The President’s Wife is a novel in the political fiction genre in which a patient at a mental hospital in Florida writes down the story of the Polish president’s wife. This patient is an army interpreter of Polish descent who encountered Krystyna (as the First Lady is called) during questioning conducted by American intelligence agents following her arrest in Warsaw as a dangerous terrorist and her deportation to a secret base in the USA. Earlier on she ran away from her husband when he was caught having an affair with an intern, joined an unidentified sect and generally participated in some bizarre events worthy of a thriller or an adventure story. The plot of this novel is just a pretext – the form it takes is not important, but the content is, because it is has been sourced from dozens of political scandals that have shaken Poland, Europe and the world in the past five years or so. Chwin is most eager to recall some notorious American issues, so here we have the war against Islamic terrorism, especially against Al-Qaida, the Monica Lewinsky affair, armed intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and above all the scandal involving the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. However, The President’s Wife is not a topical novel of the moment or a journalistic book. Essentially, as we read in the fictional preface, it’s about providing “evidence of the more general anxieties, obsessions and frustrations of our times, magnified in the crooked mirror of mental illness”. Stefan Chwin has made some serious modifications to the set conventions for the genre of political fiction, enriching it with some philosophical content and giving a voice to the one thing he probably cares about the most – the moral debate.
This will be a story about her.
Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, I must describe exactly what happened to her, right up to that memorable moment when for the first time in my life I saw her with my own eyes, heard her voice and touched her hand. I want to describe it all to you, my judges, with all the details, faithfully and honestly. Doctor Burne, who regards me — as he once told Doctor Binswanger — as a "severe case", insists, as he puts it, that I should rid myself of all inhibitions and simply write as my heart dictates. "Write, Nick", he keeps saying, "write without stopping, for hours, days on end. Get into the rhythm of your story the way the blacks in New Orleans get into the rhythm of the blues. Do you hear me, Nick? Come on, tell me, do you hear me? Remember, for your therapy the only thing that matters is your story, nothing else. And how deep you go into it. So give in to it. Let yourself be carried away by it. You've got plenty of time, haven't you? Write about everything you saw and heard. And don't leave anything out, even if you think it's an insignificant detail". I can hear you, Doctor Burne, I can, and I know you're right when you tell me to write without stopping and without omitting a single detail, so I'm plunging into my story and waiting for it to cure me. After all, I am a "severe case of post-traumatic depression".
Ever since that moment I've been going through a serious nervous breakdown, as they keep telling me. I sleep badly. I have nightmares. I'm afraid of doctors and people in uniforms, electric shocks and insulin comas. My hands shake. I have no control over my mental associations. I get upset over nothing at all. I lose everything. I can't find anything. I can't remember telephone numbers. I mispronounce names. I mix up dates and days of the week. I can't concentrate on anything. I do badly in tests. As Doctor Binswanger says, I have auditory, olfactory and visual hallucinations. For no reason I have bursts of uncontrollable anger. I'm being consumed by an irrational feeling of guilt that I cannot come to terms with and a morbid sense of disgust that's stronger than me.
I cannot look at a television screen. I'm afraid of microphones hidden in the walls and video cameras installed behind the mirror in the bathroom, photo cameras in cubbyholes, crewless airplanes that circle above us, and can even see what we're doing through the thickest walls. I'm afraid of people who stalk others and might at any moment put a dose of dioxin in my soup, which will make my face change unrecognisably, who might inject me with the HIV virus during an innocent blood test, force me to swallow something that will change my psyche, or kill my loved ones so that it looks like a natural death.
They can do it at any moment. The world keeps changing, but they don't. They collect data, record confessions, take photographs and make tapes. They invent fake passport forms and set traps in visa applications. They keep files and create indexes. They make networks of information. They collate it and encrypt it, give it code names and enter it in filing systems. They process it. Even if they like democracy, they check how many Jews you've got in your family just in case.
When necessary, they cunningly get hold of your DNA. They've got a glass container where they keep five hairs that you lost in a hotel bathroom. They've got shreds of skin that you left on your razor blade. They keep jars full of your scent. They like to know what hereditary diseases there are in your family. They store infrared pictures on their computers. They know exactly what you do with your wife in the dark and how you do it. They know the results of your medical tests. On their hard disks they've got photographs of your pupils, irises and the backs of your eyeballs. They analyse the saliva you left on a plastic fork at a pizzeria and on the edge of a cup of Coca-Cola in a snack bar. They collect the call slips you fill in at the library. If you borrow a book with an unsuitable word in the title they enter your name on a list of dangerous people. They quietly check to see if you believe in God, what you think about the church and the current president, whether you love your homeland and the current secretary of state. They underline your name in red marker pen. They give it a number and put a red tick next to it.
They know who you sleep with and who you don't. They know who you love and who you hate. They know your culinary and sexual predilections. They screen your bank account. They study the structure of your fears and plumb the depths of your dreams. They know the content of your e-mails and telephone conversations. They know what passwords you enter into the search engine and what you chat to your mother about. They go through your luggage when you're not in your hotel room. They copy your documents while you're asleep in the sleeping car. They have no trouble locating you when you log onto a porn site. In a split second they find out who you've got on your address list. They use cameras situated a mile and a half from the Vatican to X-ray the walls of the Sistine Chapel and a special computer programme to lip-read people's confessions. Like the Star of Bethlehem that lights up the sky above the desert, they guide you throughout life, so you won't lose your way in the world's terrible darkness. They never nod off for a moment. Their eyes are always open. They protect you from Evil, shield you from Sin and defend you against enemies of the state and the constitution.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones