Childhood, to which our memory lends a golden sheen in later years, usually manifests itself as a land of lost happiness. Not in Magdalena Tulli’s prose. Here it is a nightmare. The narrator of Tulli’s stories shares the fate of the children of Holocaust victims. Her case is that of the narrator of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: just as he was the involuntary victim of his father, who had been saved from the annihilation, she too is the victim of her own mother, a former inmate of Auschwitz. It is only from conversations with her dying mother, ever more absent, progressively prey to Alzheimer’s, that years later she learns about her family’s past.
These moving stories, written with a chill, elegant precision, are the fruit of their conversations. They are an act of mourning for Tulli’s mother, but even more, for the childhood she was denied. They constitute an attempt to confront an inherited trauma, to cope with fears that become new idiosyncracies. Irony appears here as a medication applied to oneself so as to pass safely through the minefield of a wounded memory. The narrator, a mother of two growing sons, turns out to be the hostage of the little girl from long ago. She stands by her, though today she cannot help her; she can, however, help herself. Once again we hear the old truth that declares the child to be father to the man.
In Tulli’s prose we encounter the logic arising from the isolation of the little girl, left to her own resources by an Italian father who spends his time between Warsaw and Milan, and a mother whose emotions were left behind the fence of a concentration camp. With her troublesome bilingualism, her strange, un-Polish last name, her better-quality but unkempt clothes, her inability to make friends and her lack of self-confidence, she becomes an easy target for other children. The image of school in this book is that of a totalitarian institution, an image that serves as a metaphor for Polish society in the Cold War. And as always in Tulli’s work, metaphor carries the value of a realistic argument.
- Marek Zaleski
The children who lived on the first floor rarely played outside. Only when the weather was nice, if they happened not to be in preschool or on a family vacation. But even when they were there we couldn’t hear them if the balcony door was closed. One day, though, we were taking our afternoon tea on a warm day and the balcony door was ajar.
“Can you close it? I’m not big on children,” my mother admitted mildly. “They make such a lot of noise when they play. Nothing tires me like too much laughter.”
The tea had to be steaming hot, it had to burn the lips, only then could my mother be sure she was really drinking it. The cousin she had spoken to was no longer capable of answering in person. In her name I nodded. I knew that in all this I myself counted the least. I had appeared in her life only very recently, as a domestic help who in case of need was able to take on additional roles. All I had to do was figure out who I was on any given afternoon. I would pay careful attention to the situation, attempt to slip into it smoothly; I would test the ground, leaning on personal experience, it’s true, but doing so in a casual way, and as discreetly as I could.
“Yes, children can be tiring.”
“You had a tough time when they were little. With two it’s even harder.”
She knew what she was talking about. After all, she’d been unable to cope with just one, from the very beginning. When children are small, life is never easy. But on the other hand it passes quickly, hurtling madly from old troubles to new. At that time my boys were already big. They were both studying history. The older one was thinking of getting married.
“Boys?” My mother broke off, confused. She could have sworn they were. . . She fell silent and studied me closely. It must have occurred to her that my memory too might have undergone an earthquake. Perhaps its contents, tossed onto similar piles, were wasting away in the same fog? Otherwise, how could I have made such a mistake about my own little girls?
“But when they brought you to the camp—” she began a moment later.
If she had flung the hot tea in my face I could not have been more shocked, distressed, thrown off balance. I hadn’t been brought to the camp! She’d thrown me in there herself, in passing, as if by accident; and she wasn’t the least bit sorry.
The part I’d been assigned that day was too difficult. I would have preferred to flee into the wings, but there were no wings; we were sitting at the table on a summer’s afternoon, just the two of us, drinking tea. And after all, I wasn’t the only one who’d ended up in a camp. I ought to be glad I’d come out of it alive. True, my past had to stretch quite a bit to include the camp, because I’d been there a long time ago, long before she had met my father. From a bird’s-eye view I would have been a tiny speck in an anonymous crowd stripped of its privacy, in which life and death depends on the whim of some arrogant fellow in uniform—let’s say, a handsome music lover who when he gets off duty writes letters to his mother. Afterwards, shoes and suitcases are placed in public view, without asking for permission, since there’s no longer anyone to ask.
No, I didn’t want to be a victim. I’d never had a blot of that kind on my personal history. True, I’d been humiliated. But not to that extent. I was brought up in a country where humiliating the citizens was the authorities’ main means of communicating with them, in schools, workplaces, government offices, on the street. I couldn’t have taken any more humiliation. If despite everything I felt that my life deserved respect, it was probably thanks to the fact that it didn’t depend on the whim of that arrogant guy in uniform. If I’d had to go through that too, I would have been no one. And I don’t know what I would have had to do to become someone again. Clench my fists? Twist my mouth into a sneer? The one and the other are both traps, in essence you hate yourself, despise yourself. That’s how it ends.
“Which camp?” I interrupted her. I ought rather to have demanded that she release me from it at once. But that wasn’t within her power. She wasn’t the one who oversaw the arrival of the transports. She didn’t even belong to the work teams. She had no rights there, none. Besides, my demand would have been simply absurd. Behind the barb wire fence there are ten thousand people, none of them any worse than me, just as innocent, and the rules are the same for everyone. You can’t leave through the gate, only through the chimney. Or you can throw yourself against the fence. The electric current brings quick, clean freedom, though at the immediate cost of your life. I was prepared to do anything.
“I was never brought to any camp. How could they bring me to the camp? I was born after the war!”
By her calculations I must have been about five years older than her. My raised voice did not make me sound more convincing. The more so because recently I’d been all kinds of different characters, almost all of whom. . .
But this time my mother looked at me quite without ill will. The idea of denying what was obvious seemed familiar to her. Yes indeed, she understood perfectly why nothing was left for me but to dig my heels in. And the nonsense I had just dared to spout did have a certain panache. My audacity almost equaled that of a cousin of her friends, a woman who moved to Australia after the war and lived there under an English last name, passing herself off as fifteen years younger than she actually was.
“Ha, ha,” she said. And gave a shake of her head.
Translated by Bill Johnston