At first glance, it could be said that Hanna Krall’s new book was written by others. By her relatives and acquaintances, who wrote her letters, postcards, and the notes you left on people’s doors when they weren't at home over a period of fifty years. She has also added written reports by her guardian angels, i.e. excerpts from the secret service archives, as well as correspondence with publishers explaining that they cannot publish her books.
A second glance, however, reveals a difference between the material that was sent and that which was heard and noted down by the author herself. Even if the publisher hasn’t used italics to differentiate the two kinds of narration, the sound of a story reconstructed from memory can’t be confused with any other. This is the sound of a tale told in Krall’s characteristic style.
The writer has never mentioned the fact that at public readings, she asks her audience to tell stories themselves. She has doubtlessly made use of strangers’ tales on more than one occasion, but this is the first book in which she reveals them in their ‘raw’ version. These are not finished but rather kernels of stories; potential topics for development. In presenting their outlines, Krall provokes readers to ask themselves numerous questions. Why didn’t the writer take up these ideas? Could they be expanded and taken further? And, finally: shouldn’t some of these stories just be left in peace?
We find a partial answer to these questions in the book. It is difficult to do anything much with postcards from one’s small daughter or notes from one’s husband. On the other hand, placed in chronological order, they suddenly form a full-blooded story. Family history set against a historical background. Ordering the notes according by date sketches in the scenery. This clarifies the idea behind the composition, but there is still a sense of something missing. Do a few notes (for some years just one) really reflect the zeitgeist of the time? Or was that all the author remembered, or did she decide that was all that was worthy of citation from a given period?
If viewed in this way, Pink Ostrich Feathers turns out to be a book full of riddles. All of which could be said to lead to one question: where does literature start?
FRANCISZKA S., pensioner
On modern art
...They took him to the still unfinished building. He liked it and went inside, asked for a ladder and took a black pencil from his pocket. He drew a mermaid . On the wall. Everyone was very happy and thanked him. And then they went away, and the mermaid stayed.
They assigned the flat to a railway worker. He looked around, and said that firstly it was inadequate and secondly he had small children, and she had bare breasts. So he didn’t take it, and they called me. I didn’t have any children or any points – the only thing I could have scored on was my activity in the food cooperative, but I wasn’t even a member of it, so when they said there was a flat, I rushed over there.
They told me to sit down. You see – the director said – this isn’t an ordinary apartment, it’s one with a mermaid. Fine, I said. And you see, this apartment must be kept clean, because visitors might come by. I’ll keep it clean, I promised; got the keys, opened the door…
My dear madam, what can I say?
It was a Picasso.
It was huge, my God was it huge. Her bosom was like two balloons, the eyes were triangular, at the end of her long, oddly long arm she held a hammer; and she had a short, tapering tail at the back.
We only had a sofa bed and a table. The table stood in the middle of the room and the sofa bed against the wall, with the hammer hanging over our heads. When we woke up, we saw her eyes, even odder than her arm and the tail.
A group from China was the first to arrive. They were visiting Polish workers’ housing estates. After the Chinese came the miners, festive in their plumed hats. Then came the textile workers, they were labour heroes. I was polite – I knew I was representing our capital city – but inside I seethed. Especially when I looked at their boots and calculated how much muck I would have to take out that day.
The parliamentary speaker came to see us – tell me, comrades, aren’t you afraid to be with her, alone as it were? – he asked in the hallway. The president came and looked, but didn’t say a word. The gentlemen from the ministry came, took measurements and exchanged opinions. Maybe we could take it off together with the plaster? Aw, come on, it’s too delicate. Put it behind glass? Aw, come on, the frame wouldn’t hold up…
They got on our nerves. We hired a painter. The painter brought a bucket and soap.
It was only when he died and they started talking about the quarrels between his children that we thought: perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea…? We were motivated by public interest, for the mermaid was state owned, and we would have got nothing out of it. Like our tattered couch, for which were weren’t given a single cent in compensation.
The people from the ministry came again. They brought machines with them and x-rayed the wall. Gentlemen, don’t trouble yourselves, I said. It was a good, pre-war workman and good, ordinary soap.
On temporary difficulties
(A note left on the table)
My precious wife, don’t be dispirited. We have survived far worse – we survived TB, Wawelska Street and the loss of our tulip bulbs. Your book will be published some day, I promise you. For now, I’m going out to pay for the little one’s horse lessons and buy the third volume of the encyclopaedia. It’s true that your book * is further away, but for that your family is closer, and maybe that’s not so bad.
She’s in Krakow, staying at a camping site. Krzyś and Skucio, acquaintances from the Hala Gąsienicowa in the Tatra mountains, had exams at the university. Krzyś passed maths with top marks and took them out for an ice-cream at the Jama Michalika café. In the evening, they went to Gombrowicz’ Iwona at the theatre …
JAN C, former landowner
On two or three days
...They took away the palace during the agricultural reform, but we managed to bury the silver. It was ‘post- landed property’ and belonged to the state treasury; but I knew where my non-property was, whereas the current owner – the state treasury – didn’t have the faintest idea.
I went to see a lawyer. I said I’d point out the place if I could keep some of it, and the rest could go to the castle. The lawyer went to the Ministry of Culture. A few weeks later, three buses set off from Warsaw, with the gentlemen from the ministry, policemen, workers, shovels, pickaxes and a large chest. They stood in front of the palace (now a vocational school complex) , and the gentlemen from the ministry said: ah, Corrazi style. I said: we need to mark two intersecting lines, one from the window in the cellar and the other from the arch above the vault. They marked the intersections and began to dig.
Everything was taken to the museum and laid out on tables. Art historians took vases, bowls, candelabras, jugs, cutlery and serving trays in their hands… They said: late Radke. Or: early Werner. Or: square base, nineteen by nineteen. I didn’t approach them. I leant against the wall and tried to remember where this candlestick had stood and when I had last eaten with that cutlery. I was a bit uneasy, because what with the trip and the museums, I was behind at the workshop. I make Christmas tree baubles and ladies’ jewellery: pendants with pictures of stars like Niemen, or Lieutenant Columbo; metal necklaces; and crosses made from Czech imitation diamonds.
My old acquaintances are extremely interested in the whole story. They visit me and ask about the lawyer. Someone asked how my peasants behaved after the agricultural reform. They behaved as you’d expect: they came and wanted to know why their crop yields were worse than mine had been. I explained to them: plough deeper, boys, don’t spare the horses; that land wants deep ploughing. And they returned home and made their furrows deeper, and wrote to say thank you, everything was growing better. And we talked about hunting. Someone talked about partridges, which surprised me: my dear sir, do you really shoot? And immediately afterwards I remembered my last hunt, in ’38, in Polesie. I shot a lynx, his hide is hanging up on the wall behind you. The watercolour next to the hide is our palace.
Only another two, perhaps three days. I just have to divide up the silver between the children, and then I’ll be done. I’ll go back to the baubles, to the ladies’ jewellery, to my real life. Just another two or three days.
Translated by Katya Andrusz