Vespers

Agnieszka Drotkiewicz
Vespers
  • Wydawnictwo Literackie
    Kraków, 2014
    144 pages
    123x197
    ISBN: 978-83-08-05338-6

Vespers, Agnieszka Drotkiewicz's latest prose offering, is a kind of four-part harmony (Joanna, her mother Sylwia, her mother's beloved Roman, and Helena, a "friend of the family"), a tale both realistic and metaphorical, and quite meditative. Vespers unfolds its various levels when read carefully, the sounds of the various sentences reveal their capaciousness, such as the sentence-length title of a picture painted by Roman - "The Heart Which Fell out onto the Airport Tarmac Two Weeks Ago Has Been Patched into a Patient" - or the first sentence of the book: The sky over Paris is the color of a film heartthrob, but Joanna is staring at her toes – setting the tone of the narrative, and the character of the protagonist. When we read more closely, it also turns out that the content of this book is much greater than the number of pages would seem to suggest: in reality, in the act of reading, this book is capacious indeed.

The description of the protagonist in the prologue recalls a nature film narrative: Short and skinny, dressed in the camouflage colors favored by young women in the larger cities of the territory of the European Union circa 2010. This style is no accident, as one of the main themes of this book is to question the existence of the "man-animal" opposition. What separates us from the animal world? What joins us together? The author does not denigrate the animal part of human nature; she rather perceives the capacity to succumb to it as a luxury that intimacy provides (I meet a man with whom we shall be so profoundly human that we will allow ourselves to see the animals inside.)

Work is a major topic in this book, or rather, the "landscape after work," i.e. the burnout syndrome from which Joanna suffers. Her life consists of next to nothing apart from work, but this is work which does not feed her, in either the literal or the figurative sense – it is poorly paid, and Joanna's absorption in it has led to a nervous breakdown, manifesting itself in an inability to chew and communication failures, in both writing and speech. The theme of work and a loss of faith in its powers of salvation ties Vespers to one of Agnieszka Drotkiewicz's earlier novels, Same Here (2006), in which work is perceived (however ironically) as a value that can create a person, while Vespers shows work as pathological, as an activity that dehumanizes.

Is there hope in this book? Like Joanna, the other protagonists are headed for the point of no return, from which they have to rebound: Roman is a successful painter who enjoys the attentions of women, but he is beginning to lose faith in his capacity to isolate and render beauty, he is tormented by fears of being a fraud. Sylwia, who is absorbed by a selfless love for Roman, also has to find a place in her life for something else, such as herself. Helena, a fifty-year-old secretary at the Romance Languages Department has to make at least part of her dreams come true, or be defeated by her own dreams.

The author joins her characters in seeking a path for feeling joy, fulfillment, and happiness, if only for a moment. She might get there through travel, ceremonies (scenes of a Passover Seder in a theater performance), a conversation that facilitates relearning a language, re-encountering the sensual beauty of the alphabet letter by letter, a sense of humor, which is a sign of man's dignity; and the experience of beauty, which can cleanse and regenerate at the same time. This, too, is Vespers – a tribute to the harmony in beauty. This tribute is visible in the content and the form – the sound of various fragments creates a melody, the repetition of names, or certain words gives the prose its rhythm. A music rings within it, and a painterliness shines through as well – a still life at a market, a genre scene at a swimming pool, the assemblage of a painter's studio. It is in these painterly frames that the author makes her protagonists' dreams come true – Sylwia sees a berry on a bush, a Lady with Unicorn descends from a medieval tapestry to hand Roman a glass of water.

In these fulfillments there is a minimalism, as there is in the whole of the book. Its form is innovative, but not scandalizing; it has an elegance. As in a good script for the theater, or in the texts of certain prayers, this book poses universal questions, allowing the reader to find him or herself in the words, without regard for the decor changing all around.

Zofia Khan

Translated by Soren Gauger