"Kuczok is a future star of the literary world" (Henryk Bereza, in the literary journal Twórczość)
One of Wojciech Kuczok’s earlier collections of short stories, Tales Heard (1999), was nominated for Poland’s prestigious NIKE prize. His new novel, Muck (2003), is the quasi-autobiographical story of the hero’s nightmare of a childhood marked by humiliations (”Old K.” reached with sadistic relish for his riding crop as a tool for fatherly instruction). Kuczok successfully adds his name to the tradition of literature that exorcises the demons of childhood. He paints a remarkable portrait of his father, ”old K.”, a neurasthenic member of the intelligentsia, the typical ”authoritarian character”. Here we also have some superb sketches of family life, satirical and lyrical portraits of the household members, and some superb scenes from life in Silesia (his family chronicle goes back as far as the pre-war era). The ending of the book, the catastrophic collapse of the family home as it sinks into the muck of the title (because of a sewage system accident and ground subsidence, which happens quite often in areas where coal mines are right next to the city) is like the ending of The Fall of the House of Usher, the famous story by Edgar Allan Poe, a classic mystery tale. But the literary quality of this prose is also another pointer to dissuade you from reading the novel as naturalistic or biographical. ”I spent my whole life” – says the narrator – ”running away from that house, only to end up being its ruin.” ”Once I was there, now I no longer am” – the final sentence sounds like an old Latin inscription on a tombstone. This novel tells the story of an adventure that is shared by everyone, because everyone has his or her own idyllic memories while also carrying the scars of a family past.
Old K. had invented a sort of family signal so he wouldn’t have to call out in a crowd, as he used to say, because first names aren’t exclusive, are they? so you have to find a way to be different. Using surnames isn’t appropriate – why should everyone immediately have to know who’s involved (as he used to say)? So old K. had invented a family signal, as if to establish that he would have plenty of opportunities to summon his wife and child to his side; he had to establish that his wife and child might lapse into a tendency to get lost, disappear from sight, or slip out of control. Old K. had invented a family signal to which you could react instantly, unless you were lucky enough not to hear it; it was a call signal, to which you had to react instantly, because old K. didn’t like whistling for nothing. Oh yes – old K.’s family signal was a whistle, a simple tune, just one bar, tarantarantara, and at once you knew: ah, someone’s whistling, I must emerge and show my face. Old K. had invented it, and everyone else had learned it, so now in this house they whistled to each other, and that was that. Time proved that it made contact between the floors much easier: thanks to the signal, old K.’s brother and sister didn’t have to use our first names; come what may, they didn’t have to gather the strength for the familiarity of being on first-name terms, so they were on whistling terms with my mother. The signal was also helpful to old K. and my mother on the days of silence that followed her fits of shrewish rage: without ceasing to have meals with his wife, old K. would wait in his siblings’ flat for her signal to summon him upstairs to dinner, because until my mother was over it, she did nothing but whistle. As soon as the day came when she called him by name, he rushed out to buy flowers, because he knew that now they’d have an effect; he’d bring them home and he would start off with: ”My minest, most belovedest wifelet of mine was upset, but now she’s a good wife, she’s not cross any more, there, there now…”
The armistice usually lasted for a couple of days, on rare occasions a little longer, a week at most, but by then my mother’s good side would be all stirred up; she’d have the nerve to tell jokes which she slaughtered without mercy, and which were all the funnier for it. Surprised by the excess of joy that she was quite incapable of containing, she would try to share it with whoever happened to be around, including me. So, wanting to please me, my mother would give me presents, but in her case joy went hand in hand with absent-mindedness, and the result was that worryingly often she managed to give me the gift of death. For in winter, swinging her handbag as she walked with a spring in her step down the town’s main drag, feeling very happy because of her husband, because it was all right now, because it’d be good to show it was all right now, my mother would airily buy things, stare at people and wonder why they were so dusty and lethargic. As she went past the aquarium shop she would be reminded of her dear son, and the pretty little fishes, so she’d hurriedly buy ”a few of the not too expensive ones”. The salesman would fish out two small pairs of black tetras and ask: ”Have you got anything to carry them in, Madam?”
She hadn’t, so he’d tip the tetras into a little foil bag, tie it up and hand it to her; and she’d go on traipsing about town in the cold, doing her food, clothes and happy shopping. When she came home I’d hear her funny trip-trap on the stairs, the brisk rhythm of her heels and the rustle of her shopping bags, and the dog by the door would hear her, too and start to yelp, and I’d open up; we’d be off downstairs to carry the bags for her, give them a sniff and a once-over, and old K. would open the door of his study and also want to see what the happy shopping had brought this time, what she’d managed to get without queuing (because standing in queues was everyday fare, but not on days of this unusual, festive, reconciliatory joy). So we would all fall upon the bags and take everything out of them as if we’d done a raid on Santa Claus, and my mother would be overcome by a fit of giggles, which made her choke with tears. At once old K. would start to tickle her with his moustache, nibble at her neck and give her love bites, and then she’d suddenly bridle up and say: ”What the hell are you doing, you idiot?!”
And something would already have started to grate. But by then I’d be staring at the tetra fish, which had gone completely pale and were levitating torpidly in the little bag; I’d tip them into the aquarium and watch them sink to the bottom, while the other little fish stared in amazement, wondering who had let this carrion enter their territory. The tetras weren’t very cold-resistant, and my mother’s eagerness alone was not enough to keep them warm; from shop to shop their view of the world from their wobbly little bag grew more and more hazy, their dark fins began to fade and although – who knows? – maybe they guessed they were a happy present and had to survive this interim stage, even though – who knows? – maybe they sensed there was a nice warm aquarium waiting for them, full of waterweeds and friendly guppies. With this image in their fishy minds they froze on the way back home, and all I could do was to bury them at sea down the toilet. My mother would suddenly remember me and say: ”Oh dear, I bought you some fish – where are they? Did I leave them in the shop?”
I’d reassure her, saying: ”No, no, I’ve already found them, they’re already in the tank – take a look.”
And she’d gaze at the aquarium, and without distinguishing the different species, she’d stare and listen intently to the quiet gurgle of the air filter, then pull up a stool and make herself comfortable, saying: ”I’ll sit by the fish for a while to calm down.”
I already knew then that one day in the black, impenetrable future when my mother died, the memories of these misfortunes, these innocent blunders of hers, would be murderous for me. Only at their gravesides do we find out that we loved our parents for their unsuccessful ventures, for our joint failures; their blunders stick out of the grave most movingly of all and refuse to be pushed inside. Oh dear, only at their gravesides does it all become clear.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones