In this collection of short stories, Daniel Odija treats his readers to a “repeat show”, returning to the issues he addressed in his novels The Street and The Sawmill. In this case it is hard to pinpoint a distinctive main subject, but certain themes are clearly identifiable. Once again Odija writes about the problems of young people from the provinces, the infamous second-class Poland, as they struggle with a lack of jobs and prospects, as well as a lack of meaning in their lives (as in the stories Melisa, The Glass Mill, Brocade and Trouble). He also creates a gallery of people who are lost, excluded, situated either by choice or necessity on the none too pleasant margins of reality (as in the stories Anatomy, The Boxer or Muscles). Mostly they are unhappy people whom life has given a tough training, teaching them to respect a few simple principles like military regulations, such as: “There will always be someone stronger than you”. The final recurring theme in The Glassworks is family history, mini sagas of a sort, in which the author describes births and deaths, recalls family history and pre-history, and considers the role of chance, which links some and not other people for years and years (as in the stories Triptych, True Stories and Learning to be Still). Once again Odija consistently paints pictures in prose using the conventions of black realism.
Even though in several of the stories a glimmer of hope shines through in the form of the love of one’s nearest and dearest, giving the heroes hope and strength in their struggle against the world, the message of these stories is decidedly pessimistic. To the heroes of Odija’s stories the world is like a perilous jungle, where their lives are constantly threatened by lesser or greater disasters. Is this what life in Poland is really like? That is a matter for debate, but it is hard to deny that Odija’s descriptions of the darker side of our unsophisticated present-day reality are highly evocative.
Chance I came into being by chance. I was created by chance. In a wild shot in the dark that spilled out like the Milky Way, I got embedded in a nice, soft nest. Rolled into a ball, I gradually uncoiled, and in my head I had a rhythm that became my rhythm. Slowly but surely I was being articulated. Blood and calcium were being pumped into me, vitamins and poisons were rushing through me – the first aphrodisiacs and the ultimate consolations. As the timid knots of thoughts began to tie themselves, I was being urged into a reaction – my reflexes were being encoded.
The timeless pattern including a head, two arms and a pair of legs stretched on a fragile spine was drawn specially for me, for a new body and a new mind which, even though they had hatched out so many times before, were exceptional for being mine and mine alone. At that one moment, concentrated sex drive was required to focus on the individual, to identify it and draw unique features on it. Isn’t this way of singling out just one of us from the rest a sort of special gift? And how much does it depend on us? Is it a gift from an enemy, or a friend?
Seeking yourself, got ready outside yourself for yourself, and vicariously for others; being a forerunner, the latest hope – a reasonable one, while the brain is growing, the bones and muscles are hardening, and the wounds heal quickly, but a disappointment if broken skin remains broken for ever more, and instead of new words arriving, even the old ones start to fly away. But I did grow up, quite brazenly, with the help of forces we’ll never know.
For perhaps our origin is not inherent in us, but in the multiple forerunner that has to be formed in time and space as the one possibility for our progenitors to come into being? And although my great-grandfather had to meet my great-grandmother and together they produced my grandmother, they didn’t have to be my relations at all, or consequently I theirs. Even if they did have something to do with it, what probably had the greatest influence on my arrival was the mysterious guiding force of fate and destiny, the special effort that goes into building the miniature pyramid of sense and nonsense which, turned top to bottom, ends with me, growing upwards with my father and mother, then those whom I’m more and more rapidly forgetting, but who are fading figures trapped in family photographs. And only occasionally do they break free in our heads, overcoming the barricades of time and decay to talk to us. Even if we don’t know them, they are our close relatives, getting closer the weaker our bodies become, the stronger our fever grows. Because as we forget about our bodies, we gain the capacity to forget about time, and then there’s no chronology, so someone two hundred years older than us might just as well be our grandson. But let’s return to the world of the living, even if they died long ago. It would have been enough for my great-grandmother to have slipped beneath another man and I would never have existed, or for my great-grandfather to have fallen on another woman, and I’d never have existed.
To stick with the pyramid diagram, I had up to four great-grandfathers and four great-grandmothers, like everyone, but you’ll admit that to generate one single person that’s a lot. As we know, along the way came grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts and cousins, but here I’m dealing with myself and what that entails, and with all of you. So think now… Each of my great-grandfathers had to hook up and correctly mix fluids with the right great-grandmother to produce the right links in the chain, in other words, my grandparents. And then, as ever, there were wars, so more people were dying than were being born. That was the next qualifying round my grandfathers’ sperm had to get through, yet another source of stress that stopped my grandmothers from freely exposing themselves to oblivion. Yet somehow it came about that my parents were born.
And here comes the next lottery of pure chance. My mother came from one end of the country to the other only because her brother had pneumonia and the whole family decided to move to the seaside for the local air to cure his sick lungs. That brought my mother a little closer to my father. In fact, a few years before my mother’s arrival this had always been German territory, and if not for the war, neither my father nor my mother would have met in this place, because they would each have lived thousands of kilometres away. And so, displaced from the land of their great-grandparents, quite by chance they were cast into the land of their enemies and grew up on it, a bit like trees destined for firewood. And even though I was born here, I can’t help being aware that pure chance was involved, and that I’m not where I ought to be…
But let’s talk about my parents. They finally met, and that was quite by accident too. A boy who was supposed to be coming to my mother’s name-day party with his girlfriend fell ill, so to have a partner, just anyone to go with, the girl took my father, simply because he knew the boy who was ill. So my father ended up at his future wife’s name-day party, and fell in love with her on the spot. But nothing would have come of it, because my mother was madly in love with someone else. The whole thing looked hopeless, but chance got to work again. It turned out that the pal my mother loved wasn’t all that much in love with her, and when he saw the girl my father came with, he fell in love with her on the spot. And so it all went round and round, came apart and joined up again, until a week later my parents jumped into bed together, and the rest is history. Of course, from that point on a lot of favourable circumstances had to weave themselves together, as thin as the veins of a virus, for me to be the end result. But somehow they did…
Because everything comes down to chance. Even if you draw up the most perfect plan for creating and destroying, and calculate mentally and physically all the possibilities for building and demolishing, they’ll never be exhaustive, because there will still always turn out to be a possibility that means it’s all down to chance.
How come while living only two hundred metres apart for twenty years we never met? Maybe because there were a lot of bends in the road leading to us, and it was bisected by several cross streets? But one day, at the same moment quite by chance we saw each other in the street. And we should consider the fact that only seconds before our meeting I might well have changed my mind and turned right, into a side street leading away from you, or you might have turned left into a side street leading away from me; you might also have been staring into a shop window, and then I’d have gone past you with your back towards me, or that car might have gone past sooner, and to avoid being run over by it you might have stopped just long enough for me to go into a shop a few metres ahead of you, without the faintest idea that if only I’d slowed down a bit we would finally have come across each other… I offer all these possibilities for examination.
On top of that, quite apart from our completely accidental meeting, nothing would have come of it if not for the fact that by chance we both knew the same person – neither of us all that well, to tell the truth. But one day you had something to see that person about, and she was nursing a hangover at my parents’ flat – for some time they’d been spending their weekends at the lake, so their place was free, and whenever it was free we had a party. And when I saw you in the doorway of my parents’ flat, I let you in, knowing I wouldn’t let you go again so easily. And as you came in you knew it wouldn’t be easy for you to get rid of me. And although you went to Holland for a month, where your time in the coffee shops of Amsterdam coincided with my time in bandages, because just after you left I was so badly beaten up in the street that I only just pulled through, after that month, which felt as long as five lifetimes, we met for the second time and that was a sign that the pyramid diagram would start to broaden into an hourglass shape.
Because after that second meeting we became the reason for the next few chances to happen, expressed in the form of our daughter, and later our son. And maybe it’s true that just as they came into being by chance and are now growing up by chance, so one day, quite by chance we’ll run out of breath.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones