This collection contains six psychological tales of manners with contemporary themes. The overriding theme here is the essential defeat, the existential catastrophe, that befalls ordinary characters. Characters like Gerd Piontek from the story that opens the collection. Gerd is a Silesian who, in his early youth, was in Hitler’s army. After many years spent in Soviet captivity, he returns home a man hollowed to his very core. This living corpse, who once did terrible things on the front, committed one additional “crime”: he fathered a child. But because he was a man in whom all feelings had died, he made his son into an emotional cripple.
The longer story Masara deserves special attention. The title is a Silesian nickname given to fat, ugly children. Paulina, with severe obesity, is one of these, and soon enough she goes through hell at her Gliwice school, finally taking her own form of revenge not only on her classmates, but on youth in general. Both here, and in the other stories in this book, Twardoch is enormously sensitive to the problem of the lack of acceptance, whether of one’s own body or by society, analytically and perceptively describing the fear of being hurt, humiliated, mocked, and, most of all, the fear of being ridiculed. Ridicule, we read in one of the stories, “is worse than death. A person dies most when ridiculed.” Twardoch also takes up the problem of non-authenticity, of the mask. This question is best expressed in the story Hit Me, in which the central character suffers from multiple personality disorder, like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde figure. The advantage of this story about the collapse of a personality is that it is based on contemporary reality, being peopled by figures out of a television show. This is a general quality of this prose: the characters and the events of the plot seem stealthily observed and overheard, as though ripped right out of reality. Twardoch’s stories are also wonderfully constructed, based on suspense and narrative scissor kicks. The best story in terms of this is one called Włodzimierz Kurczyk’s Two Transformations.
- Dariusz Nowacki
Szczepan Twardoch (b. 1979). Writer of prose and journalist, his last book was the critically acclaimed novel Eternal Grunwald (2010). He is an expert in Silesian language and culture and in weapons.
His job he hated, like everything else. He never worked up the courage to send his resume to another company. He was convinced he was incapable of getting a job himself. His position at H&T had been arranged by his mother, an old acquaintance of Halski, who had even come to her funeral three months ago. Because of her, not because of her son, who he never even noticed at work, like Kurczyk was invisible. There wasn’t anything to scold the young accountant for, and Halski wasn’t in the habit of giving praise, so in the course of six years of working at H&T, Kurczyk had spoken with his boss only three times, if you didn’t count the polite formality of “Good morning, Mr. President,” which Halski demanded unconditionally. He never responded to these greetings.
Włodzimierz had been taught politeness by his mother. By his Mommy—that was the only way he was allowed to refer to her in conversations with other people. And that was the only way he could address her, naturally in the third person. How much sugar would Mommy like in her coffee? He still had her picture in his wallet, he couldn’t get that black and white card out from under its clear film pocket. She looked at him whenever he opened his wallet, watched him with her dark eyes. She pursed her narrow lips with their delicate row of dark hair above the upper one. That mouth, in its barely visible grimace, contained all the rage of the world. She was forty-seven years old when she had her only child. She was unmarried. And she remained unmarried to her death.
He squeezed onto the tram, which was hideously crowded, as usual at this time. He was repulsed by people, especially their smells: old clothes, cheap cigarettes, unbrushed teeth, digested alcohol. Mommy had taught him hygiene. Hygiene and abstinence. A healthy lifestyle. Brushing your teeth after every meal, washing your hands at every opportunity. Intimate hygiene, too. Using talcum powder, and being careful and systematic about these operations. And she never let him learn how to drive, although she had a car herself. He couldn’t even wash that car. It was beneath the dignity of a boy from a respectable home. One paid men of a worse sort to wash one’s car.
In the eighties Mommy had a yellow Polonez, which later fell apart one election Sunday in September of 1993, when Mommy crashed it into a lamp post in front of the school where they had gone to vote. Then the Polonez was only good for scrap. Mommy was furious. Two days later she had a long talk with someone over the telephone. He didn’t know who it was, because she told him to stay in his room until she called for him. That evening a young man he didn’t know was sitting at the kitchen table in their apartment. They signed some papers, and he left Mommy the keys to a navy blue Renault 25. The car was eight years old, but big, comfortable, and luxurious. It even had brown leather upholstery and electric windows. It also had air conditioning, although Mommy never turned it on, saying it was unhealthy. She didn’t allow Włodzimierz to sit in the front seat, and he never once occupied that comfortable front position, not even while the car was parked. He had tried to imagine how amazing it must be to ride in the front, to look out at the road through the wide windshield, with all the switches on the dashboard within reach.
He was fourteen then, and he had been in eighth grade for a couple of weeks. The other boys would have been impressed by that elegant limousine, but they only paid Włodek any notice at all when they wanted to torment him, and they had been tormenting him since early elementary.
In sixth grade their enthusiasm for persecuting waned a bit, and they stopped chasing down the weird kid who didn’t go to either religious or physical education. By eighth grade they administered only small, habitual unpleasantnesses: they would whack him on the head with a book, throw his file out the window, and trip him when he broke into a run to save his satchel—leather, with two clasps, itself reason enough for mockery. He asked Mommy to buy him a rip-stop nylon backpack that would zip shut, but she said no. She said that only with a satchel did a pupil look like a pupil. That was the same reason why he would put on a school uniform, even though uniforms hadn’t been required for a long time, and he was the only one to wear that slippery navy shirt with the white collar and the school badge sewn onto it.
She gave up on it only when he got to high school, at the express, very polite request of his grade teacher, who somehow knew his mom. Everybody knew her somehow. His teacher wanted to shield the boy from taunts, although in the first few days of school a lot of people had already seen him in that uniform. Besides, the older boys from his elementary school went to the same high school, so he didn’t really need to earn his reputation for being a weird kid. Everyone already knew him as a weird kid.
So Mommy gave up on the uniform. In its stead came navy-blue sweaters, white shirts, and navy-blue pants, sad as the funeral of a mean old man. In lieu of his satchel, a leather briefcase.
There were also beatings in high school. The first one was brought on by a first-year student from another class, whose name he never learned, that was how it worked out. She was pretty, with green eyes and fiery red hair. He heard the older boys saying she was a virgin but that she was happy to put it about in other ways. He didn’t understand at the time what that meant. One time he accidentally jostled this red-headed beauty at the school shop—he had always been clumsy—and the girl spilled her tea. Red liquid went streaming down the white cotton of her camisole, spilling all over her proud breasts. The redhead cried out in pain. Włodek didn’t say he was sorry, because he couldn’t get a single word out. He only tried to brush off the tea leaves, but Ginger pushed him away with disgust.
They fell on him at the next break. It was a very long break. They dragged him into the least-frequented men’s restroom. Ginger was already in there, waiting, grave, cruel. Her friends, third-years, were very entertained, having a great time. They prodded him, took his glasses, and struck him a few times across the face. He stood still as if he wasn’t there: he said nothing, didn’t try to defend himself, didn’t beg, didn’t cry. Disappointed by his passivity, they thrust his head into the toilet and flushed it, pulled his pants down his flabby rump, and then the boldest of them kicked him in the balls. And that was how they left him: half-blind, in his underwear, in a fetal position from the pain on the urine-soaked tiles underneath the urinals. And she stood there. She must have felt the full force of her femininity. Of being able to incline four strong, young men to punish that clumsy cockroach that had burned her. That carcass of a kid, that human mulch, the kind of insect that since the dawn of history has had to grovel at the feet of all the world’s red-headed beauties and strong men.
Translated by Jennifer Croft