Patrycja Pustkowiak’s first novel has been praised for its original style – sophisticated, bold and mature. Night Animals has been described as “a women’s version of Under the Volcano”, except that there is far more humour here than in Malcolm Lowry’s novel. Yes, this is a novel about a female alcoholic, about drinking, smoking and taking drugs, and thus about all the greatest dangers to which a young woman is exposed as she roams the sinister, phantasmagorical scenery of Warsaw on her own. “Her only companion, and also the only witness of her decline, is this city, Warsaw. Its huge bulk is interwoven with rows of columns, residential buildings and prefab tower blocks lit up by a thousand flashing neon signs.” It is often Pustkowiak’s turn of phrase that engages and astonishes the reader most – her writing is dense, lyrical, pervaded with gallows humour and a tragic, fascinating perspicacity. In the drunkard’s cityscapes she finds unexpected touches of poetry, which is scattered about the text right up to the grotesque scene of the heroine’s downfall. Tamara Mortus – as she is named – is the opposite of the sentimental alcoholic. She doesn’t try to make excuses for going off the rails, she isn’t yearning for love or waiting to be rescued. She simply forces the reader to keep her company.
Pustkowiak’s sense of drama gives the heroine a lot of help with this. Pustkowiak starts her story with a dead body, and immediately points out the culprit. “They say you can tell a criminal by his ears. But as for Tamara, freshly turned into a murderer just a few hours ago, things are completely different. There’s nothing to give her away at all – Tamara is like a lighthouse that has broken down.” Is that true, wonders the reader, or is it a delusion born of delirium? Now that the author has given us rather an unpleasant beginning, we must find out if we’re heading for an equally disastrous ending.
Despite one possible interpretation, Night Animals is not just an irreverent or nihilistic book. Of course, Pustkowiak does occasionally parody the way in which big-city thirty-year-olds like to tell stories about being hung over, throwing up and getting totally plastered as if they were their own original works of art. She finds her own all-inclusive form for conditions of this kind, which stands up to the mindless prattle of those who seek the illusion of immortality in drugs.
Young, pretty, educated, unemployed and degenerate, with a credit card from her business past that by some miracle still works, Tamara is not the typical victim of addiction, a wretched junkie, sick and dreadful. Instead she is a reflection of the fear felt by those who are still working and buying things, and she is also like an inspired prophetess, who reveals the single, inconvenient truth to her own generation: there won’t be a job for you either, there will be no point in looking for one, there will be no illusions about the magic key to happiness being found in access to goods and services. But, says the oracle, the temptress, maybe you can live without all that. If only a posthumous life, because it could be that a person can always be resurrected by cocaine and alcohol. Or maybe not? This uncertainty – a feature of the crime novel as well as the religious tract – is the axis around which the novel turns.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
On the day she killed her, there was no forewarning of the coming catastrophe.
At least at first glance, since actually one of the cars that pulled out of the neat little courtyard that day with a squeal of tires (though actually the place was buried in junk)must havesmashedviolently into another, oncoming one and ejectedits entire human contents high into the air,causing it to negate gravity and go flying round and round, astounded by the lack of parts essential for survival.
If anything could be more unlucky, it may have been the train. It had just left the platform, maybe even punctually,majestically, and was gaining speed as it glided along, passing througha highly familiar, relentlessly forested landscape, but at a crucial moment it fell off the tracks and, showering sparks around it, proved that the whistle on that day had been a signal for a departure of a different kind than usual.
Perhaps there were other traces, more subtle, drawn on a steamed-up mirror. Perhaps if Tamara had looked carefully, she would have noticed a black cat running across the street which she was about to cross too – drunk, as usual. Maybe if she had, she would have added together some strange numbers and changedyet another inconspicuous day into anominous date,and that scene would have appeared before her intoxicated eyes again when she put the down pillow to the wronguse, namely by placing itover her friend’s face,and death – that great terrorist – reaped its harvest.
They say you can tell a criminal by his ears. But as for Tamara, freshly turned into a murderer just a few hours ago, things are completely different. There’s nothing to give her away at all – Tamara is like a lighthouse that has broken down. She sits on the edge of her bed like a figure in a wax museum, immobile, spaced out and numb. Her hands, which barely an hour ago were holding the murder weapon, now hang inertly on either side of her body andhaven’t even the strength to reach for a cigarette. There’s nothing to reach for, anyway – there aren’t any more cigarettes in her house. There are only cigarette butts, burned out like her. There’s no heat, only ash.
And truly, if you were to look around this room, which is beginning to show its bleakshapes in the pale light of dawn creeping through the window, you wouldn’t notice anything of any use. Everything has been usedup, wornout and processed – like her. This thing sitting here on the bed, this empty wrapper of a former human being, isn’t even half as attractive as the thoroughly consumed contents.
Our murderer sits on a bed covered in a navy blue bedspread and watches the dawn creeping over the floor, all the way up to her feet, still filthy from yesterday.The feet of Christ after walking the Way of the Cross.Dawn struggles throughthe ineffective curtains arduously, it’scoming closer and closer, on tiptoes, like a monster. The first shapes emerge from the darkness –the chest of drawers, the bedside table, the television set. It’s impossible to hide the fact that these are the last shapes too – when it comes to interior decor, absolute minimalism reigns here, while the devil, everyone’s favourite bit-part character, is in the details, as usual.Rampaging around the whole room like a medieval plague, they form the real decor, theso-called quintessence. From them it’s possible to piece together our Tamara’s way of life with a precision comparable to that used by scientists to reconstruct what dinosaurs ate and the intensity of their sex lives on the evidence of their bones.
What do we have here? Dirty clothes. Dead flies and mosquitos. Two empty wine bottles, one empty vodka bottle. A couple of empty cigarette packs. An ashtray full of butts. A pipe for smoking hash and marijuana. Two empty painkiller packages.The remains of some psychoactive substances on thesticky, grimy floor. Her room resembles the hotel rooms of rock stars – the ones they’re found dead in.
There are lots of things here, but there are lots missing too. For example,pangs of conscience.If Tamara were tested for their presence, the result would be negative. And there are no exterior signs of anxiety either – there’s not even the slightest scowl on her face. It’s quite another matter that after the two-day partying marathon that she’staken part in, her face could successfully adorn a shocking anti-narcotics campaign poster. Its dominant shades are grey and violet, her pupils are dilated, her hair’stousled and enriched by something from a graveyard landscape: dried leaves, mud, dust, cobwebs, blood, slight traces of everything that can be found in this world, especially in its nocturnal territories. Her makeup belongs to the category of yesterday’s memories, and you could tell more about her from the bruises, scratches and shadows on her body than from her fingerprints. The way this girl looks, she’sdefinitely asked for sick leave today – if it were Halloween, she could dress up as herself and win a contest for the scariest costume.
And yet her body is not just the image of destruction and loss. Even in this zero zone, something stands out – the fragments of another body. There’s a tiny bit of the dead girl hiding beneath Tamara’s fingernails, in the form of shreds of skin, and it would be possible to find a few of her hairs somewhere on Tamara’s clothing. While inside her, there’s someone’s sperm. Right now it’s flowing out of her; a pathetic souvenir of someone, some unwelcome guest, is trickling down her thighs in a little stream. It seems that Tamara, meaning her body, has once again been the tracks for that famous tram known as male desire. Whereas the object of her desire was hard drugs – in the course of toxicological tests you would be certain to find the presence of cocaine, mephedrone, ketamine and alcohol in her system, and maybe something else too. Tamara would pose a huge challenge for chemistry students. Nevertheless, she doesn’t feel stimulated. Quite the contrary – she’s strangely cool and collected. Admittedly she can’t fall asleep, but this has more to do with the kind of concentration experienced by monks who are practised in the art of meditation than with any of the substances she has consumed. Tamara feels as ifa gigantic ocean liner has moored insideher body. The turbulent waters have grown calm. Apart from emptiness, there’s nothing now but icy composure.
She suspects that the corpse hasn’t been discovered yet. It’s too early. And so this death has both happened and not happened –at this moment the dead girl is something like Schrödinger’s cat. Although dead, she is still alive in the minds of those who are unaware of her death. Until somebody finds the corpse, until the police are notified, until the news spreads like dandelion seeds, this transitional state between life and death will continue.
Maybe in a few hours someone will enter the room where the crime happened, be alarmed by the thirty-year-old woman lying motionless in it, take the pillow off of her face and then cover their mouth with their hand. Dead people always prompt panic in the living.
In life, dying is irrevocable and only happens once. “He who has died no longer lives,” as they say. Corpses appear here solely as coffin portraits or as dummiesat a crime scene, only the living are truly alive, proof of which are their continued vital functions: from consuming and excreting food to making love, building houses and taking care of their savings accounts. Meanwhile, a novel knows no such limitations. Here you can make more allowances for yourself vis à vis such disagreeable facts as death and its consequences.
For example, now it’s Friday, two days earlier. Twilight is falling, grey mists are rising over Warsaw, this tormented city – this prisoner-of-war, whose identity, as a result of numerous nasty events,wastorn to pieces and then hastily stuck back together from whatever came to hand. This city launches ruthless flares over its residents’heads, and stretches its arms out after them like swiftly growingbeanstalks. There’s a girl walking around the city somewhere who, two days from now, will be transformed into a corpse, while the girl who will kill her – Tamara Mortus – is lying on the floor of her flat, feeling like the wreck of a small plane, positioned somewhere in the great blue yonder and shot down into an abyss by unknown perpetrators. She curls her long hair around a trembling finger, lights a cigarette, allows the smoke to rise upwards, almost as far as the ceiling, and feels as if she’s a corpse laid on a pyre.
Tamara is still alive – despite her last name and her efforts to live up to it. For a long time now she’s been collaborating with death, she’s been negotiating with it on the matter of an impending merger. Her bargaining card is alcohol and stimulants of other kinds; it’s for them thatshe’s inclined to hand her shares over to death, but it still hasn’t shown up, it continues to mock her efforts.
Today once again, sincenoon, Tamara has been having a conversation with death. By six p.m.,which the clocks are now striking, she has managed to drink three large glasses of lemon vodka and a bottle of wine, while seasoning it all with a bit of hash. The image before her eyes is like something from an impressionist painting – a flock of flickering multi-coloured spots. People say that an alcoholic doesn’t drink with just anybody. So Tamara thinks that by drinking alone, she’ll never become an alcoholic.
She’s made sure of havinga solid stock of psychoactive substances at home, since she wants to stay there (at home, as well as in a blessed state of intoxication) as long as possible, preferably for the entire weekend, which has just begun, and during which – as has been the case for the past few years – she has no social plans. Her only companion, and also the only witness of her decline, is this city, Warsaw. Its huge bulk is interwoven with rows of columns, residential buildings andprefab tower blocks lit up by a thousand flashing neon signs. The Tamara–Warsaw relationshipis like the one between supporters of rival sports clubs. But despite this, the girl isn’t capable of leaving this place, there’s no way to explain it, it’s some kind of addiction, like Stockholm Syndrome. Some time ago, Tamara would have left the house and opened herself up to the city’s wide range of offers, to all of its lumps, growths, chutes and trapdoors, to all of those places where the city strays from the norm and shows its sickly tumour markers. It’s precisely these places she would like to reach, to lick all the salt of the night off them, just as animals lick it off the streets in winter. But she hasn’t done it for a long time. Instead of going out into the city, she prefers to go out for some wine.
Translated by Scotia Gilroy