Queen of the Rhubarb has all the features of an elegant, artful allegory, and so the novel’s conventional plot about a young woman who lives in an unidentified place and unspecified time is no more than an excuse. She has a husband, a maid and a small house with a garden. Complementing this image of bourgeois stability with an undercurrent of boredom and routine are a cat and some friends, with whom the heroine gossips. Her nickname of the title (Queen of the Rhubarb) is ironical – of all the plants she grows in her garden she is particularly fond of the rhubarb. Its sweet-and-sour flavour is the flavour of life – partly successful (sweet) and partly unsuccessful (sour), but ultimately sterile and purged of all emotion. So the heroine has to wake up and break away from boredom and routine, and ultimately she overcomes her passivity. Miłka Malzahn’s novel is a very appealing parable, written with feeling, about finding yourself, about the essential need to discover a female identity and subjectivity. In a recent interview, the author commented on Queen of the Rhubarb: “It’s about destroying a particular structure, about the collapse of the heroine’s whimsy, which is shattered by events. My heroine is looking for the truth, but what she has created for herself so far is notthat truth”.
- Dariusz Nowacki
It all started at a time when, obviously, I was someone else. I was living in the Small Town, between other small towns. My Small Town always looked deserted, though apparently when the Factory was still in operation there were a lot of people there, mainly in the suburbs. There were night shifts at the factory and that meant the neighbourhood, full of small, ugly two-storey houses was buzzing with life. Twenty-four hours a day. Everywhere you could hear people shouting and calling, there was constant to-ing and fro-ing, not to mention the plants, flower beds, little shops, gossip at the garden fence, men in the pubs, occasionally children, as well as dogs and rabbits, which were very popular in those days. The rabbits were bred in tiny little gardens with the help of long rows of little cages – for pies. The Factory Era was the era of plain and simple suburban meat-eaters! Their children often took the rabbits for a walk on the grass and talked to them like children. But then it all came to a standstill.
Now only old people live here with no rabbits, retired people who have lost the habit of sleeping and are trying to lose the habit of eating meat. There’s next to nothing growing in the gardens. The flowers, lettuces and fruit trees are neglected – you can buy it all in the supermarket. Hardly anyone ever goes running down the street: people walk here now, and slowly at that. It’s quiet and peaceful, though in the evenings ghosts frighten passers-by in the darker alleys, and drunken old men are happy to get into rows with them.
Not many people can remember the Factory Era – and maybe that’s a good thing.
I can’t remember it. I didn’t arrive here until after it was over.
But there were a lot of places worth attention in the Small Town: a little theatre run by an impresario (he was a conceited fool, though charming), some schools, one of which was even a semi-academy, where the young people were always organising various kinds of meeting, campaigns and other such minor events. There was a mysterious old Catholic church and a wooden Orthodox church, as quiet as the house of someone who left long ago. There was one playing field for everything, a swimming pool, a depot, a town hall, a park and a clinic – everything the citizens could possibly need. And if something was missing, no one worried about it, but found an alternative instead. Only for the court did you have to go to the neighbouring town, and no one thought it inconvenient. A court in the Small Town? What on earth for? The ghosts? People enjoyed laughing at those ghosts because everyone knew the most terrifying of them was an unbalanced carpenter who was dreadfully noisy when he’d been drinking. He worked as a watchman, but he was really a carpenter, and on the side he made little tables and bookshelves that were popular with the students. There were also some youths who used to terrorise some streets, but they were dealt with thanks to the local Sorceress and her inelegant spells. They responded with their own curses, and it all came to nought – usually. The priest used to berate the whole procedure from the pulpit, but in private he thought it harmless. The youths were never caught red-handed, because the Small Town only had half a police station, where half a policeman was on duty. He was always threatening to summon reinforcements from the city right away, but he soon forgot about it and out of sheer irritation would eat up the sandwich his wife had prepared before it was time for lunch. He soon became hungry and bad-tempered, and stopped paying any attention to what was going on – all he could do was wait for the end of his beat to go home for a snack.
Some of the youths soon grew up anyway, became ambitious and left to conquer the city. They left a few smaller boys behind them, who in their turn grew up…
“Good luck to them,” said the ladies in the shop. “And may they grow spines if they harm anyone,” they threatened. “Best of all down there, hee hee hee,” they added if they were in a good mood. The youths’ mothers differed from the other ladies in that they were less eager to make jokes.
The Small Town’s particular brand of uselessness possessed a charm that soon had me bewitched. This world was just the one I wanted.
I lived pleasantly close to the centre, in a house with a big garden, with my husband, the rather strange Maid, Papuas the Cat and occasional guests, for whom I had a great weakness. My husband, a man of unearthly patience, published a newspaper that sold very well in the Small Town and its environs. He was regarded as an important man. And rightly so! Whereas I was the unimportant accessory of an important man. And rightly so!! One hundred percent correct! The lady Pharmacist, whom I became friends with and who used to flirt with Dr Agaton from the clinic used to claim there was no one who treated unimportant matters with as much importance as I did. Also true!
The strange Maid had a habit of throwing a dishcloth at me as soon as I entered the kitchen. I suspected she thought the same way as the Pharmacist. The Maid had the weekends off so I did get some peace, which she wasn’t at all happy about. As I’ve already mentioned, she was really strange. Altogether the situation wasn’t clear to me as far as the Maid was concerned, but in those days I saw it in a completely different way. I was the mistress of the house, and she was the order prevailing in it. So who was the more important? In any case, my husband was actually the most important, at least to me, for all his patience towards me and in general.
So that’s how it was: the Small Town, me, my husband and the guest season that lasted all year – that was LIFE!
My fondness for guests was based on the fact that I enjoyed inviting people to our house who seemed to me particularly interesting. I didn’t really have any other occupation except receiving guests. Working at my husband’s newspaper bored me. I did try it a few times, but I felt extremely out of place in this role, like a fraud. I felt awful under my husband’s watchful eye, on alien ground. And when he wasn’t being watchful I felt even worse.
Besides, I could assume plenty of roles in life where there was no fakery. The role of a wife suited me. Our house was looked after by the strange, but responsible Maid, rather than by me, while I took care of our emotions. I was a good, kind, forbearing wife. All right, sometimes I was capricious, but in a delightful way. I kept myself busy receiving guests with real passion, right? This occupation broadened my horizons, enriched me, and taught me about life, and, as it turned out, about other people’s lives too. And it taught me about people, which, as it also turned out, was not entirely teachable. At any rate, guests were my challenge in life, and I like challenges.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones