This book reminds me of something; dense with metaphors, it’s the narrative of a man who in a state of almost dream-like elation pours out his recollections, fears, desires and stories about a woman who came along and opened up paradise and Pandora’s box for him all at once. One day Bernard, an American expert on Russian literature, sees Luka and decides to invite her to dinner. Her acceptance opens the story of the strange relationship between this man and this married woman that can never be gratified in a life together, but is everything Bernard has been waiting for “from the moment of birth”. The blunt, expressive poetry of pain, often moving into a fluent account of the heights of passion, interrupted by memories of the hero’s childhood and youth, builds an absorbing tale, whose mysterious conclusion will leave fans of happy endings feeling unsatisfied, but will free Luka of any accusations of sentimentality. Now I know – somewhere in the background there’s an echo of Roland Barthes and his Fragments from a Lover’s Discourse, and not for the first time in Polish literature of the past few years. Many critics have pointed out the French roots in Marek Bieńczyk’s Terminal – a similarly dense narrative, as much a romantic novel as a philosophical treatise about the relationship between the top surface and the bottom layer of a piece of literature. Marzena Broda does not set herself such aims. Luka is above all a tribute to the emotions that change people’s lives; the book is about the mystery of loneliness, which is the hero’s medium, and love, which paradoxically is sometimes its mirror image. Creating a world that is stretched between pain and rapture, Broda explores areas of our follies that we usually try to ignore. By making her main character a man, Broda breaks down the stereotypes that ascribes emotional behaviour to women and give “the stronger sex” dominion over reason. This may be the most interesting theme in the book, and also distinguishes Luka from Terminal. Although Bieńczyk may not have tried to reflect the emotions that were disturbing his narrator and main character in one, his male vision focuses on the philosophical dimension, while Marzena Broda has written a romantic novel that takes away the man’s power to dominate not only the woman he loves, but also himself, and ultimately the story within which he tries to encapsulate his life with Luka. An extremely intelligent and sensitive man, Bernard cannot, doesn’t want and doesn’t have to pretend he is capable of overcoming his pain or longing. Nor do we, gentlemen.
I can’t remember when I stopped caring about meals. Nor did I do any sports. I didn’t increase the size of my biceps, but satisfied myself with what nature had given me. I wasn’t in the habit of standing in front of the mirror longer than required, or making regular visits to the doctor. I wanted to look smart and inconspicuous as I crossed the street, an intersection or went in any direction, wondering which was the right one, or if there were no choice.
These thoughts brought me to the conclusion that a man is what he imagines himself to be, and that without Luka I had become a wan scale drawing liable to fade, like everything we neglect in life. I felt like a useless bit of stuff subject to the laws of the universe, which was leading me by the nose up some narrow paths, and maybe that was why I was getting more inept in my search for a way to find liberation from a body that, if I had lost Luka, meant captivity. There was a void reigning inside it, and all my senses were wounded.
And so with pathological persistence I went on seeking a place where I could rest, perhaps never to leave it again. I didn’t fantasise about it, as I was convinced it would simply make itself manifest, and then I wouldn’t fight it, I’d just stop and wait for what came next: like waiting for a knock at the door, perhaps. 30.
I didn’t care if it stopped raining. Drenched through, I was meditating, because I had to, and trying to embrace myself the way Luka embraced me. It wasn’t the same. I focused on counting the leaves on a snapped-off branch and the raindrops on the blades of grass, thinking about the woman for whom I had once entered another reality, to which I wanted to return. Knowing that neither magic nor a miracle would bring it back, I had no right to doubt the heartlessness of fate. Anger and resentment rose within me beyond measure. I could see fragments of life, every facet of it, and although I realised there was no reason for fear, I felt afraid, as if fear were a value that gave things a meaning. I couldn’t understand it, but I was aware of my own situation. Of the fact that all I could listen to was the rain, which was increasing my depression. I felt like a swelling river, ready to burst its banks. Luka was my sky above, my scent, a gleam of light in my hand, the motion of my waves on land. My utmost love. I wanted to kiss her and draw back curtain after curtain to see what she was really like, but the world, in which to this point we had been together, was empty. I could still perceive it through the rain and forest, where the bushes, grass and brushwood were dissolving, rippling, condemning me to more and more pain of loss. At any moment this world might vanish, becoming a small dark spot in space, or a banner that used to show the way, crowning the search for home, where death is just the unilluminated side of life, thanks to which we can go on existing to infinity. 31.
I cautiously took hold of a raindrop, like a beetle that has crawled up too close. I felt nothing, but hoped the rain would wash away my fingerprint or burn it off as it splashed my hand. I was more and more rarely thrilled by it, because my mind was on other things. I could hear it drumming on the branches, deepening the distance between the inner and outer world, in neither of which was there any order now. I was conscious of myself as a weak, helpless person who wasn’t battling with the forces of nature. I was trying to vanquish the streams of water pouring from the sky and didn’t feel as if the downpour could be my ally in the search for Luka, as I remembered our kisses in the car, our naked bodies and the windows steamed up with our breathing. My hands moving over her ankles and her back, as I fitted perfectly in between her thighs, oblivious of the fact that in life I had always moved awkwardly – except at times when I was making love with women. Can the body tell lies? 32.
No, mine couldn’t lie. I knew it in detail and I respected it, but I wasn’t good at using it. My body hung over my fate like a cloud of hail. I exposed it to blows and devastation, with no regret, even though my physical being provided my soul with pleasure as often as it could. My body could also be a barometer of my spiritual ecstasies. I lived with it, and yet beside it, watching it with exactly the same interest as I watched the ducks swimming on the pond. I didn’t even try to be kind to it when I coughed, although in fact everything that could have been a danger was already behind me. I had the privilege of power over my own corporeality. I didn’t take advantage of it, as I waited for my body to die off as quickly as it was born. I remained inside it because I had to be somewhere, to move about in the world with the help of my fingertips too. 33.
Why when with Luka did I never dare drive down the slope and crash into the ultimate pain? Into eternity. If I had taken that decision, we would be together, but as it is I have lived a life I didn’t want.
Suddenly something quite unexpected has occurred – maybe heaven has been listening to me. Heaven, that great graveyard we are in while we’re still remembered. I felt as if Luka were lying next to me, and I had to combat fear in order to touch her face, striving to work out in my mind by what miracle she was there beside me, present enough for me to be able to look at her profile shining with rain. I drew round it with my index finger, but without touching her skin.
My fear changed into sorrow, inconceivable sorrow.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones