“There’s no bigger hustler than a Warsaw hustler,” sang Polish bard Stanisław Grzesiuk, the songster of the prewar Polish capital, the undisputed patron of Sylwia Chutnik’s latest novel. It is the rhythm of his ballads, quoted throughout, and his personality – and he is mentioned here by name – that lends the whole tale its tone, its charm, its hipness. Chutnik successfully demonstrates that the world of Barefoot but in Spurs (Grzesiuk’s 1961 autobiography), or rather the underworld – indeed, underground, intermingling only occasionally with the so-called great big world – has sufficient strength to conquer the contemporary, disenchanted, whitewashed, modernized Warsaw of today. You just have to know your literature, your history, and have an ear for the rhythm of the tales of Stasiek Nożownik, Antek Son of the Streets, of lovers, drunkards, and harlots, and lastly, about the executioner at the gallows. Sylwia Chutnik has proven herself to be in possession of an exceptional ear. And of exceptional ingenuity. Inspired by Warsaw city ballads, by The Girls from Nowolipki by Pola Gojawiczyńska (the cult novel about the life of young women in the capital between the world wars), by punk-anarchist feminism, she has achieved a self-standing, original quality, a story that is as entertaining as it is moving. Highly dramatic, brutal, and political. Because – as she demonstrates – there is a bigger hustler than a Warsaw hustler: the hustlerette. The lady hustler. The girl-bandit that no one can conquer. That always fights the good war. Well, almost always. Sometimes it’s just for the fun of it. Above all – the hustlerette never works alone. Chutnik’s novel sings the praises of the accomplishments of a whole band of lady avengers – a band uniting social classes (because of a class shared long ago at school), neighborhoods, generations. Celina, Halina, Stefa, and Bronka now play first fiddle, they themselves measure out justice. The main plot – vigilante justice for an evil developer that set an activist woman from the tenants’ movement on fire – comes from the real, most recent history of the Polish capital. Such a thing took place, although those responsible were never found, and the guilt of the developer remained symbolic. In the novel, the girls take the matter into their own hands, and it’s only thanks to them that justice prevails. It all begins in the Bródno Cemetery, and in a way it all ends at the cemetery, too, because such is the fate of the lady warrior. And such – sad, cruel – is the end of the ballad.
Halina Żyleta got to daydreaming, and her hands started to move a little. It was only when the fork she knocked down hit the floor that she came to from her trance. She glanced around and then suddenly, like it wasn’t her, she began to talk. First quietly, and then louder and louder and faster and faster.
When I was a kid, they used to give me a badge every year for being a model student. And it actually really made me mad, you know? I would think, come on, model, how could I be a model, model of what? Model for these little girls here, all the same, in their identical pinafores from the state-run department store, with their ponytails, with their pigtails, in their tights. We’re brought up on Ala, who busts her ass in the kitchen like a little engine, who has a brother that’s an astronaut, that’s a firefighter, who knows what he is. But what kind of model am I for the other children? Oh, I’m such a hard worker, such a good girl? God, I hated being a good girl. I used to try so hard to be bad, to spit, to cuss, to tear up my little patterned notebooks. Nothing ever came of it.
Then one time there was this guy that leaped out from the stairwell. I was sixteen, without a thought in my head, and all I did was go to concerts in my tight army-style boots, go to concerts and go right up by the stage and wooohooo!! But this guy puts a knife to my throat and shouts, “Take off your clothes!” “Take your underwear off,” he screams. And I’m like, I’ll yell for help, and he’s like, shut up or I’ll kill you. And I’m like, I’ll yell for help, and he’s like, no one’s going to hear you—and he was right, nobody was going to want to hear me in an apartment block with two thousand people in it, windows open, and all of those fuckers gone stone-deaf at the same exact time. So I holler, but real feeble. Kind of like deep down—there came a shout from the outside, but on the inside it was quiet. And he’s rummaging around my fly, panting, in an absolute frenzy. It got so stuffy all at once, there was a fly hovering over my head, but I was already someplace else in my head, I had already opted out of this unpleasant scene, and I’m just thinking to myself, haha, I’ll go and rest at home, I’ll pull the covers up over my head, and nobody’ll be able to get at me anymore. But meanwhile, all of a sudden—this neighbor comes up, taking his trash out, and he looks over in our direction, and the guy runs off, he just did have time to push me, though, and so, I fell. It really hurt a lot, because I kind of hit my hand in this really unfortunate way, I just fell on top of it with all my weight.
And I lay there with my underwear half pulled off, totally in shock. And that neighbor just stepped right over me, took a big step, because I was just lying there for no reason in his way for him to get to the trash, and he banged the flap on the garbage, bang, and then he left. I had no way to stand up, I had thought he might help me somehow, but he didn’t want to hear me, notice me, he had his own problems, goddammit, of the wife type, the kids type, done.
I mean, really, they just don’t have any place of their own anymore, these hormonal teens, they sunbathe and pop their pimples all over people that are actually, legitimately tired. Why is no one taking care of this, why is no one talking about it on TV, where are the parents with their committee on education, where?
The neighbor went off, but not me.
Ferajna dances, I don’t dance.
After a while, the pain a shrill hiss, I got up and went home. And then it was just noggin under the faucet and cold water.
I thought how he hadn’t raped me. How actually now there was nothing wrong. I was shaking all over when I went out to the stairwell to smoke.
I ran into a friend of mine and she was like, “What is up with you, you look so pale.” And that hand that I had smashed down on had swollen up on me, had ballooned out so much that a minute more and it would have burst the skin. I don’t know why I had thought it was okay to hold my cigarette in that hand and not say anything, just tears kept coming out, but I didn’t say anything, and that friend of mine said, “Hey, did your dad hit you?” And I didn’t say anything, and she probably thought that meant yes, I was just being awkward about it, and probably she felt sorry for me.
In the evening I thought I’d get over it. That the growing feeling of dull fury was like a passing paroxysm. One week later, I slit my wrists, for the first time.
There was this cool nun at the hospital, and I told her everything, what happened, and how I would rather kill myself than the guy that’d hurt me.
I remember that at first she looked away, and then she was quiet for a long time. And when she looked back over at me, she wasn’t the nice lady in the wimple and habit anymore. She stopped stroking my hand and humbly sitting on the stool. She was now Xena, Hothead Paisan and the goddess Kali all in one. She spoke, or rather hissed into my ear, torrents of words, driving them into my head, like you would drive in mathematical paradigms and religious commandments.
She was my Muhammed, making a special appearance at that moment in order to transmit a single truth:
Revenge will free you. Only revenge, kid.
And that was the kind of life lesson you’re not going to get in school. The kind of life lesson that gets taught in secret, by the initiated.
Another vodka, please. Of course, for the girl sitting here.
Halina sat up in her chair and stopped biting at the skin around her nails, braiding up her hair, muttering under her breath, sweating. It’s okay now, the bad story went away into the “done and gone” drawer. Things are fine now, now it’s a karate chop and a sharp instrument she can feel beneath her skirt.
In the world of the future there’s no time for reflection—we shut the decorative chest that holds the trauma, and we take a deep breath. Hey, setback, tomorrow’s another day!
Girls’ stories also have this to them: they love sudden plot twists. For instance: you think you’re participating in basic gossiping, but suddenly you’re served a portion of confidences. And once more the conversation sets off in a different direction, the rollercoaster glides up, and down it falls. If you can’t keep up, keep your mouth shut.
And Halina changed the subject to new exhibitions and her broken bicycle, which Marek had fixed for her. Oh, you wouldn’t believe it, bam, bam, what a tempo, what a melody. The story chest was now locked up, and there was a special girls’ combination. It won’t be opened up again for a long time, because the combination is hard to remember.
“Overdoing it a little with the vodka, aren’t we?” muttered Celina, finishing up her food.
“But alcohol is good for you, it’s good for your digestion, pregnant women have to drink because it prevents the baby blues, and flatulence. It was American scientists that discovered that, looking at rats. So the females had their choice between two water dishes: one with water and one with alcohol. And they would choose the second one. I think rats know what they’re doing. And so now it’s like proven that all over the world pregnant women have to drink. Even in delivery rooms, instead of an oxytocin drip you sip on some spirits and right away the kid is a ten out of ten on that… you know, that Abigail scale.
Celina looked at her friend and felt somewhat troubled. She attempted to object that what they probably meant was a symbolic glass of red wine, but she wasn’t certain anymore, and she was desperately sleepy.
Translated by Jennifer Croft