"The Reverse: A Film Novella" is the author’s literary version of his own script which was made into a feature film under the same title by director Borys Lankosz. The plot is deceptively simple. The action takes place mainly in the Warsaw of 1952-53, but there are also a few contemporary scenes. Sabina, who is almost thirty and works as a poetry editor at one of Warsaw’s major publishing houses, lives with her mother and grandmother in a cramped flat full of mementos of pre-war grandeur. In communist Poland Sabina’s family has been relegated to the margins of society. As representatives of “the former bourgeoisie,” they have been condemned to menial jobs, a life of poverty and other insults. Some of them – such as Sabina’s younger brother, a socialist-realist painter and utter conformist – have tried to adapt to the new environment, while others – such as Sabina’s mother – have let themselves be intimidated and browbeaten. Sabina’s recipe for surviving the worst post-war years has been the simplest: in order to preserve her dignity, she has done her best to be a decent person. However, it is not politics or any public issues that are central to the plot of "The Reverse". The protagonist’s main problem is an entirely personal matter, namely, her spinsterhood. New suitors are always knocking at her door, but the one she has chosen for herself turns out to be – in the book’s pivotal, superbly executed scene – an out-and-out villain. It is not even that he is a secret police agent who proposes to marry Sabina in return for informing on her boss, whom she worships and firmly believes to be the noblest man in the world. A despicable monster who pretends to love and preys on womanly devotion and sensitivity, the agent must die – with the whole-hearted approval of two other female characters and the blessing of Sabina’s brother. The murder, just as arguably everything else in "The Reverse", must be seen as a symbolic event. Bart’s aim is to present a story that is different – both in terms of poetics and on the ideological and moral plain – about the worst years in the history of communist Poland, an era marked by terror and crime. However, he does not mean to invalidate the martyrological aspect of the Stalinist era, but rather to ask what we as a community do with it today, how we use and transform it.
Sabina is so excited she can’t sleep half the night. It is always like this when she has a meeting with Mr Barski.
As she walks down the long corridor towards his office, she can feel her knees trembling. Medically, it might seem odd that despite the trembling, she is walking faster than usual. Krystyna at the reception desk reveals the secret of her knitting. The beige wool cardigan Sabina commissioned a month ago is now ready. With a dark brown collar and cuffs. The colour scheme was suggested by her grandmother, who had a jumper like this when she was a school girl, also made by a woman named Krystyna.
“It’s the simplest thing, Sabina. Purl seven, knit six. With hemstitch along the edges.”
Krystyna is everyone’s friend, even though, so rumour has it, she has problems with her husband who has apparently been interrogated twice already for no reason.
“It must take such incredible patience…” Sabina is trying to look interested, though right now all she cares about is what Lidia will say. Lidia is Barski’s other secretary, who went into his office a while back and still hasn’t come out.
“Nonsense, who could be more patient than an editor like you? Poring over books all the time.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“Oh, Sabina, don’t even mention it. As if you haven’t been such a great help with the medicine. I just hope you like it.”
“Sorry, but I can’t accept it. You’ve worked hard on it, you must let me pay.” Sabina sounds sure about it, and has her wallet in her hands.
Lidia appears in the office doorway. She is one of the prettiest girls in Warsaw and Sabina feels a pang of jealousy whenever she sees her. If she could take her pick, though, she would rather have Lidia’s self-assurance than her beauty. Lidia is afraid of nothing – she can even laugh out loud in the director’s presence.
“He’s on the phone, but you can come in. He’s in a good mood today.” She let Sabina pass and shuts the door behind her. “Beige is so perfect for her, poor thing. Perhaps only grey would suit her even better,” she says about the sweater, which Krystyna is wrapping in paper.
“Better concern yourself about your garish lipstick”, Krystyna would gladly reply, but keeps the remark to herself.
The office is large and it takes a bit of a walk to get to the desk. Sabina was once here as a little girl, with her father. She can no longer remember why her father brought her along to see his friend, the president of a land bank. She has never forgotten the taste of a chocolate truffle and the aroma of the cognac the two men drank. Of her subsequent visits to the office, she remembers not only Barski’s every word, but even the slightest change in his countenance.
The desk is standing just where it stood before the war. The sofa and the armchairs are now closer to the window. There are definitely more books, and there are different portraits on the walls. The portrait of Piłsudski she remembers as having been a poor likeness, since the Marshal looked very fierce in it, while in fact he was not like that at all. She prefers not to think about the portraits hanging here now. The conference table is a new feature. She is sure it was not there in July.
“Do not let me down, comrade. We don’t need a plane to transport a few pieces of furniture.” Still talking on the phone, Barski smiles at Sabina and points to one of the armchairs.
Sabina sits down and gazes at a lamp on the desk, a barely covered bronze lady holding up a glass globe. From behind the lamp she has a good view of the man who will always be obeyed, even if he speaks in a whisper.
“It’s a matter of policy, and I don’t mean just cultural policy. Do you understand what I have in mind? Yes, I’m looking forward to your confirmation… What an idiot!” He utters the last remark after putting down the receiver. Only now does he look at her and smile his special smile.
“What is it, Sabina?”
He gets up from behind the desk and sits in the armchair facing hers. He is not a tall man, but he is one that attracts attention. That is what she imagines Napoleon must have been like, the only difference being that Barski doesn’t pout or hold his arm against his chest. In his crumpled jacket and a shirt with a buttoned-down collar, today he looks like the writer Somerset Maugham, whose photo she keeps on her desk.
“Nothing important, really. The head of human resources decided that we should take part in the coming parade dressed in sports kit…”
“That, in fact, is an order from above. Healthy body in a healthy mind, or maybe it’s the other way around. We, the champions of education, must demonstrate our ability to engage in physical activities. It is rather ridiculous, but still within the norm, wouldn’t you agree?”
“It’s just that we poetry editors are supposed to be figure skaters…”
“My own suggestion, I’ll admit. What is poetry, if not gliding gracefully on clouds? I thought you’d like that. You’re young, you have a good figure, you will simply blossom in a short skirt.”
“But I can’t skate, sir.” Sabina can feel she is about to blush, and her intuition is not wrong. Also, she knows she has started the conversation badly, because this is not what she has come to see him about.
“So what? That won’t be a problem. You’ll have the skates hanging around your neck.”
“I used to run a bit, though. Perhaps my running spikes would be enough?”
Barski leans towards her and strokes her cheek with a look of incredulity.
“My dear child, if only we could be honest in everything we do… Who understands metaphor better than you do? All parades are theatre, in a sense.” He hesitates after these words, and it occurs to Sabina that he looks good even when he’s hesitating. “Of course, a theatre where we play our roles for a just cause. You will just play the part of a girl who likes sports and I’ll play the wise man up in the stand, I promise. Do I look like a wise man to you?”
“Yes. And you are wise.” She has rarely spoken with such conviction.
“I’m glad you think so.” Barski gets up and starts to pace the office. She doesn’t know how, but she is certain he is now going to ask her about the thing that really brought her here. “And what about our great poet? Does he already know we can’t publish him unless he agrees to a small edit? No, please, don’t get up, I like pacing. It’s a habit from my prison days.”
“He’s supposed to be coming tomorrow to hear your decision.”
“Sabina, if I could really decide about everything, I would consider signing up a poet like him our biggest success. But the international situation being what it is, there are enemies lurking everywhere…” He does not say it with conviction, but even so he is convincing.
Translated by Agnieszka Pokojska