This novel is the monologue of Persi, a simple young woman. Our heroine uses this pseudonym (coined from the name of the goddess Persephone) at work — she’s a resident of Crete, and a tour guide there. And it is on the Greek island that The Shift takes place. Persi speaks volumes about herself, and it’s not a happy story. In fact, before becoming involved with the tourism industry, she suffered a variety of humiliations, including sexual humiliations. She even got her job on Crete by sleeping with someone. Her monologue, though bitter and sometimes fiercely direct, gives a picture of an underprivileged environment Persi escaped from, and it contains a wealth of penetrating observations on social mores. That monologue, a stream of memories and reckonings with her fate, begins about halfway through the novel to blend with what is happening now. A tourist comes to Crete from Poland, a distinguished older gentleman, a mysterious professor. We don’t know what he teaches or whether he is really even an academic at all. Persi was the one who called him “Professor,” she who singled him out, seeing him neither as a kindred spirit nor as a mentor, but rather simply the first person to take her seriously.
These two talk and talk. They meet every day in a coffee shop and talk over life’s most basic questions — the meaning of life, destiny, death — as well as the history of the island and its culture. The older gentleman obviously plays the role of the educator, while the sweet but silly Persi takes on the role of Galatea. Professor Pygmalion thus leads her into subtle metaphysical and cultural topics, fashioning from her not only a good conversationalist, but also a subject that provides feelings. The young woman genuinely takes a liking to the Professor; she agrees to go on an ambitious mountain climb with him. The older gentleman wants to climb up to Psiloritis, the highest summit on Crete. Before they go up, they spend the night at a mountain lodge. In the name of friendship, Persi gives herself to the Professor, upon which event — the very morning after — a series of strange occurrences befall her. Just before the summit, the man literally vanishes into thin air, and a succession of spirits proceed onto the stage of the novel, people Persi was in relationships with before coming to Greece. Meanwhile, the Professor is dead, which the local police have been alerted of. After her meeting with the mysterious man, Persi will never be the same again.
Tomasz Łubieński (born 1938) is a writer of prose, essays and drama. He has produced a number of acclaimed books of history as well as equally acclaimed books on the lives and works of the Polish Romantics. He is the editor-in-chief of Nowe Książki (New Books), Poland’s oldest monthly magazine dedicated to book news. In 2004, he published his first novel, Everything in the Family. The Shift is his second novel.
Usually we go to the Galero Cafe to talk, the Professor and me, Persi. But also there’s something happening between us. We really look at each other. It’s unavoidable now. But we also observe the guests that appear at Galero just once and then disappear forever. I understand, life is short, there’s no time to have coffee twice at the same spot. They also have their regulars. A transvestite shrouded in rainbow-colored silk. Shaved head, with tattoos on his biceps. Christ-like locks, shirt unbuttoned, flashing an Orthodox cross. Two women in black, and a wreath of children. A colorful girl that talks with her body — I’m not sure whether she has a good heart. Yes, when the cafe and the little square empty out in the afternoon or at midnight, they take possession of their territory. Again. And no one can understand what’s happened lately between them, what they’ve been debating so animatedly in their local language.
Although I don’t really stare at the Professor all that much. He is obviously not especially young, to put it gracefully. I’d rather listen to him. He says that the future and love are like fire and water, meaning always at war. Like freedom with equality, which I don’t understand as much. That’s why I quote word for word. And he’s always criticizing the word “passing,” which I don’t like, either. What sort of animal is that, the Professor asks himself. What can that mean? I definitely won’t answer, but I do suggest that instead of getting bogged down in “passing” he imagine two big dusty dogs. On Crete, as everybody knows, all the dogs are dusty dogs. For example, the ones at the entrance to the ravine under my triangular peak. Imagining these two bitches, Boredom and Routine, who lustily lick each other up and down, watching while we dance, maybe not on a wire, that would be an overstatement, but on some school gym’s balance beam, holding on with our hands so as not to fall. But all of us have our stones in our rucksack that drag us down. And then you also have to duck when the whistling gets louder. That’s not Cupid’s arrows before the flood, that’s new-generation pheromone missiles. The contents of our rucksacks or our handbags are in disorder, and so they move forward, backward, a little to the side. Worse, let us imagine not stones but rather plastic containers for a special meal for two. Each person is carrying something different, and we’re supposed to share, feed, indulge each other. Seafood is recommended, one person reacts well to a rare steak, the next to Greek yogurt, not to mention dietary supplements. Spicy seasoning, strong scents, no doubt. The love glands nibble, prick, tickle. Wine is usually that way, but let us recall that Bacchus argues often with Venus. And unfortunately, sooner or later, something in the rucksack or the handbag breaks — just like what happens between people. On one side or the other. And always unequally. Somebody always dies first, somebody second. And a third lives on with a chip on their shoulder. Future together, what future together, I think you mean death together. Come on. To make a date to die just because it was fun? Sorry, death is my business. Unless we happen to be in a plane crash. But that’s not our department. You have to be especially unlucky, or especially lucky, for that.
The Professor doesn’t only talk, he looks. Just the fact that I know and can feel when he follows, without any shame at all, my slender fingers as they wrap around my slim glass and grasp it lightly it in order to raise it to my parted lips. Or when I draw frozen iced coffee up through my straw. He wriggles a little, or to say it more politely, he straightens up in his chair, I won’t be so conceited. These waitresses in the little “This way or that way” shirts might also have something to add.
Haven’t I said too much about myself? I must have, because the Professor suddenly starts telling all his secrets. He belongs to the mountain veterans’ club. Maybe he’s a little afraid of me, and this is like an insurance policy so that I don’t count on too much from him. That’s fine, that actually suits me. There is no shared future! Bravo! My motto. Let just today smell and taste. The future, just like the past, doesn’t mean anything. What’s the point of worrying ahead of time how to part without pain and what kind of anesthetic to use. Time will take care of it—that’s time’s specialty. It’s important to remember that it’s the same racecourse of life for everyone, it’s just that a lap is not the same for you as it is for me. And you don’t argue with the top judge.
Briefly, then, a propos, tell me, Professor, about the veterans’ club.
Okay, well, not army veterans, of course, although there were those among us, too. But they were there in their capacity as veterans of the high mountains, like us. Our successors, kind, dignified, offered us a little room in the heart of an enormous prewar apartment, probably a salon or a family dining room in its time. They train in the first room on the climbing wall that goes up to the ceiling, and with a jump rope and with weights. They don’t think about the future. It’s too bad, because the window is open, even in the winter, and per the custom of warm countries, the girls have their kidneys exposed, and even the outline of the groove between their buttocks is visible. But that really won’t be our problem anymore.
We meet monthly, for two hours. At two tables pushed up together, where you can set out the glasses and the cookies in an orderly fashion. Wine, perhaps? Everyone has to know what and how much he can handle. Along the walls a row of chairs so that everyone can rest comfortably. Time: six in the evening, every first Thursday. It’s easy to remember, said our head atheist, with a resounding laugh, because tomorrow, on the first Friday, everybody races to confession. Who knows about that Friday, who knows if a single veteran, in the name of the entire club, is actually practicing. But on the club Thursdays, without regard for the weather, for our health, for our grandkids if we have them, the meetings begin, as little else in our lives ever has, punctually. Even at the heavy gate of the old building. And one of us must remember the code exactly, for us to get into the courtyard with the holy shrine. Just in case, some have those numbers written down. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, especially because there’s a second code, too, to the stairwell on the right. With an elevator. Six o’clock, sixth floor, simple.
Translated by Jennifer Croft