"Teeth" is a comic novel full of irony and self-irony about the painful process of growing up, and also about real life in Poland in the past few years. Wilengowska applies an amusing metaphor from dentistry in this book, which is in three parts. In the first, twenty-something-year-old Marta, the heroine, discovers that she still has her milk teeth. To become dentally mature, she will have to have them pulled out and replaced with implants. She has neither the money nor the desire for this operation. In the second part she is now thirty, and her milk teeth have fallen out on their own. Finally in the third part, which is closest to the present day, she borrows some money and has the implants done. Wilengowska’s metaphor is clear: becoming an adult is not an act of will, but an inevitable compromise. Everyone, even in spite of themselves, becomes socialised, beaten by the norms and principles of social life. This “dental drama” is set against a broader socio-economic background, in a provincial Polish town, and covers roughly the last ten years. Polish capitalism is gaining strength, consumption is intensifying, and everything is slowly starting to be ruled by money. At first Marta distances herself from this reality, which to her mind is poorly organised. She tries to remain true to the ideals of her childhood and youth, but gradually she gives way, and finally fully surrenders to what is well regarded and socially required. But the novel’s denouement is not entirely unambiguous. It ends with something a bit like a dream and a bit like an apocalyptic vision, in which the heroine imagines collapsing, plunging into darkness and non-existence. Here reaching adulthood is not so much the end of immaturity, as the end of life as such.
Joanna Wilengowska (born 1971) is a writer and journalist, author of the novels The Japanese Village (1999) and Teeth (2006).
Because new times had set in. Because apparently you had to become civilised, drop your messy barbarian teeth full of holes, you had to make a rapid move away from the gap-toothed east, doomed to endless decay, all that excess of mouth and gums, all that succulent sounding speech and dental exuberance – all those teeth strewn about without remorse, any old how and any old where. Because a new era had begun. People had stopped liking gold teeth, even in the countryside. The authorities had come tumbling down one after another, straight into the mud, and the state-owned farms had gone with them. The collapse of the old order was plain to see. From under the milk teeth, normal teeth had suddenly emerged, and everyone had instantly grown up and started looking for work. Some had gone to London, others were hanging around Olsztyn, making the occasional stop at the chilly haven of the Labour Exchange, which while not actually providing a sense of security, did at least pay the national insurance. Others were stagnating in some job at a school or a supermarket, while the brasher types had gone straight into the radio or the press, to snap at the heels of the old stagers, first for wretched little fees, later for pretty decent wages. I got caught up by sociology, statistics, socialism and capitalism too. I too have been a witness to the display of dandruff, acne and Neanderthal breath that was on daily view at the job centre – a very civilised tiled building, a sharp contrast to the aesthetic of its own unfortunate visitors. I too stood there in line, usually in the saddest, most downcast, docile queue for those “confirming readiness to work with no right to benefits”. I too was affected by everything they wrote in the papers, I was, but only marginally. I had something else going on in my head.
Teeth, teeth, teeth, nothing but teeth – I saw teeth everywhere. The whole world looked like a gaping maw with the jaws of the horizon thrown open wide. And I was sitting in the middle of that maw, leading an apparently normal life, as far as it’s possible to do so, but one thing kept on knocking about in my head – teeth, teeth, and more teeth. My thought patterns all ran in one direction, my brain was stumbling about in a wilderness of meaningless mantras – teeth, teeth, teeth. And even if I thought of the word “vagina”, at once the word “dentata” automatically tacked itself on. That’s how it was.
And an element of espionage came into it too, because I started peeking at other people’s teeth, sniffing around and looking for reasons, speculating on the stupid blunders of genetics, comparing, probing and drawing conclusions. Of course it began with my parents, because everything always begins with them. My mother had OK teeth, though with age they had spaced out a little. My father on the contrary, as if out of spite, had crowded teeth that overlapped each other, but were spindly and weedy, their quantity making up for their quality. So I worked out that if my mother’s teeth were too sparse and my father’s too dense, I should have a perfect array of teeth. That’s the reasoning I devised for myself. So I ask you, where does this aberration come from? What is its origin? Could some ancestor I don’t know about have suffered from retarded development? Could my forebear, Homo Australopithecus, have taken a roll in the bushes somewhere along the way and got tangled up in some half-baked genes? But the answer turned out to be different.
Pure farce! That’s what I thought when the guy finally developed that X-ray, not just any old X-ray, but a “pantographic” one. Doesn’t that sound regal? Or at least aristocratic? Ha, I could even have had the grand surname of Lubomirska with a pantographic picture like that, the likes of which I’m sure none of you lot has got! But let’s get to the point, to the farce of the matter.
What on earth was going on in that picture?! There was a horror film on show, a fight between the forces of evil and the forces of an even worse evil! The picture revealed a battle that had been raging away in my jaws for years on end. Under cover of my gums a Shakespearean tragedy was playing out – a fight for power, for the succession, a proper hurly-burly for the throne! By deceit, by a back road, on the inside, on the diagonal and without giving a damn about anyone else – crash bang wallop, into the light of the oral cavity! Hit ’em in the gums, give them a battering, tread on their roots, fire into space, crush the pulp and trample the milksop! Oh dear, it was a fight between generations, it really was, but fights like that don’t happen any more… In the picture my milk teeth looked quite innocent, very small and modest, as if nothing were wrong, like little children, but they wore false expressions and their nerve roots were clinging to the depths with a force that was not in the least bit childish… There was toughness in them, determination, the sort of obstinacy that makes some kids shout: “No! I won’t go!”, and then they howl and wail, and squirm in the adults’ arms like eels, fall on the floor and swell up with crying, go red and start having fits that are meant to make the adults feel guilty, and then they scream again, and sob, and stamp their slippered feet, and bite a hand… if not someone else’s then their own… No I won’t go!… It’s one hell of a force! Have some respect for the obstinacy of a mule that defies human persuasion, and if needs be, try arguing the bestial way with a smack…
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones