"Tastes and Touches" is a collection of twenty-two stories of great literary merit. In each story the main character is a woman, usually a mature one, with some more or less painful experiences behind her. There is an impressive cast of characters: as well as ordinary women who live everyday lives, housewives or girls-next-door, there are also intellectuals, prostitutes and alcoholics. Although several of the female characters (such as Anna and Małgorzata) come and go in various stories, the book has no distinct central plot or issue. The heroines are not just Polish; some of the stories are set in the Balkans (Bosnia and Croatia) or western Europe (Austria, Germany and Holland). The specific time and place are not particularly important, nor is the heroines’ social origin significant, and the environment they belong to matters even less. Iwasiów focuses on drawing psychological portraits of her characters, aiming to describe what is special and different about female experience, a particular kind of sensitivity and awareness. What matters most here are the nuances, the small, sensory details, as the book’s title partly suggests – because women’s experience, Iwasiów implies, is made up of lots of seemingly trivial, ephemeral impressions, like “tastes and touches”. Another virtue of this book is that she tries to reinvent erotic language, or rather, on the basis of Polish literary tradition, to establish a new code for talking about sensual love (with emphasis on a lesbian theme).
The most tiring thing about sitting by her mother’s bedside was that if her mother recognised her, she made it clear that she regarded her own situation as a penance, after which a phase of forgiveness had to follow. In her flashes of consciousness she made it clear that she accepted her daughter’s presence as due to her status as a mother, as the normal course of events – that if she were to decide to die, then it should be with her older daughter at her side, as if this death were between the two of them. But she didn’t want to – she hadn’t made the decision to depart this life yet, so her daughter’s vigil was proving to be the thread keeping her tied to life. Her daughter sitting at her bedside was to keep the mother’s connection with life going, and gave her an opportunity for atonement, while at the same time being a heavy cross to bear, an extra punishment imposed on her daughter. In dying, but refusing to die, she had even greater power over her first-born than when she had thrown her own children out of the house, or the times they had had to carry her to bed unconscious. No one knew these stories from their childhood, because the next part of their lives seemed to be from a different fairytale – both girls had “turned out human”, which is rare, however, in incomplete, alcohol-soaked families, but they had lost touch with their mother for years, until they had to help her in the hour of her death. And both of them had studied, made progress and improved their lives, in spite of their childhood.
When she told her husband about it that afternoon after the phone call, he looked at her in disbelief. He didn’t know, he never guessed her past had been quite like that, her childhood. He didn’t know her present happy life had cost her so much, or that she had travelled such a difficult road to reach it, or that she had such great pain inside her – before then he had regarded his mother-in-law’s demise as the death of a mother with whom his wife had rather poor contact – a demise she didn’t want to go through with her. She also told him that wasn’t the case, which he was completely incapable of understanding; he made no comment. In spite of her heritage, everything, the hospital and her mother included, was one single road. She could not stop along the way, talk about it or dwell upon it. She had to have it inside her and just steer round it on a daily basis. And it worried her that for a long time now Janka had been freeing herself from this awareness of the past, although at the same time she was pleased by her sister’s oblivious attitude, as she seemed able to just live life, not in spite of anything.
Yes, the worst thing about this newly revived memory was that she had never spoken to anyone about it before, and in a way she had never even talked to herself about it. The worst thing was what she herself had always regarded as crucial and best. Not to mention the fact that she wanted the end. And one afternoon when she was relatively conscious, her mother declared: “Now I’m going to love you more”. “Mama,” she told her in her thoughts, “you don’t have to love me, just let me go home, back to my own life”. Even so she had her there too, in every minute of her happy life, which had to be happy for her to be able to forget. But lurking in the background of her happiness was its unspoken cause – great unhappiness. Both those states were as bad as each other.
So perhaps the uncomfortable thing about this memory was that something like this could happen again. If Janka, God forbid, had… If something were to turn out badly, wouldn’t she feel resentful that once again “her life” was being taken away from her? Especially now, at this moment, when they had decided to pass it on to a child. No, she didn’t think about it that way at all. Images, sentences and feelings went flowing chaotically through her head, influenced by the hospital smell, but this time there were other people with her, Janka had no truck with death, Janka was running away from death at a brisk trot, heading for her loved ones, her family, who had no dark deeds to hold against her, and none of whom qualified as a hostage, because they had all come here for a simple reason of the heart. So the very comparison of these two deaths, the deaths of women who were so closely related, actually made no sense at all. She was their only connection, she who could see their mother’s heritage in her own and her sister’s lives.
That evening she told her husband that maybe there was a hidden meaning to it, the child at the moment when Janka… But he laughed at her and said: “Janka’s not dying – couldn’t you see how well she felt today?” Besides, it was silly, such a primitive, sentimental idea, like a scene in a film, that someone is born the moment someone else in the family dies. The idea of continuity, like a relay race. On the other hand it was actually quite like that, viewed in terms of statistics – always, every minute of the day, someone is born and someone dies. Not always the one who should. She had gone much too far down this line of thought, because Janka really was feeling all right. When asked about it all the doctor had confirmed that no other therapy was necessary; he praised the patient’s decision highly and said that lately conservative surgery was indeed in vogue (in vogue? what did that mean?), involving the excision of just a small piece of tissue, and that the rehab after the amputation could take a long time, but was the best guarantee that it wouldn’t come to metastasis, which would be impossible to control. And he said: “Your sister is a wise woman”. So that evening she told her husband that actually she didn’t understand – she was angry with her sister, because she didn’t really have to have herself mutilated, and above all to give them quite such a terrible fright, because an amputation was an amputation, the last resort, everyone was thinking the very worst, and meanwhile the doctor was saying something quite different – apparently he had even used the word “prophylactic”. She was so angry and resentful that finally he had to admit she was right and say that he didn’t really understand either.
Earlier, feeling slightly ashamed of her selfishness, she had already drawn him into a conversation about what he would have done if it had happened to her. It was quite likely – her mother and Janka, her father’s sister, before that her grandmother – a lot of women in the family had died of cancer. “But you can see your mother brought it on herself in a way, and we know in your grandmother’s case it was old age – old people have to die of something, and your father’s sister, that’s a distant relative. There’s no risk group, you can see that for yourself.” It was stupid to keep nagging away at it; in the end they were both worried about the woman who was really ill, not about an imaginary inheritance of cancer, and yet she had to know what he would do if they cut off her breasts – would he still love her? He had to reply in the affirmative, which did nothing to reassure her. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror she covered her breasts with her hands and pushed them to the sides, under her arms, to look at her bare chest, and thought about feeding the planned child. Janka already had a five-year-old son, at least she hadn’t had to make a decision about that – about not breast feeding, ever. Because as she stood like that, she couldn’t help seeing her ribcage as infertile ground to which she would never hug her child, as if a decision had already been made somewhere. And she also thought about their husbands, hers and Janka’s, about the scars, about her husband’s fondness for lying between her breasts and nestling his head in there, about how she would ruffle his hair at such moments while gazing at her own manicured fingernails, how familiar it was, how innocent and inviting, or on the contrary, how passionate and lustful it could be – but it was always intimate.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones