Somnolence

Wojciech Kuczok
Somnolence
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa 2008
    123 x 195
    256 pages
    hardback
    ISBN 978-83-7414-486-5

The word “somnolence” used in the title of this novel only gives us a rough idea of the state in which the three main characters find themselves. Their collective, though separate submersion in sleep can be described by lots of equivalents: apathy, lethargy, trauma, limbo, depression, crisis, and so on – depending on the case in point.
However, each affliction of the soul that Wojciech Kuczok describes has the same cause: Adam, Róża and Robert are all suffering because they are having to play roles that express not their own, but other people’s ambitions. Although they are the only characters in the novel to be mentioned by name, they are stage-prop people: their task is to make their families shine with splendour. This obligation leads them to the edge of despair, and it is at this very moment – the moment of crisis – that we first meet them. Then, along with the author, we follow the process of their emergence from lethargy, which is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the main characters – a doctor, an actress and a writer – are successful people, so they could be independent. Secondly however, it doesn’t look as if they can afford to break free of the slavery of the life models imposed on them, or to make spectacular breaks with the past, present and future, which looks equally hopeless, because in their state of limbo they are losing their essential features: the artists their talents, and the doctor his sense of mission.
Kuczok retains his typical language and way of examining reality, yet he clearly struggles with the role that has been imposed on him. These struggles are reflected in the dilemmas of Robert, who is to some extent the author’s literary alter ego, but not just. The crux of the debate with the image of the “expert in exploring suffering” is that the heroes of the novel suffer at their own request – they are victims of unfortunate choices, rather than fate.
It is worth adding that the basis for Somnolence was the script for a film produced by Magdalena Piekorz, who also produced The Welts, which was based on Kuczok’s first novel, Muck.

Marta Mizuro

Excerpt

Róża, the most beautiful face in the city, maybe the most beautiful face in the country, the face of the biggest cosmetics companies, was never good at accounts, she yielded to the randomness of life, feeling safe in it thanks to one categorical, invincible belief: that people are by nature good, maybe just not always unselfish. By improvising life with charm and talent, she had achieved all her aims as if in passing, unintentionally, without any special effort, and that was what had the greatest appeal, that lack of necessity; Róża did not have to be an actress by necessity, she simply felt good in the theatre, especially the classical repertoire; in this asylum of grand style she found an antidote to the plebeian mediocrity of the citizens of the metropolis, to their impoverished, vulgar language, reduced to terms that were useful in the office and in bed; the theatre was a good place to hide from the swarm of spiritually neglected people, and also a noble panacea for her still untamed loneliness. Nor did she make any effort towards a career in the cinema, even less in television – it was cinema and television that made a pitch for her, and she yielded to these adventures out of pure curiosity, cautiously selecting roles to avoid joining in with the horror of common vulgarity; the cinema gave her less pleasure than the theatre, but it paid a better income; as a born improviser Róża never had any savings, out of concern for financial independence she ended the adventure with cinema for an adventure with television, which allowed her to earn more and faster, while ultimately, invited by a huge cosmetics company to lend out her face, she realised that only an adventure with advertising would enable her to have savings despite her total inability to save, and so she became a face in the largest possible format and returned to the theatre. The adventures with television and advertising had made her untamed loneliness start to plague her more than ever before, her strongest ties of friendship were loosening, they were ready to come undone for good, suddenly she felt that even her oldest, tried-and-tested friends and girlfriends since time began were starting to find it difficult to talk to her, it was as if they had suddenly lost the capacity for disinterested conversation, and so Róża decided to go back to the theatre, to the stage community, to hide in the roles of classic heroines who spoke in verse; having spent a bit too long in the environment of television and advertising people, she was longing for the language of the old masters, the television and advertising people used language that was so very reduced, low and devoid of beauty, that for a long time after returning to the theatre Róża spoke only in questions from old plays, off stage too, with the aim of ridding her mind as quickly as possible of the memory of the language of people who were reduced, low and devoid of beauty, she spoke exclusively in quotations from the theatrical canon; her old boyfriends and girlfriends preferred to talk to each other about her eccentricity, exaltation and prima donna deviations rather than actually to her. At roughly this point she started falling asleep more often than usual. The doctor diagnosed overtiredness: it is a favourite diagnosis of patients and doctors, and then rest is prescribed, one of the few medicines that really does taste good, if you don’t overdose on it; Róża realised that she should move into the land of non-stage whispers, take care of her so-called inner harmony; her old, not unselfish female friends suggested that she should find herself someone permanent at last, her not unselfish male friends advised the same, but in a more personal way.
Róża had the bad luck that at just that point Mr Husband began his acquaintance with her by proposing. Mr Husband was the first of her thousands of admirers to dare quite simply to introduce himself and ask for her hand, at least it was nice, at least it was interesting, hungry for a new adventure she agreed to let him speak; she was unlucky, because Mr Husband could be convincing. As she listened to his arguments, she sniffed the bouquet he had brought, and could not restrain her laughter, which did not disconcert him at all, Mr Husband was quite an expert on people’s reactions, uncontrolled laughter was a well-stamped coin, Mr Husband had luck, which he added to by practising on Róża his perfectly mastered techniques of persuasion, and when he finished, even though it had got late, she had no desire to go home at all, she understood that logic forbade her to accept the proposal, but reason was prompting her not to do it straightaway. After the wedding, ah, after the wedding they moved into the mountains, where it was healthier, fresher, woodsier, birdier, grassier and streamier.

Let us interrupt this love story, Róża should not lie on the floor for so long, let us allow her to wake up, she really does fall asleep decidedly too often, marriage clearly isn’t doing her any good. Mr Husband finally takes notice of the dog barking, as it has run up to his feet now, Mr Husband strokes it, without ceasing to check the accounts, he calls Róża, without a response, he calls again, finally he goes to see if something has happened, he sees her unconscious, she must have suddenly fallen asleep and collapsed, but why, something must have upset her, frightened her, he notices an ankle bracelet in her hand, aha, well of course, an oversight, someone’s trying to make his life difficult again; he gently uncurls Róża’s fingers, removes the bracelet and hides it in his pocket, only now does he lightly slap her on the face, trying to wake her up, but it’s no good, she’s asleep, so he puts a pillow under head and says to the whimpering dog:
“So keep an eye on your mistress.”
He leaves, mentally returning to what is countable, he will have to make a careful reckoning of the last transactions again, something about it doesn’t add up.
“Are you here?”
Oh no, about turn, she has woken up after all, she gets up from the floor looking haggard.
“I was asleep again…”

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones