Julita and the Swings

Hanna Kowalewska
Julita and the Swings
  • Zysk i S-ka
    Poznań 2003
    130 x 200
    310 pages
    ISBN 83-7298-460-3

Julita and the Swingsis an appealing novel of manners aimed at a wide readership. In telling a story about unrequited love it presents an account of provincial Poland and the social and political changes that took place in the period from 1956 to 1989. This book can be read on several different levels and is likely to attract a wide range of readers. In it the narrator, a middle-aged, rather unfulfilled writer, struggles with his awareness of his own life’s failures. The most dramatic, crucial element in his fractured biography is his unrequited love for a friend from his schooldays. This is very ancient history, but meanwhile we are in the 1990s: the writer arrives in his hometown to make spiritual contact with the era of his youth. He decides to write a novel about his generation, about a group of his contemporaries born in and around 1956. This opens up the book’s broadest plane, the one concerned with social mores, encompassing the ordinary events and extraordinary incidents that happen to a dozen or so people representing a wide variety of social and psychological types. Two more themes are wound into this narrative, one about the remote and typical Polish provinces, and one about communist Poland. The book has yet another layer, which one might call magical, about the deeds and history of the title character Julita, an angel-girl gifted with supernatural powers.

- Dariusz Nowacki

Excerpt

The Herbarium

The system’s bursting at the seams like an old pair of pants, and not just in the Polish People’s Republic. The best evidence of that is the explosion at Chernobyl in April 1986. The authorities can’t keep it secret, even though the disaster occurred in Big Brother land, which is above all suspicion. But that’s where it happened! The whole world is busy spying on it, and to cap it all at a shameful moment when it’s poisoning its own people, or rather peoples.
A year later, Karolina is sitting in a deck-chair under the pear tree, surrounded by greenery, convinced she’s in the most wonderful, safest possible place she could be in. She stretches out lazily, and seconds later her gaze falls on a four-leafed clover. It’s the first four-leafed clover she’s ever found. She picks it with a smile and even thinks to herself that maybe it’s fate wanting to let her know there’s some good luck coming her way that she wasn’t expecting. She closes her eyes for a while and wonders what it might be. A man? No, she doesn’t believe in that sort of miracle. And there aren’t any men who might interest her in Rodzinny; she knows them all anyway. The whole lot! And she’s not planning a journey, so it’s not that. A friendship? But she doesn’t believe in that either. A win on the lottery? But she’s never bought a ticket in her life, nor does she have any intention of doing so. In that case maybe the good luck will happen to her father, and she’ll just get indirect pleasure from it?
Yes, Karolina doesn’t have much faith in her fate. She puts the clover between the pages she’s already read and decides to go back to her reading. And that’s when another little plant catches her attention. Another one? she thinks in surprise. But it turns out to have not four, but five leaves. After a short search Karolina finds yet another of these eccentric clovers. She’s never heard anything about five-leafed clovers. Are they good luck, or bad? she wonders in her amazement, as she puts all the clovers together in her book, to show her father.
And that’s how it’ll be this summer – on a small patch under the pear tree she’ll find some forty mutant clovers, and she’ll press them in the novels she reads. Finally she’ll realise that it’s not fate trying to tell her something, but that right here, where she so loves to sit, is a spot affected by the radioactivity, which has infiltrated the pear tree, the grass, the clover, the milk, the ground and surely her body too. So some mutations may even be slowly taking place inside her, in her thyroid, her liver, her pancreas or in some other exotic place. But by some miracle it doesn’t fill her with fear. Because four, five, and even six-leafed clovers aren’t repellent or frightening. She has warm feelings about them, because they’re like she once was after the accident. Even misfortune can result in something good, some increase, if only in the number of leaves. She just doesn’t yet know what good came of it when she fell under the car. Or of the fact that she was born in Rodzinny, and not Paris or Rome. And in the communist era to boot. But she feels that in time she’ll find out. She’ll find out everything. The meaning of life is gradually becoming clear, day by day, right up to the final scene. The meaning or lack of meaning… Boomerang The meaninglessness of the Polish People’s Republic became clear like that, day by day, right up to the final scene. But was it really the final one?
Either way, communism fell apart in Poland because of Bąk. If you let someone like him join your ranks, a guy who had six fingers, you’ve got to be ready for anything. Nothing ever went right for him, and why should it have done so then, even with the Guiding Strength of the Nation behind him? The Party had long since stopped being vigilant and took on any old guys, strong or weak, lucky or unlucky, artful dodgers or born losers  a round million only at the tail-end of the 1970s. Curiously, just as many left over the next five years, in the Solidarity era and during martial law. But the statistics don’t say if they were the same people.
Bąk, however, despite doubts and sometimes even fear for his own future, never left the Party. Later on he and some others just disbanded and then joined up again. It came out all right for him in the end, but what about the Party?
Or maybe communism fell apart because of people like Waldek. He too remained loyal to the Party. And to his money. And things turned out so nicely that the Party no longer had anything against cash. It went on repeating the same old nonsense to cover its tracks, but they granted permission for this and that – especially to their own people. And in the end they got a taste for counting their cash, and for having more of it. Equality, justice and brotherhood did not have much of a place in their interests. They had to give up something, so they gave up their ideals.
But they had no intention of giving up power. However, it was imperceptibly slipping from their fingers throughout the 1980s. And finally the end came, after the Round Table and the elections, when the people turned their backs on them and drew a big fat line under them. They too had to draw the same big fat line under themselves, disassociating themselves from their own past history, from the people they used to be only yesterday and the day before. It had such a good appetite, but it still died, they thought in disbelief and panic. For some of them the world had collapsed.
It would have collapsed for Bąk too, if not for Basiuk.
“Every revolution has its limit. Just look at those black-and-white Solidarity types,” he said in 1989. “They’re full of their own shit, but it doesn’t last long. One day people will remember us. You’ll see! At heart they’re red. Maybe not red, but pink, anyway. And once a guy’s a bit on the pink side, that’s it for good.”

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones