Zbigniew Kruszyński has provided his latest novel with a compact and lucid plot. Fifty-year-old Paweł fills his empty existence by paying for sex. He can afford to act as a “sponsor”, as it is euphemistically called, because he is a wealthy man. It soon turns out that to some extent he has no choice about keeping up this shameful practice. Why? Because he’s completely burned-out emotionally, not just incapable of showing his feelings, but of forming any kind of relationship with anybody at all. In his situation, “sponsoring” has a liberating side to it. It could be said that he only apparently pays for sex, while in fact – as we read at some point – “he pays for everything he doesn’t have to do”. What exactly doesn’t he have to do? Subject himself to social rituals, play all those awful roles (with the role of husband at the top of the list), and above all confront the inevitable disaster which comes at the end of every relationship (“She won’t marry me, to spare me the divorce”). In the opening chapters the main character describes the experiences he has had as a “sponsor”. He talks – for the most part ironically and wittily – about how he chooses from what’s on offer, what happens during the encounters, who the “sponsored” women are, and what seduction strategies they use.
The turning point comes when he meets Marta, a refined and sensitive high-school girl, who doesn’t care about money, or so she claims. She longs for intimacy and for someone to be concerned about her. Thrilled by this turn of events, Paweł changes overnight; no longer a “sponsor”, now he is the guardian of the title, the schoolgirl’s affectionate carer, her best friend. But the idyll doesn’t last long, and in the process Kruszyński breaks away from the typical romantic narrative. There’s a lot that could be said about his main character, but certainly not that he’s naïve. When he meets Marta, he doesn’t instantly believe that his fate has changed, and that finally in middle age he has found true love. The illusion which temporarily nurtures him is different – it’s “perhaps I can save her from the world”. And thus from the disastrous sort of life that has been his destiny, from the absurdity of existence. The guardianship is to involve an investment in goodness, as it were, a donation of sincere, warm feelings, in the hope of immunising the young Marta against encounters with the evil of this world. The fundamental issue is this: can what is morally bad (the practice of “sponsoring”) be remoulded into something morally good (providing care, guardianship, concern)? At first it seems to be possible. But it is not Paweł, but Marta who disappoints; she is not the epitome of innocence at all, but perhaps even thoroughly devilish. Towards the denouement of the book an unclear pregnancy comes up (Paweł is infertile), and then an abortion, resulting in depression; finally Marta disappears in mysterious circumstances and our hero commits suicide.
Since his first book was published in 1995, for almost twenty years Zbigniew Kruszyński has been regarded as one of the most interesting and most surprising contemporary novelists, a superb stylist and master of irony. Nor does he disappoint us this time either – The Guardian confirms his brilliant way with language. There are plenty of pertinent phrases here, as many incisive as cutting comments, and melancholy rumination in the best possible rendition.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones