Manuela Gretkowska’s novel, The Agent, is a simple, and at the same time not-so-simple story about love and relationships with a difficult final scene and some original conclusions. The simple features are that it is very easy to sum up the plot, involving a love triangle, that it is not hard to shrug off the romantic set-up (a young woman and an older man) as a platitude, and finally that you don’t need perfect knowledge of the Polish-Jewish context to regard the weakly constructed Polish-Jewish themes as too formulaic. What makes it not-so-simple is that the conventional nature of the denouements is not in fact a way of taking the easy option. Gretkowska puts an extremely sparing amount into the narrative construction, never overloading it with superfluous conflicts, extra characters or lengthy commentary. She takes us into a world of bourgeois propriety: of betrayal, fidelity, religious fundamentalism, and then takes us out of it by means of a clever, though not necessarily perverse, reshaping of the relationships between the main characters. They are: a married couple called Goldberg, who are contending with their Holocaust experiences of the past, and with the tragic death of their adult son, which is ruining their peaceful, mature, mutual life; their daughter Miriam; and a young Polish teacher called Dorota.
This is an intelligent book that guides us into the inside of a conflict in a way that never lets us take on the role of accuser of any of the main characters. At no point does the narrator show us any sign of having adopted the viewpoint of any one of them. And it is not that Gretkowska is trying to achieve the detachment of a quiet thinker, showing the partial rightness of each of the characters in this ethically controversial arrangement. It is more that this time she treats the bourgeois world, at which she always aims her blows, in such a way that we cannot accuse her of resentment, which provides a good lesson: you don’t have to do a “last tango in Paris” to say something about narrow, restrictive bourgeois principles.
We can regard the entire fictional pattern as metaphorical. The Agent offers the opportunity to think about conditions in which the relationships between people do not have to be resolved according to the logic of revenge, as dictated to us by wounded ambition.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
“I’ll offer you a riddle,” Szymon said, polishing off the bottle. “The father of two children who died in a war that didn’t happen.” He swayed on his widely planted legs. “You know who? Who that is?! It’s me, Szymon Golberg. My first child, my son Saul was... and still would be, a violinist. A jazz violinist. A comrade shot him in the barracks, an accident cleaning his gun, a brother
in arms.... Were any of you cowards in the army? Well, who?” Waving the empty bottle, he staggered after the Orthodox, who were backing away.
“And the second child, Miriam!” he cried desperately toward the curtain. “She’s also dying in a war—it’s written in the Talmud.” He waved the bottle at the pudgy guy and shouted: “Not because Miriam is getting married. True love is not a war. No, because she’s marrying a frummer, one like all of you! The mohel cut off your balls, and you won’t go fight any war, will you?!”
Before anyone could overpower him, Fisher dragged Szymon outside.
In the taxi, Hanna sat as far away from Szymon as she could. “You bonehead!” she said. “You wrecked the wedding party of your own daughter. You totally destroyed it!”
“In any case, it was her celebration—hers.”
She heard from Fisher all the details of Szymon’s performance. He was supposed to keep an eye on him, but he didn’t. They had known each other for years, and he should have sensed when Szymon had gone too far. He could have one drink. One—no more. Szymon wasn’t supposed to drink because he was on Prozac.
“Vodka and depression are no excuse.” She could have ripped up his ridiculous Panama and him with it.
When he put it on, before they left home, she should have guessed that he would play the buffoon. For a clown to be funny he has to be pathetic.
“Yes, I was drinking, but I’m not depressed,” Szymon said. “I danced—you didn’t see. Four years ago I wouldn’t have budged. It’s the best proof that I’m not depressed and I know what I’m doing.”
After Saul’s death he had fallen into a stupor. The drugs didn’t work. The only thing that helped was electroshock. A spark jumped through Szymon’s brain somewhere and brought him back to life.
Below, outside the walls, they had reserved a room at the Hotel Zion. The path by the Western Wall was shorter. They passed guards. At two in the morning it was almost deserted. American Hasidim were praying on the men’s side of the wall. Walking about and conversing in hushed voices, they were trying to get over their jet lag in this holy place.
Szymon also wanted to make it through this night. To end it with something more than the disgust of the wedding catastrophe. Hanna liked to walk here. Out of affection for tradition, they walked to the wall after their wedding and when she was pregnant. They did not treat the place religiously. It was something that had survived. A rock emerging from the parched oceans of war and hatred. The altar of Jewish time.
The prize in the Six-Day War was access to the Western Wall. It ceased to be on the Arab side. Hanna visited it then with her sick parents. They needed indestructible proof of their right to be on this earth. They didn’t speak or even think in this way, but touching the remains of the temple gave them, old atheists, historical reassurance.
“Are you going?” Szymon asked. He was seeking reconciliation. A sign that Hanna forgave him. She nodded. They split up at the plaza. Szymon remained, and she hesitated by the well. He didn’t know if she was led to the pot of water by her medical habit of clean hands or a desire to repeat a ritual gesture bringing her closer to Miriam.
She leaned her head against the cool wall. Twenty-something years ago she had pressed tiny Miriam to the same light, creamy stone, still carrying her in her belly. Giving birth to a child meant forcing it out of her own body. A child also died through her body. When she learned about Saul, she shrank and heaved up something that the mind could not accept. She did not cry. If she had tears, or any words of pain, she expelled them. But she was sickened not with nausea, but with the piercing contractions of birth. When Szymon learned of Saul’s fatal accident from an army messenger, he froze, catatonic.
Dr. Weiss had an explanation for this. “Your husband...” he began, and grasped his bald forehead with his hand, spotted with age. “Your husband, my dear Hanna, has taken Saul upon himself, his death. He has become dead to us, and dead to himself. It will pass, but it will take time. A long time.”
Hanna tried to believe. Not to believe in Weiss or his explanations. She knew that in such cases psychiatry is helpless. She tried to believe that Saul was not a corpse. She waited for him to return. In their life beyond the grave, the dead came to believers and comforted them. Only a corpse came to her. With her medical precision, she observed it in successive stages of decomposition. The same precision with which she had observed the stages of Saul’s childhood, his gums soothed with chamomile when he was cutting a tooth, his first crooked steps.
“Why didn’t I go mad?” she wondered. From her parents she had inherited endurance. They survived the war. You had to be tough to establish a kibbutz under the Golan Heights. Szymon had never known his parents. His grandfather had been a photographer in Przemyśl. Supposedly he took photos for the imperial court.
Szymon’s resurrection was spectacular, almost heroic. He was transformed from a quiet computer scientist into a businessman. He was constantly on the phone, or between meetings. He began to travel on business to Poland. He used frenetic activity to mask his depression, to escape from its immobility and death. His maniacal busyness, even aggression, were easier for Hanna to bear than his ghastly apathy.
She sighed and stroked the Western Wall.
A round moon beamed amid the white disks of the spotlights illuminating the courtyard. “Served on the platter of the moon”—that was what they used to say of children born on the full moon, Hanna recalled. “Miriam is one of those children. Born on the full moon of May, sensitive and unpredictable.” She moved her fingers along the wall, bidding her farewell.
Szymon anxiously groped his coat, his trouser pockets. He was the fastest-moving man on the plaza. The others stepped with dignity, deliberated over something in concentration, prayed. He ran.
He found his wife beside the well. “Do you have a pen and paper?”
“Couldn’t you write in your telephone?”
He was touched by her obtuseness. “Chamuda, am I going to stick my phone in the wall? Come on.”
She handed him her bag—the same black envelope clutch she had bought to match her dress for their wedding anniversary. He took out an old discount coupon, tore off a clean bit of it and quickly wrote. He went to insert his supplication between the stones.
He stood among the other men in their black frocks. He bowed humbly. He touched the cool wall, its indentations. (…)
Maybe he was still drunk, and that explained the irrational fear that there is something, there was something, that planned it all. Better to stuff the throat of destiny with this slip of paper, seal it up with a prayer jammed between the stones.
Translated by Christopher Smith