As soon as his first book of short stories appeared in 1999 Wojciech Kuczok enjoyed a very warm reception from both readers and critics, as confirmed by a nomination for the NIKE Literary Award, among other prizes. But within the critical response to Kuczok’s stories there were clearly some expectations, directly expressed in Kinga Dunin’s article, "Why Wojciech Kuczok Should Write a Novel". These expectations arose from an intuitive sense that the stories were an attempt to find, firstly, a subject that would be the author’s own, and secondly a suitable language to express it in. And indeed, the novel Muck, which won several prizes, including Polityka newspaper’s “Passport” and the NIKE award, proved that Kuczok had come up with his own subject (a family hell) and style – slightly grotesque, flirting with realism, but aesthetically not without meaning – full of elegant constructions, consciously interrupted now and then by Silesian dialect and street talk. So if Muck marked the crowning point of Kuczok’s writing to date, the short pieces retold in Confected Stories are a perfect illustration of the path he took towards writing his first novel. Above all they remind us of the roots of his writing, which are in the work of Witold Gombrowicz and the influence of the avant garde fiction of the 1970s and 1980s. Gombrowicz has a presence in these stories, as patron for instance of Kuczok’s fondness for putting his own heroes into situations that unleash extreme emotions as well as some truly atavistic responses. They often give rise to Gombrowicz-style absurdity too, as events give reality the slip and start leaning towards irony (until you want to cry… through your tears). But we also find echoes of Gombrowicz in Kuczok’s work when we realise that, paradoxically, these stories are very carefully composed and are an example of what Krzysztof Uniłowski once defined as “studio” fiction. However, a description of Kuczok’s short stories would not be complete without mentioning his other patron. Above all, we can perceive the avant garde influence in the aesthetic experiment he makes and in his use of multiple aspects of spoken language – Silesian dialect, the language of the lower social orders, and finally youth slang. This diversity allows us to read Confected Storiesnot just as a vivisection of the pitfalls of life, but also as a clash of tongues, a polyphony of speech, the multi-faceted nature of our longing to communicate.
...He was on a drip, asleep. He was entirely covered by a blanket, with just his little head sticking out, laid on an immense pillow. With my nose pressed against the window of the isolation ward I watched to see that he wasn't tossing and turning too much in his sleep, because he could twist his little neck. The doctor came, free at last, took off some sort of gloves and apron, and as he was washing his hands he said: "Yees, now we can have a chat." Before I turned to face him, [while] still gazing at my husband as I moved away, I decided that whatever else happened, until he got well again, or even until….. in any case, until it was all well and truly over one way or the other, I'd be at his side, I'd be there for him, married to him. "Above all, I must reassure you, your husband won't die of this."So I could sit down, stare out of the window and watch the day, a cloud, a tree, a pigeon on the window ledge — it all had a purpose. So had I, and so had he. Meanings. I could freely let my tears flow — they weren't needed any more.
"I take it you are crying from happiness, but the case is not as clear-cut as we would all like."
Stop the film. Even my blood froze at that moment, waiting for information on whether it was worth continuing to flow.
"I imagine that for some time your relations with your husband have been somewhat difficult. Unfortunately I have reasons to believe that in this area nothing will ever improve."
I was listening, just listening. The pigeon flew away, backwards.
"It's a rare illness. So rare that we haven't yet ventured to give it a name. You see, in medicine things that are named are by that token as good as described, familiarised, understood. Naming a pathology is the first step towards taming it. We have not yet taken the first step in the case of what has happened to your husband. But as for the genesis of the illness and especially its course, we are in almost no doubt."
He was madly controlled, as a senior registrar should be; always the same announcer's tone, impeccable diction and look of profundity. I was searching — his "we are in almost no doubt" and his "rare illness" had to have an escape route somewhere, he must have shoved his uncertainty away somewhere for the duration of this conversation, so I was searching and — oh yes, he had a pen, an unoriginal, rather standard prop for unloading the human factor, the doctor was playing with a pen, turning it in his fingers, which were trembling a bit, sucking all the weakness from the furthest corners of his private being, his after-hours non-registrar existence, into the pen. And when the poor wretch saw that I'd caught him out, he fluffed his next series of movements and the pen fell, bounced awkwardly off the desk and fell further, onto the floor under the table, under my feet. He cleared his throat, smiled nervously, bleated "sorry", set his glasses straight, blinked, blinked, and faltered over blinking, and his self-control collapsed like a pack of cyclists brought tumbling down by the leader's fall. He made a move as if intending to bend down, but then just waved his hand, did a sort of half-wave, with a look on his face that said "never mind", and I could feel all his distinction turning doubly against him; now he was confused inside, in his lost official-doctorliness, and was crying out in his thoughts, help, mummy, daddy, wolves, the dark forest, save me.
"I'm listening," I said, as if I were talking to a student who's been given the wrong problem and is waiting for a miracle, for some supporting questions.
"Y-yes, quite. So your husband….. is still at an early stage. Anyway, er….. please come with me, you can see for yourself."
I had forced my way into this initiation; if I hadn't tripped up his confidence he wouldn't have shown me anything, he'd just have used a few more well polished phrases and finished by folding his arms and saying something about courage, that I must be brave. As soon as he'd run out of words, as soon as I had taken them away from him, he had to have the job done for him, so he took me a few corridors further on, and we entered a darkened ward. He said something to a nurse, the blinds moved and the light poured in, glaring, and soon I saw rows of beds, with the same thing in each one — everywhere lay guys without heads.
Completely without heads.
He pre-empted my question: "Yes, they are alive. Please come over here." And we went up to one of them. There was a microscope suspended on a platform above the pillow. "Please take a look." I saw the magnified head of a sleeping middle-aged man, with an amiable grey fuzz on his temples; he seemed to be sleeping peacefully, without pulling any faces — he looked so handsome in his sleep.
"This is a relatively early stage too. When he's awake we can read his lips through the microscope. With most of them we'll never regain contact."
I asked if we could go outside, onto a terrace or a balcony for example, where there was air, where for just a moment I could get outside the parenthesis of this building. Because in this hospital the word (reality) was uttered in parenthesis, without a doubt.
"We know now that it's something like the paradox of Zeno of Elea. With each attack of the illness their heads diminish by half their size. In view of which they never disappear, but they do not stop shrinking."
There was a balcony, there was air and a prison-yard of a park below. Normal people in pyjamas and dressing gowns, and people accompanying them. It looked as if they weren't missing anything. The doctor allowed himself a cigarette.
"The first one came to us fifteen years ago. None of the patients has died yet, it's a very ambiguous situation. In cases of protracted coma it is usual to disconnect the patient from the machinery that's sustaining life, but they….. are alive in mind as well, they are conscious, except that, how can I put it? — at some point they lose control over the rest of the body. It's hard to imagine what sort of reality the patient is in after the three hundred thousandth attack, there's no equipment to help us there; each time the distance between attacks reduces by half, so the oldest of them, by "seniority", are experiencing a permanent, wild surge of regression, getting smaller at an unimaginable speed that is always increasing, so they are probably mentally dead too — no human mind could survive that, yes, but then again that's the probability, as I've already said, we still don't know much, it's all in realm of supposition, and so ethics…."
He gabbled on, and the more he did so, the more I wanted to get back to the isolation ward, the faster I walked down the cramped corridors cluttered with hospital accessories, I walked, and he shuffled after me, still gabbling, maybe wanting to be rid of it all now, to dump all his knowledge and helplessness in the face of it onto me, here you are, woman, here's what you wanted, now you know it all, be off to your chap while you've still got someone to go to, so he waddled after me gabbling:
"We still don't know the genesis, but there is a probability, oh, that word again, that it is a hypersomatisation of anxiety neurosis, because they all had similar fears before falling ill: low self-esteem, depression, hypochondria and finally a crisis in their marriage or relationship, and this dwindling seems to be in direct response, you know, like a metaphor for neurosis, everything always focuses on the head, but please don't be in such a hurry, can you hear me?…" "I'm here at your side," I said when he woke up. I leaned over so he could squeak something into my ear. I felt a beetle's kiss on my cheek. I put his pillow straight. He was afraid. He was staring. Two gimlets were boring into me, looking for answers to all the questions in one go. I had to find words capable of patching all the holes through which our light was escaping.
"I've brought you the papers."
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones