Mikołaj Łoziński is a young first-time author who has amazed the reading public. The vast majority of Polish novelists in the younger generation write about nothing but the here and now, focusing on the numerous problems of life in present-day Poland. However, the main character in Łoziński’s novel is a Swede who lives in the United States, and the story is set in Paris. So is this a forced attempt at originality, a common complaint among first-time writers? Not in the least – Łożiński offers his readers a universal theme, while the setting is basically of secondary significance. Reisefieber is the story of a personal family drama. Thirty-eight-year-old Daniel learns about the death of his mother, Astrid, with whom he broke off relations six years earlier, and goes to Paris to sort out her affairs. The journey turns out to have crucial importance for him. As the memories come back to him of various traumas and issues dating from his childhood and youth, when he was brought up by his single mother, he discovers the secret she kept from him (that he was the product of rape) and experiences a mid-life crisis that intensifies from day to day, forcing him to re-evaluate his attitude to the world and to those closest to him. With surprising skill for a new writer, Łoziński weaves a tale full of psychological spice about some closely tied people whose relationships are complicated by chronic traumas, concealed grudges and secrets. The story is told from several points of view (mainly from Daniel’s perspective, but also his mother’s and his aunt Louise’s), with skilfully gradated tension. A very promising debut.
Daniel was no longer living with Astrid then, but he had the keys to her flat in his pocket, along with his own. He dropped in after work, unexpectedly, without calling in advance. Anyway, he almost always did that – it wasn’t really much of a surprise.
That day was the second time he saw him – in nothing but a pair of briefs, with a scar on his belly from an operation. Spencer offered his hand and hid his head in a light-blue shirt that he put on without undoing the buttons. Daniel had time to get a good look at the scar.
He remembered it well – it began at the level of the navel and was vertical, white with thick stitches either side, and ended somewhere beyond the edge of his pants.
Astrid came out of the bedroom in her dressing gown.
“What’s he doing here?” asked Daniel without saying hello. “Tell him to get dressed,” he went on, without waiting for her answer. “I don’t want to see him here.”
As he saw it now, gazing at an old couple waiting at the lights like him, he felt the absurdity of that situation. And of the role he had played, perhaps not entirely of his own free will. He had reacted like a father, not a son. He had thrown out a fellow of over sixty whom he had caught with his fifty-something-year-old daughter.
“But can my relationship with my mother be reduced to nothing but an exchange of roles?” A few steps further on he wasn’t so sure of that any more.
Astrid says nothing. She watches as Spencer obediently puts on his shoes, left, right, laces; a scarf falls from the sleeve of a grey coat to the floor. He says goodbye from a distance and leaves.
Astrid goes up to the door, turns the lock and hangs the scarf on a peg. “I’ll never forgive you for this,” she says in a strangely calm tone of voice.
Daniel looks at her mouth and will never forget the comparison that comes into his mind – Astrid’s mouth looks like a wound, an open wound. Now it seems pretentious, too improbable for a “modern novel”, but as he looked at Astrid’s lips that’s just what he had thought, and that’s how he remembers it.
Once upon a time he used to envy her that mouth.
* * *
Needlessly he asks Louise if she knew he had once found Spencer with his mother.
Earlier he tells her he has taken the bus without a ticket for the first time since arriving. Louise is no longer in her dressing gown. She’s wearing black trousers, and has her back to the window. She’s in a green sweater, very similar to the one he looked at earlier today. She bought it a few days ago, and to Daniel’s mind, though of course he hasn’t told her this, it doesn’t suit her nearly as well as it does Aude.
“Lucky there weren’t any inspectors.” Louise has been working all day and didn’t even notice when the sun went down. So she says, as she stands with her back to the window.
Daniel didn’t notice either, but he doesn’t want to talk about that.
“No, I’m sure she never told me. We’d already quarrelled by then,” says Louise, taking off her glasses and wiping her eyes.
“Over the inheritance?”
“Yes, you know, of course. Your mother didn’t want to deal with it. I tried to understand her, I knew about her depressions and I took it all on myself, the official stuff and the sale of the property. At first Astrid was very pleased. She often rang and thanked me, but then she suddenly started to push me. She needed the money quickly, and she had some strange grievances.” Louise reaches for a packet of cigarettes. “She said she didn’t trust me any more. Have you seen the lighter?”
He has, he’s sure. He even had it in his hand. But he can’t remember how it ended up in his pocket. Maybe he took it to the cemetery on purpose? He lights Louise’s cigarette. She smokes the same kind as Astrid.
He knew all about the inheritance, Astrid’s version of the legacy case, and the smell of her cigarettes.
“You know what she was like,” says Daniel, feeling ridiculous defending Astrid.
Louise is also looking at him differently somehow, with a smile in the corner of her eye, or perhaps he’s just imagining it.
The story she has just heard has a different ending, maybe for just that reason. They were standing in front of him, still undressed, when Astrid shouted that he should have called. He flew into a rage – now he doesn’t know why he didn’t control himself. He slammed the door, not wanting to look at them any more.
He does restrain himself, however, from repeating “You know what she was like”. Now it would be more appropriate to say “You know what she wasn’t like”.
* * *
In the evening he imagines: in the dark, once he stops glancing at his watch, time starts to slow down and slip from its control. Finally he has his own free time. Long ago, when he was still at school, he wrote a short story about it.
He’s cross that he lied to Louise and can’t sleep. Can you take offence at yourself? Daniel turns onto his left side, wanting to stop responding to himself, not think in the first person any more, pointedly not notice himself in mirrors, not pick up the phone, post or e-mails, but to get away from himself, not react to his own needs, habits and name. To avoid himself, and – as far as possible – not admit himself to his own company. The sofa is more uncomfortable than usual now. To put an end to supporting himself, paying the bills, getting dressed, and cutting his wretched fingernails. Daniel turns over onto his right side. To stop existing for himself, without demeaning himself by taking his own life. (“That would mean I care”). After all, he no longer has anything in common with himself anyway.
Or maybe all he needs is to go to sleep. “Tomorrow is another day,” as Astrid often used to tell him.
Astrid is comforting him; he can feel her warm hands and tries again to catch the moment when he stops being in control of his thoughts. For a while it wakes him; he draws up his legs and cuddles up to the duvet.
Next day Daniel is standing by the window. She asked: when are you coming back? what next? – he still has that bit of the dream in his memory; in it they walk about the cemetery together, Astrid asks her questions, and Daniel says they should turn right. She repeats: when are you coming back? what next? He doesn’t want her to keep going straight and come across a gravestone marked “Astrid Reis”. Better she doesn’t know about that for now. He takes her by the hand and they turn off. He can’t remember how he replied, he can’t remember any more.
“The light is so grey,” he says, just to say something.
Louise goes up to him, to the window, and puts on her glasses. They gaze in silence at the grey light.
In his dream she wasn’t wearing gloves – she must have lost them somewhere; she had long, cold fingers and a smile in the corner of her eye as he caught her hand. “But you’re frozen,” he said, and they were close as they once had been. So different from during their last conversation by the mirror in the living room.
“You’re behaving as if you were my husband! I can’t go on like this, I can’t!” Daniel looked alternately at Astrid and at her reflection.
She too glanced at herself, and smoothed her hair.
“Then don’t. No one’s telling you to be my mother.”
Why did her glance in the mirror irritate him so much? He really had no patience with her. He was upset. He was aggressive and nasty. He certainly didn’t have to shout, he didn’t have to smash the mirror with his shoe. He could see that from her hands – he knew why she was keeping them behind her back.
“It’s my fault” – he thought Astrid’s voice was shaking more than her hands. “I shouldn’t have brought you up like this. I shouldn’t have had you.”
He well remembers himself, his mother and the entire room suddenly bursting into tiny little bits, and that remark of hers: he would understand her when he had children himself.
When will he have children himself?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones