Agnieszka Taborska is the author of a terrific book-length essay on the history of French surrealism called Conspirators of Imagination. She is particularly interested in the late grandchildren and heirs of that Parisian revolution of the mind. “If Henri Michaux spent a night with Roland Topor, the fabulous fruit of that night would be Agnieszka Taborska,” Natasza Goerke, the Polish writer (now living in Hamburg), has written about her. Her post-surrealist novel The Dreaming Life of Leonora de la Cruz has been translated into English and French. Her work as a literary translator and lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design have made her very knowledgeable in American and avant-garde art and writing, as well. Her cunning fairy-tales for adults and for children have appeared in Poland, Germany, Japan, and Korea. All of her interests and passions come together in her latest book. The Whale, or: Objective Chance is a collection of notes, curiosities, and anecdotes, the agenda of a globe-trotting medium clearing her path with a machete through a thicket of signs determined by who-knows-whom. In her travel notes from Poland, France, the United States and Tunisia, coincidence transforms into necessity, the marvelous poses as the ordinary, while an uncontrollable curiosity as to what happens next pushes onward into more trips into the great world and its environs. Agnieszka Taborska isn’t the first author to have devoured the white whale of the world. But she, too, is like a fish in water in that plankton of events and anecdotes, in the gulfstream of little stories that could become successful episodes in a novel or a film. Her prose is seasoned with a large dose of the fantastic and the miraculous, and the poetic realism of Laurie Anderson races against the humor of a Hitchcock film, while her voyeur’s eye is a window onto a world in which everything is almost bursting from the excess of meanings, mysteries, and possibilities.
Newspapers today look like the illustrated press of the nineteenth century that Max Ernst used in his collages. He would choose illustrations depending on how melodramatic their poses and situations were: naked ladies, dressed gentlemen, abductions, fainting fits, rapes, murders, floods, fires, a close-up of a revolver, a trickle of blood oozing out of the mouth of an elegant victim, elegant interiors, paintings in sculpted frames, refined crimes, unexpected and effective. It sufficed to rotate the body of a young woman ninety degrees and hang it above the ground to make it levitate in an office full of bulky tomes, and the oneiric effect stayed in the memory for a long time. It sufficed to replace a landscape in a Baroque frame with a close-up of a thumb and decorate the back of the herald of astonishing news with wings for the melodrama to turn into a surrealist joke. What newspapers used to show the illiterate portion of their public a century and a half ago in evocative illustrations, ours describe in words. Doubtless Ernst would have approved the news in our contemporary media. A young woman dies after consuming too many fluids during the radio contest “Who Can Drink the Most?” An Orthodox nun in a Romanian convent, possessed by evil forces, does not survive her exorcism. In Madison, a thug attempts to swindle a Catholic lady out of money; she took vows of poverty the day before. An Italian priest organizes a beauty contest for nuns. A Brazilian priest dies in the clouds, hanging onto a thousand helium balloons. His risky stunt was supposed to raise money to build a spiritual resting place by the highway for truck drivers. A whirlwind sweeps up a bus carrying a sing-and-dance group on their way to a performance. Soldiers who summoned up spirits in their barracks are treated at a psychiatric hospital. It takes Yuri Lyalin, of Vologda, Russia, twenty-four hours to notice the knife in his back. Shortly after the launch in the U.S. of a television station that is supposed to improve the image of Muslims in society, its owner cuts his wife’s head off. During her wedding reception, in her excitement, a bride swallows her wedding ring. A lady-astronaut famous for her courage in space plans to stab another lady-astronaut in love with the same man. She sets out on her long, criminal mission equipped with a space diaper, just in case. On the thirtieth anniversary of the death of “The King,” an American dentist acquires for an astronomical sum the porcelain crown of Elvis. In a picture of an eleven-year-old Czech girl called Anička that has disappeared, the employees at the Little Ray Orphanage recognize their co-worker, the slight, quiet, thirty-four-year-old Barbora Skrlova, known for her habit of disappearing into the forest for a few weeks and living on ants. During a flight from Brussels to New York the pilot dies of old age. Northwest Airlines calls off a flight from Las Vegas on Easter Sunday when the pilot unexpectedly showers the passengers in a torrent of abuse. An army plane falls onto the home of Dong Yun Yoon in California, killing his wife and mother-in-law. Yoon states he bears no ill will against the pilot. An employee of Sydney airport is sentenced to two years in prison for the frequent theft of hair from female passengers’ luggage. The poor guy would steal tufts stuck to clothing, brushes, and combs. He committed this crime at least eighty times, or at least that is how many plastic bags—with the passengers’ information written on them—the police find in his apartment. An eighty-four-year-old Nigerian preacher is imprisoned for having eighty-six wives—according to the law, eighty-two too many. In a zoo in Atlanta, a Capuchin monkey escapes from his cage—twice—by picking the lock with a wire. Connecticut police puzzle over where the roasted chicken with a bomb inside on the shoulder of the highway might have come from. A donkey is arrested for stealing corn from a field on the Nile. A hunter shoots a duck, puts it in the fridge, and two days later his wife looks into the fridge, the duck raises its head, the wife takes it to the vet, the vet performs an operation, the duck is clinically dead but back on its feet after resuscitation. Thirteen golf balls are retrieved from the stomach of a rattling Labrador. Eleven dogs are eaten in Malaysia by an eight-meter-long python. The residents of a village catch him and photograph him with his bounty. A young whale mistakes a yacht for his mother and tries to nurse at it. A jealous man bites his lover’s snake in half. Two individuals painfully bite the ticket-collectors at the Wrocław Zoo. A drunk British tourist bites off the nose of a Greek bartender. A police station in Mexico is attacked by a swarm of infuriated bees. The rank of colonel in the Norwegian Royal Guard is obtained by a king penguin at the Edinburgh Zoological Gardens. American postal workers find, in a package sent from Taiwan as a “gift,” twenty-six live giant beetles. Over three thousand kangaroos get into an army base in Australia. Put to sleep by a cannonade of tranquilizers, they are taken by air- conditioned cars to a less military place. According to the journalist’s note, the amount spent on the transportation of a single kangaroo would be the same as the cost of a round-the-world airplane ticket. In the parking lot of a McDonald’s a young man beats a peacock to death with a stick, convinced he was killing a vampire. During a power outage in India two sets of brides and grooms are mixed up and married to the wrong people. A seventy-year-old man, caught in the act of spying on female tourists as they pee in the woods, can’t figure out what he has done wrong. In a retirement home a rat chooses the oral cavity of one of the retirees in order to give up the ghost in seclusion from the world. Another retiree left the year before while the nurses weren’t looking; he still hasn’t come back. The NYPD, called in by neighbors to an apartment that has started to leak water, find mummified corpses that have been sitting for eighteen months in front of a TV that is still on.... News like that distracts the weary reader from politics. They show the irrational dimension of our banal epoch.
Translated by Jennifer Croft
More excerpts translated by Ursula Phillips can be found on the In Translation website - http://intranslation.brooklynrail.org/polish/the-whale-or-objective-chance