unthinking (Mother forgot that I have no friends in Białystok)? Or perhaps spiteful (“My brother” would be the highest-scoring response)?
“Paweł," I reply.
“Paweł," Mother responds, like an echo. A sour echo.
Now in the hospital, over on the other side, having had a flat tire, I decided to think briefly, no more than the recommended dosage. I wouldn’t let myself clutch at sentences, to run away with words: I’d stay true to my first and compulsory love – myself. Then, who knows when, soon, I’d force myself to sum things up. I know the contents of the summary. All that’s left is the upshot. The upshot I don’t know. It’s too late for an upshot.
A person can be dismantled in various ways. The most simple one was to just undress him (Spin the bottle, for example). The division into two – soul and body – introduced a somewhat more complicated situation. This somewhat older and more sophisticated undoing, too complex for this world of consumption, designed (to its own detriment, a view I share with Schadenfreunde) by Roman Catholicism, has collapsed, because it required a flexible, scholastic mind. I myself am considering the division into three of man: body, soul and spirit.
The spirit is the most mysterious, it is a obviousness and necessity penetrating every body. The spirit is greater than the person, but is shaped in an individual way. The spirit is invisible. It’s like the air, a constant presence. The absence of spirit leads to breathlessness, painful death and an annulment of all rights to a trial: the Heavenly Tribunal won’t take you.
The progress of undressing and dismantling in the 20th century: first down to the bikini, then out of hide, then the totalitarianisms made souls go up in smoke, by the millions. The holists triumphed: the masters of intellectual pudding, the lords of simplification. The soul was driven out of the body. It carried on in sentences, as an object, for example, as an archaic noun. Even soul music records do no more than clutter attics and junk shops.
In addition to my hypochondriac leanings, I showed an inclination towards solipsism. My solipsism, verified by people and events, by bills and the state of my bank account, could not develop to the extent that it brought its bearer relief. Solipsism remained a tempting vision, unattainable and – at times – making me prone to melancholy.
Perhaps the one remnant of my solipsism is the fairly absurd conviction that human bodies not only produce electricity, like two-legged batteries--thought cannot exist without power: a total eclipse is a perfect void, a wasteland where appliances lack ideas – but time, as well. The human body must contain an organ, at thirty-seven years old, an organ that’s constantly waiting to be discovered, a gland that produces time. Bodies produce time. The more bodies, the more time. The more time, the less chance of using time. This time gland in my body started to malfunction a little while ago. I didn’t notice the moment, if such a moment in fact occurred, when something in time started to be out of whack. It flows in hops, from event to event, it short-circuits like a system that’s been running non-stop for weeks: then I just see the blue screen of death – a critical mistake, there’s practically no hope of retrieving the data from the RAM drive; amusingly enough, the acronym RAM means memory you have free access to. The world needs resetting. “Reset” is the word that pushed out the older word “reincarnation.”
Translated by Soren Gauger