For over two centuries the experience of life abroad has been integral to Polish destiny. It could even be included in Polish literature’s top ten favourite topics. We often feel as if everything there is to say has already been said about it. So Grażyna Plebanek’s latest book is quite a surprise, because for her basis she has used the format of the picaresque novel, but has thoroughly reworked it.
The vicissitudes of Przystupa (this is her surname, and we never learn her first name), a twenty-year-old from the country, seem on the surface fairly typical. Uneducated, brought up in a degenerate family, the girl has practically no chance of improving her social status. All she can do is housework or child-care, and she has no intention of doing either. On the whole she is happy to get her keep for free and a symbolic wage. The series of jobs she takes, first in Poland and then in Sweden, do not lead to a gradual improvement in her existence, but like the typical roguish heroine of a picaresque novel, she takes whatever fate brings along, and only aims to survive. True to the genre, she does not interfere in what is happening around her, but – this time contrary to it – nor does she avoid trouble by being street-wise. She has a catalytic effect on her employers, causing them to reveal their complexes and commit various evil deeds, and in one case even murder.
The girl’s various confrontations with each successive family provide an opportunity to view émigré society in all its diversity. So it is not the main character’s dramatic adventures, but the ups and downs of the people she encounters that are a vehicle for illustrating why a Pole leaves his country, how he lives away from home and how it causes his character to change. And also how Polish society differs from Swedish. Do these confrontations teach the nameless heroine anything? Not necessarily; her journey ends with her going back to Poland and does not lead to any spectacular inner change. She does learn about one thing – love, but not the kind that would give this story a romantic happy ending, which would strike a jarring note, as the entire story has been told severely, without a trace of sentimentality, and in a pointedly non-feminine way, although women are in the foreground here.
- Marta Mizuro
Grażyna Plebanek (born 1967) is a journalist and author of three novels. She has lived in Sweden and now lives in Brussels.
The lift they had entered was large – a double bed would have fitted in there. All she could see reflected in the mirror was the broad shoulders of the policemen escorting her. They led her out into a corridor and opened one of about a dozen identical pairs of doors located on either side of the corridor. In the room there was a table with a computer under the window with a soft-backed swivel chair behind it, and two ordinary, wooden ones on the other side. They told her to sit down and went out.
She would happily have stood up and waited by the door. Or run away; everything was alien here, it smelled of the post office and hot lightbulbs. She put her hands on her belly – it wasn’t rumbling any more, but it felt tight – that was because of the lift, she’d never been in one like that before. Now she had something to think about, when all at once the door opened and a man came in.
“Pratar du svenska?” he asked.
She shook her head. She’d spoken English to the plain clothes man at the front desk, so why Swedish now?
“You’ll have to wait for us to get an interpreter.”
She was left alone again, with a more and more restless stomach. She touched it through her shirt – something was turning over in there, pinching and cramping the rest of her body. She began to rub it with circular movements, and it eased a little, so she went on massaging it. Apart from that nothing else was required of her. They had brought her here and told her to wait, but she didn’t know what for.
After a long time an interpreter came in, accompanied by the man who had asked Przystupa if she spoke Swedish. He sat down on the other side of the desk, and showed the interpreter to a chair. She had a slender nose and delicate eyelids that looked as if they let the light through and prevented the young woman from sleeping, as a result of which she had a sad look on her face.
“I tell people the verdict,” she said in Polish as she sat down opposite Przystupa. “In hospitals, when they get test results. Here sometimes too.”
Przystupa nodded. The policeman was about to start the questioning, when a young plain clothes man came in and handed him a computer print-out. They leaned over it, swapping comments in Swedish about the Finn: how his body was arranged, his blood group, the way and time he died, his former state of health and the state of intoxication he was usually in. It sounded professional – any body could be described like that.
Suddenly Przystupa’s stomach rolled into a tight ball. She understood that the Finn was no longer alive. There was a heap of medical and police terminology spoken in a foreign language; she understood a few words, but she didn’t know their smell or flavour. They were like blunt instruments. They had killed him with those words!
“…and this is his own knife,” summed up the young policeman, leaning over the print-out. “Why keep it to hand?”
“He’s a Finn,” muttered the man sitting at the desk. “They always carry knives, they stab each other fighting when they’re drunk. This knife is Lapp, what fine craftsmanship…”
She leaned forward and was aware of a sweet taste in her mouth, the flavour of pears… They gave her a searching look, so she straightened up and sat stiffly in her chair again. The young man left, and the plain clothes man began to ask questions. She understood without any translation, but even so she would not have answered any faster, she was glad of the extra time the woman with the thin eyelids gave her.
To some of the questions she had simple answers. She was a Pole, she had come to stay with her cousin Mårten, but lately she’d been living with a Polish girlfriend. Her husband, the Finn, drank and also beat – not her – his wife, Mrs Słaba. She’d seen him attack his stepdaughter with a knife twice. He almost killed her. If she saw that happen, why didn’t she tell the police, asked the policeman.
She was taken aback. She was supposed to inform on people?! So they’d point their fingers at her and cry “spy, spy”?
The policeman raised his brows. Who’d point their fingers at her? What’s wrong with trying to keep law and order? The young woman stopped translating and turned her sad face to the policeman. In Poland no one goes to the police to report on their family, in Poland that’s shameful. In Poland people hate informers.
The plain clothes man leaned back and looked now at one woman, then the other. What’s so shameful about it? Why be ashamed? Red spots appeared on the interpreter’s chest, she took a deep breath and slowly let it out, staring at the window. What’s the next question?
The question was about “dom viktigaste sakerna”: he’d already seen the passport, now the book. What’s it about? The interpreter took the old volume and glanced at the dark brown cover. Mickiewicz, Ballads and Romances. She opened it at random. “What an incredible tale, A female killing a male…”
“What does it mean? In Swedish, please,” put in the plain clothes man.
“Att en dam draper en herre,” she translated.
“A female kills…? Is that an instruction?”
“No, more of an inspiration…”
The interpreter began to laugh. She laughed and laughed, until her thin eyelids closed. She said sorry, for her unprofessional behavi… And roared with laughter again. An “instruction”! Ha, ha, ha, an “instruction”!
It is not clear how this would have ended, because a discussion on the subject of the semantic fields of eleven-letter words beginning with “i” was not a topic of interest to the investigating officer in one of eleven identical rooms at the Stockholm Chief Police Station. Here at the centre there was a dead body.
Just as the fact that the interpreter would be fired from her job was gradually becoming obvious, so the suspicion that Przystupa had murdered the Finn under the influence of instruction/inspiration from an unwise Polish poet was still the subject of research. She had a weak alibi (a spur-of-the-moment trip to the seaside in the company of an underage girl), dubious status (visiting a cousin for family reasons and tourism), and a suspicious appearance (a rather dirty jacket with bloodstains that had been sent for testing).
On the other hand, too many elements did not match up: the blood-stained clothing left in the bathroom did not belong to her, her bra size was not that one (she had smaller breasts), and to back up the alibi she had produced tickets, for the train and the bus, which she extracted from the pocket of her orange jacket.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones