The action of Zyta Rudzka’s new novel is set in Arcadian surroundings – the terrace of a once elegant boarding house and a rose garden in summer. Its main characters are doubly imprisoned, in an old people’s home and in their own ailing bodies. In addition, the main ones, Miss Czechna (short for Czesława), her sister Leokadia, and Mr Leon, all bear the scars of the Nazi concentration camps, where they ended up as children. Focusing her narrative on the “martyrdom of old age”, Rudzka implies that their present situation is in many regards a state of return, to childhood as well as the traumas associated with it (not without reason does the phrase “I want to go back to the camp!” come up now and then). In the case of the woman referred to in the title, the problem is even more complicated, because she was a “patient” of the infamous Josef Mengele; nowadays she treats her experience in the camp with a mixture of pride and shame, because it has proved to be the most significant episode in her long life, and she regards her connection with a perverse torturer as her one and only “contact with a famous person”, so she exalts it in a peculiar way, being also the source of a still vivid (or increasingly vivid) erotic obsession. Here Rudzka is clearly referring to Liliana Cavani’s once celebrated film The Night Porter, replacing the film’s provocative sensationalism with some focused thought about the fate of characters whose roles the same actress, Charlotte Rampling, might successfully play in a few years’ time.
In terms of style, the book is written in Rudzka’s usual “reporting” tone, although she very skilfully shapes it to fit the main characters’ “senile” patterns of thought, while also making plenty of allusions to the tradition of Polish avant garde fiction. The reference to the work of Marian Pankowski (the scene comparing tattoos of a camp number and a butterfly, symbolising “the chaos of history”), despite being derivative, is particularly effective, maybe because Rudzka is telling her story from the female perspective, so here a “tattoo” means something different – it is not just a symbol but also suggests beauty, coquetry, and finally youthfulness. And admittedly Miss Czechna has no lack of all three.
- Adam Wiedemann
The first time she stood before Doctor Josef, twelve years old and naked, she could sense his delight.
A powerful, attentive gaze. Hand clenched in a white glove. Steady strokes of the riding crop against his polished boots.
He had spotted her at once – bony, sinewy and venous. Face veiled in thick curls, belly frosted, calves crooked, thighs a small bubble of winter air could squeeze between.
Standing in a group of twins, hunchbacked, lame and dwarfish. Among children with deformed limbs that would be on display in a biology museum in just a few weeks’ time. Next to them some extremely robust chubby little babes were wailing. Still warm from their mothers’ arms. They showed him some Gypsy babies too, with lovely teeth and perfectly dome-shaped skulls that would adorn many a desk-top after boiling. They would suit the silence of Berlin offices and libraries.
He was only looking at her. They pushed her twin sister up to join her. He flashed a glance at her. Different. He barely nodded. He pointed his index finger to the right, anointing her as research material.
Once again he examined her alone. He begrudged her words or touch, his admiration was mute. He explored her with his gaze. Violated her with his thoughts. Let his eyes slide over her breasts – childish, huddled, with tiny moles, nipples like early summer, pale pink strawberries.
Suddenly he came near. One step. Two. He stood close. Stretched out his hand. Touched her with the crop. Her body buckled. The skin sagged, making a small indent. He pushed her. It hurt. She didn’t move. Ja, gut. He liked her.
He removed the crop. She was different. She didn’t cry. As if she couldn’t feel the cold. Smell the odour. The stench of burning human flesh. She was always bored. She shifted from foot to foot. With her face menacing, tense. She carried out his orders. She knelt. Went up on tiptoes. Raised her arms. Turned around. Showed her side view. Her back. Leaned over. Threw out her chest. Straightened up. Looked him right in the eyes. That surprised him, but also amused him. Some hair was stuck to her lips, so she unhurriedly brushed it aside. As she did so she put her finger to her lips, as if bidding him be silent.
He was pleased. It was concentrated pleasure to be brought something like this.
He desired to push her. Watch her fly. Onto the sand. He gave her a mighty shove. She fell. Lay there. With her arms spread wide. Legs apart. Thrust into the gravel. But not dead yet. She shuddered. Moved. Stood up. Tensed. Wiped her face clean of the discharge it let fly in falling. * * * They all feared the summer, but no one spoke about it.
And now it was setting in. Gradually. Unhurriedly. Relentlessly. First there was a short, cool shower, after which the grass shook off the dew amazingly quickly. Then the sun flared up more and more fiercely. Streams of bright light proliferated, conquering each shady area of the garden in turn.
The rodents moved out into the fields. The pungent smell of mouse urine was not easy to expel from the dining room. The whitewashed tables were put outside. That was where they ate their meals now, lay out to rest and waited for family visits. The terrace was floored with flagstones. Chipped and weather-beaten, with the odd blade of grass protruding from underneath.
Miss Czechna took her first step. She moved cautiously, as if she were all shattered inside. Her head bounced dangerously, it didn’t fit her body, but looked as if it had been forced onto her limp neck. As she walked along she was watching the pensioners. They were sitting on the terrace. Staring into space. Wallowing in the sunshine like lizards stock still among the stones. Exposing themselves to be bathed in warmth. Skulls covered in sparse, dry hair. Faces like several pieces of skin sewn together. Cheeks marked with bruises, wounds and suppurating scratches. Crepe-paper eyelids. Bellies swollen by disease. Furrowed hands. Gnarled fingers. Ruffled thighs, hanging loose, wobbling with every motion of the body. Feet liberated from bootees and slippers. Large, misshapen toes. Growths. Lumps. Rippling with wattles.
It looked as if they were waiting for something, staring at the gateway for hours on end. At noon it was already hard to see, dissolving in the blazing heat of the sun, blurring among the rusty railings. The tarnished wicket seemed to be eternally shut. As if it were a stage prop through which no one every managed to leave. Beyond which nothing existed.
Miss Czechna stopped. She fumbled towards the jugs containing warm liquid. Her fingers wound around a glass. She held it tight, the way someone whose head is spinning leans against a wall. She narrowed her rheumy eyes.
The flower boxes were planted with annuals. Rubber plants trapped in clay pots had been brought out into the fresh air. Their fleshy, meaty leaves towered over the lawn. Old vine shoots gave way to young green ones, quickly covering the high fence that bordered the property. Last year’s sun umbrellas had been dusted off. Deckchairs, plastic armchairs and little camping tables had been set out on the terrace.
“Ah, so another June is about to begin.”
She spoke quietly, to herself.
She sat down for a moment. Took out her powder puff. Tidied a curl above her ear. Took a long look at herself in the small oval mirror. She was proud of her smooth complexion. If she had resolved to wear glasses, she would have noticed a dense network of fine incisions on her cheeks, like paper cuts. She looked like a doll with a porcelain face out of an antique shop.
“I forgot to tell you.”
Her twin sister, Miss Leokadia, was talking. She had a childlike voice.
“Listen, yesterday a ladybird sat on my skirt. A wonderful little ladybird… And on the radio they said there are some meadows where there are thirty-eight varieties of wild orchid and twenty species of bee. Isn’t that wonderful?”
She sighed. And smiled, showing her brown gums.
After a long pause she spoke again:
“Can you feel it? It’s summer, isn’t it? Time to go to the allotment. Everything that’s alive is buzzing, bustling and blooming. Dear Mother Nature is getting all dressed up for us. As if in a day or two she were due to celebrate an important day. A wonderful event. Just look, isn’t it lovely here? … You see, Czechna? You’re glad, aren’t you? Yesterday it was two years since we came here, we had a cry, but today we’re managing to be happy again. How wonderful… The spring is over, but it’s still so beautiful here.”
She was looking all around, delighted. Her chin was shaking.
“I couldn’t agree with you more, Miss Leokadia. We are most fortunate.”
Mr Henoch nodded.
He was almost eighty. Puffy and swollen, he had an egg-shaped skull coated in the remains of his hair, with liver spots showing through.
“We can enjoy some recreation. Get some fresh air. Be on holiday to our heart’s content,” he enthused.
He glanced at the caretaker standing by the garden toolshed. His figure looked heavy and still as an obelisk. Then he glanced at Miss Czechna. She was showing off her slender legs in a wine-red trouser suit.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones