"This writer, technically still a young girl, possesses an unheard-of literary maturity and such a command of the Polish language, such a gift for unstitching, for scrutinising, for knocking the brains out of language and creating from those brains a language of her own, at times macabre and far-fetched, always poetic in its own way, that the possibilities for her future development are boundless." (Jerzy Pilch)
The first book from this fledgling novelist is in the form of a monologue by its protagonist, Silny. He and the other characters, Magda, Angela, Arletta, Natasha, Casper, and Lefty — all teenagers in a small Polish city in a time of rabid capitalism — are already slated for a life on the dole. Their values, ideas, and beliefs about the world, rendered in hip commonplaces gleaned from television and glossy magazines and radical jargon from the internet, are as funny as they are disturbing. Their speech with all its trashy inflections reverberates like a carnival of lumpen-nihilists. The story takes place on the day before and the day of a popular celebration: ”Day Without Russkies” (the celebration is a kind of declaration of ‘war’: the ‘Russki’ traders who have come to the city are competition for its inhabitants, especially for the local boss and politician Zdzisław Sztorm, who is both the proprietor of a Polish gravel plant and a wholesaler of Russian ‘siding’, i.e. construction panelling). Like a kind of Polish Trainspotting, Masłowska’s novel (which in many ways resembles a drug-induced vision) is a social satire, with elements of the grotesque and Grand Guignol. Time and again Masłowska reminds us that literature, this make-believe world, has to exist because otherwise real life might not be worth living.
... And the neighbour’s house – them that made a packet fencing cars stolen in Russia –all of a sudden the top half of it’s all white too. Only half. Everything is half white. Mostly the houses. And the other half, down at street level, is all fucking red. Everything. White and red. Top to bottom. On top Polish speed, on the bottom Polish menstruation. Up above, Polish snow imported from the Polish sky; down below the Polish Association of Butchers and Sausage-Makers.
And everywhere I look there are workmen in orange tottering along with buckets and rollers; while white-and-red warning tape flutters in the wind to stop the crows landing and crapping all over the fresh paint. There are police vehicles, cars, some machinery, scaffolding. It all looks sick, just sick; they could take pictures of the city from outer space. Unbelievable.
”So what is it again that we’re supposed to be painting?” I ask right away, matter-of-factly. They look at each other and they say we’re painting the house white and red, because the mayor issued an order for the whole district. ”And what if I say no?” I ask, and it takes the wind out of their sails a bit; they look at each other again. ”Well no kind of means no,” they tell me, ”it’s up to you whether you say yes or no. I’ll tell you frankly how things are. If it’s yes, then my buddy and me come in, everything’s all nice, the City Council has the full cooperation of citizens of the Polish race, it’s all OK between us. You find out from the ATM that you’re overdrawn, then all of a sudden the overdraft disappears; then some overdue rent and so on, of course we’re talking about small sums, cos the City Council can’t afford any big-time scams. Imagine your wife is about to give birth; if someone else is giving birth at the same time – let’s say the wife of some pro-Russki anti-Polish guy that didn’t take part in the campaign – then you have priority and you get to give birth first, and on top of that you get a red and white rose on your bed. While the other woman is stuck out in the hallway breathing her last. Though even that’s not certain, cos no taxi driver’s gonna take her, and it just so happens that there’s something wrong with their car. A snapped V-belt, some shitty little thing, or somehow or other the exhaust pipe’s got blocked with packing foam; anyway, the car won’t start. It won’t start and that’s all there is to it. Cos if you decide no, I’ll be frank with you, it’s not that a decision like that doesn’t have any consequences. Oh, it does. It seems like it’s nothing, but actually it’s everything. Something of yours breaks down; then some of your siding falls off; then your wife dies suddenly, though she didn’t have so much as a cold. Then things go missing; some documents or other with your first name and last name on them find their way into the wrong pigeonhole, exactly the opposite one to where they’re supposed to be. Then what’ll happen is all of a sudden you simply disappear from the city, and your house’ll be taken piece by piece to the outskirts, doused in gasoline or solvent and burned to the ground. Either a person’s a Pole or they’re not. Either they’re Polish or they’re Russki. To put it bluntly, either you’re a human being or a prick. And that’s all there is to say about it, let me tell you.”
So then I look at the siding. It’s brand new, cost an arm and a leg, not a scratch on it. Then in a split second everything crystallises for me, everything becomes clear. I’m not giving up my siding; Russkies or not, that I won’t agree to. ”Angela, cmere,” I call. Angela trots up. ”They wanna paint the siding white and red,” I whisper to her. She looks blankly first in my right eye then in my left, as if she didn’t know what white and red are, as if she only knew what black is, and if I’d said: they want to paint it all black, she would have understood me right away. ”What do you mean, paint it?” she asks, like she has the intelligence of a plastic fork. ”So that it looks Polish,” I say as if I were explaining to an idiot, ”paint it in the Polish colours, like it was for our bitch Sunia, that got poisoned by the Russians.”
”Are you out of your frigging mind?” All of a sudden Angela’s cottoned on. ”You could let them paint the siding if they’d violated your mother or brought an illegal funfair to town. Or if they’d killed you and raped your corpse. But as it is, tell them that for Sunia the most you can offer is the fence.”
And she’s right, the girl’s not so dumb after all; she’s got a head for business. When I get my own business, whether it’s sand, or funfairs, or PLO scarves, whatever it is, I’ll put her in the calculator department.
”Leave the siding alone,” I say to the guys without a moment’s hesitation, and without letting my voice tremble. ”The most you can do is paint the fence.”
The two of them look at each other, wondering how they should classify me, for or against.
”I’d not have let you touch the fence either,” I say quickly, ”but it’s for my dog, for the pain my daughter Angela suffered at the hands of the Russkies when they bumped it off. For that I hate them; for that my fence will symbolise the Polish declaration of war against the Russkies.”
And I’m even surprised at how cunning I am, how wily, I really pulled that one out of nowhere; because right away they take out a list of residents and start staring at the columns labelled: Pro-Polish and Pro-Russki, and they say:
”Where do we put him?” And the other one, who’s a bit taller, goes: ”To me it’s pretty clear he’s a Pro-Polish.” Then the first one, who’s shorter, goes: ”Well, that much is obvious, but how many points does he get?” They look at each other for a bit. Then the tall one says: ”Tough, we’ll just have to give him the questionnaire. It’s not long, but bureaucracy’s bureaucracy. Three questions, and keep your wits about you.” I give him a suspicious look, but I take the questionnaire and Angela and I step aside.
”Question One,” I read out loud. And the drones go: ”In completing the form it is essential to tell the truth; if not, a fine will be levied by the administration.” ”Sure,” me and Angela say, and I go on: ”Question One. Imagine that war breaks out between the Poles and the Russkies. Your male slash female friend tells you in confidence that he slash she supports the Russkies. What do you do? A. I immediately report the matter to the super of my building and to the police. B. I hesitate, troubled by moral scruples, but in the end I say nothing. C. I agree with my friend. I believe that Russki citizens ought to be allowed to continue selling contraband cigarettes and CDs.”
”And poisoning Polish animals,” adds one of the drones, as if by the by.
”Answer A,” says Angela. ”Answer A,” I agree without hesitation. So the drones circle A and say: ”Good.” Angela jumps for joy that we got it right. Then I read on: ”Question Two. You see a man on the street hanging a red flag on an apartment building. What do you do? Answer A: I immediately tear down the hostile flag.” ”A, says Angela.” ”Good,” the drones respond. And the tall one adds: ”So maybe we should go right away to the key question; I mean, why should we beat about the bush, since you folks know the right answers.” The short one goes: ”Yeah, good point.”
”Third and final question. In recent days salinity levels in the Niemen river have risen by 15%. I repeat: 15%. The natural environment in the region has been harmed, and the waters of the Niemen have turned ultramarine in colour. Are the Russkies responsible for this situation? A. Yes. B. Don’t know. C. Definitely.”
”C!” says Angela at once; the drones look at each other and the big one says: ”Nine points out of ten; that’s a very good in the column marked ‘Attitude towards conflict with the racial enemy.’”
Translated by Bill Johnston