Emil Śledziennik – the hypochondriac from the title of Mariusz Sieniewicz’s latest novel – claims that packing teaches you minimalism. If that’s true, then he definitely doesn’t know how to pack. His account of a few days spent in a Polish provincial hospital is stuffed to bursting, crammed full of childhood memories, declarations of love for the most important woman in his life, tirades against petty-minded patriotism, paeans in praise of painkillers, the self-reflections of a graphomaniac (for, as the author’s alter ego, he too is a writer), and some ironical thoughts on the topic of life-death-and-the universe.
The Hypochondriac’s Suitcases is a truly baroque novel. Each sentence is dripping with metaphors, every paragraph closes with a brilliant conclusion, each story is blown up and embellished as much as it possibly can be. But it is Gombrowicz-style, satirical baroque. The ironical witticisms and genteel amusing anecdotes serve one single purpose: “To kill Poland – that’d be something! Just the very idea seemed thrilling to me on account of its pretentiousness.” Emil isn’t bothered about political correctness, and doesn’t give a damn about any of Poland’s sacred cows; he dreams non-stop of emigrating and wonders if all the blood shed for Poland would form a body of water the size of Lake Śniardwy, or if it would be as big as the Baltic Sea. Śledziennik can’t stand Poland, simply because it is stifling him.
But he doesn’t give in easily. He protects his ego by surrounding it on all sides with a wide range of topics for discussion. Above all there is illness – the hypochondria of the title, to which he openly admits, saying he has fallen sick for good and all, with every possible ailment: “Dyscalculia right up to the twentieth year of my life, and dysmemoria from the twenty-first”. Like a true hypochondriac, he is only sick in his imagination. But for him this is a more frightening, worse form of illness, because he is a person who actually lives totally and entirely in his own imagination; to the very end and then one step beyond, he lives in the surreal distortion produced by his own mind, in its dream-like bewilderment and warped confabulation. It’s in language and writing that he grows and finds fulfilment, and in language that he loves. This novel is full of strange but extremely beautiful declarations and rhetorical remarks: “Oh my morphine-flavoured profiterole, my heroine-laced cream puff, thanks to which I can live in so many worlds at once!”
Śledziennik is a complete addict – he’s hooked on everything, including painkillers, grumbling, the love of his life, making up stories, and talking. This is a book you read in one go, because there isn’t really a good point where you can put it down, not even for a moment. Interrupting your reading would mean interrupting Emil in mid-breath and suffocating him. Emil lives in his body, which he never stops examining and analysing. He revels in his gallstones, delights in the taste of ketoprofen, turns the pre-operation shaving of his groin into a metaphor for the comic fate of man, and calls his entire doubtless, though twistedly beautiful lyricism “hormonal”. We’ve had the Baroque, we’ve had Gombrowicz, but there’s still “sickness as a metaphor” and as the leitmotif of a writer who draws inspiration from being ill.
In the suitcases of the title, Sieniewicz packs literary tradition, current styles and languages, real memories and inventions, emotions and reflections. He prompts the idea that writing in itself is like hypochondria, like stating that I have something very important and exceptional inside me, something nobody else has and that nobody else has ever said before, and that it has to be said. It’s worth plunging your hands into The Hypochondriac’s Suitcases. You’ll pull out a whole lot of intelligent humour and cynical reflection, with a brilliant writer lurking behind them.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I open my eyes. Once again there’s the ceiling, the wall, my toes protruding from under the duvet, and disappointment, disappointment to find I’m more here than there. I reward myself for it with the sound of your name.
For now, it’s not too bad. A little reminiscing, a little light dreaming. These are the invisible suitcases that I’ve dragged along with me, apart from the one containing my pyjamas, a towel, and my copy of The Death of Beautiful Deer. I open the cases at random, without any particular intention. I peer inside cautiously, not quite sure what’s hidden in them. Come what may, being in hospital is a specific form of journey: the longer you lie there, the further you drift away from the world outside, and the more often you go beyond your own body, while at the same time going beyond the limits of memory again and again. It’s worth having as much baggage as possible – even a seemingly irrelevant recollection might come in handy, because you never know how long the journey will last and where it’s going to lead.
I want to believe that the ketoprofen will allow me to get through my first night without you. You know how scared I am of pain, but I’m more scared of your absence… I’d give a lot to turn it all back and be falling asleep beside you again. I swear I would never betray you, not even in thought, I’d limit my range of male depressions and narcissistic frustrations to the minimum – which perhaps you find just as depressing and frustrating. I’d stop vanishing each evening in the Bermuda Triangle of the sofa, the fridge and the TV. I wouldn’t wrap my face in the newspaper any more. I’d finally appreciate the charms of our leisurely conversations.
Not enough? Alright, listen to this! I hope you’re sitting down.
For you I would renounce even the very mildest ailment, not a word would I utter about the pains shooting through me. Never again would I hold forth about depression and self-destruction, never again would I say: “Oh, look, something’s sprung up on my neck”, or “Would you just check and see if you can feel a lump here too?” Instead I’d learn to iron your skirts and dresses, each pleat would come out as straight as a ruler. I would find your lost socks, each one that’s missing from the pair – even setting the washing machine would hold no mystery for me. For you I’d be like a rally driver on the routes of all those Biedronka and Lidl stores. For you I’d do the dishes: I’d plunge my hands into the sink and catch the dinner plates, cutlery and pots like shining, silver-and-white fish, and each one would be your little goldfish. For you I’d become a worshipper of panelling and floors, bowing low to them with a cloth. For you I would guide the vacuum cleaner through every room like a tame anteater on a walk. I’d be your home help! Your Ukrainian manservant! Your hot-blooded southerner – a Spaniard or an Italian, but on pay day I’d also be a Russian oligarch with the outer appearance of a Swede! To the end of my days I’d tickle your feet, and like Marco Polo I’d explore the erogenous capes and headlands of your body. Of course your, and only your desires would act as my compass! … Each evening I’d run you a hot bath with oils and incense. Each morning I’d bring you your slippers in my teeth, and a small glass of mojito in my hand! …
This isn’t pathos, my wonderful high priestess. It’s love! Of the truest and sincerest kind.
My hands have almost stopped trembling and my pulse is slowing down. I pick up a bottle of mineral water. I take a sip and run my tongue over my palette. It hurts far less, hardly at all, though my face is still tensed in a mask of torment, as if any other, milder expression were impossible. I don’t even feel like smoking, and that’s a whole day without a single cigarette now. Believe me, I’m resting. I’m having a rest from obsessively thinking about myself in the wretched “here” and the blasted “now”. The ketoprofen helps. It’s not just a genie, but my Ariadne too – from the bundle of nerves I was until now, it is conjuring up a long, strong thread of relaxation. It is guiding me through the labyrinth of my own ego. There’s nothing finer than to free yourself from your own ego, if only momentarily. It’s as if I’d stepped out of myself and were standing next to myself, suddenly embarrassed by this shrunken forty-year-old man – with a grimace of pain, with grievance burning in his eyes at the fact that fate has treated him so improperly. Sometimes I start to suspect that my suffering borders on auto-eroticism. And as such it deludes itself that it’s tantalizingly self-sufficient.
Luckily the situation is starting to look different. I can easily think about other people, because in fact there are other people too. Finally I am well enough to appreciate the world with liberated senses – me, the Whitman of the hospital! Me, the local Leśmian! How lovely the starched bed linen smells! How nice the IV tube feels to the touch! I’m rolling it in my fingers, like an umbilical cord pumping out euphoria.
I must confess to you that I’m enchanted by the ward sister Krystyna, who has the evocative, hopeful surname Ceynowa. No, I’ve no naughty thoughts or butterflies in my tummy, I swear! Purely platonic thoughts, and if there are any butterflies, they’re just metaphysical ones. Because think for yourself: doesn’t everything begin and end with nurses? We’re born and die in their presence. When they tell us to, we strip naked in front of them like obedient children, often admitting our shameful secrets. They are our stepmothers for one thousand seven hundred zloty a month. They are our patron saints of vaccinations, pills and intravenous drips. Does anyone ever give them a second thought, except for the patient who’s wet the bed? Has a single monument ever been erected in praise of them, such as the greatest heroes deserve? Instead of Poniatowski and Kościuszko, instead of Piłsudski or the Miracle on the Vistula, I’d rather honour the nurse on the night shift! Instead of all those insurgents, instead of the Silent Unseen and the accursed soldiers on the pedestals that serve the national cause, I’d rather see the prominent chest of the hospital nurse! They deserve more than just coffee, chocolate, and for want of anything better, flowers. Most of them never even get a sniff of the cash in the white envelopes that patients bring here with them – those go straight into the doctors’ coat pockets.
My paean in praise of the lower-ranking medical staff will not be drowned out by the hospital trolls who accuse the nurses of communist-era habits, or of throwing the patients around like sacks of potatoes. For God’s sake, let’s be aware of the scale and the location! They work amid groaning, wailing and moaning, not at a diplomatic post in Brussels. Anyway, as proof that one should cut them a lot of slack, I ask you the rhetorical question: who has direct access to the magic cabinet that’s kept locked with a little key? …
And in that magic, secret cabinet there are shameless supplies of ketoprofen and nalorphine! In boxes, bottles and ampules. Next to them lie stacks of single-use needles, pentazocines, pethidines, tramadols and morphines, forming multi-storey houses, skyscrapers even, a whole Manhattan of ecstasy! There are yet other anti-depressants and barbiturates with mysterious names – not exactly Latin, and not exactly from Tolkien. Just imagine: each ampule is paradise in liquid form, it’s the Bahamas injected by the millilitre! Each tiny little pill is an Atlantis in a sea of suffering, it’s the Promised Land administered in small transparent glasses… It’s the Great Book of Oblivion! You only have to swallow, constrict a vein, or ask for more!
Today I saw the magic cabinet, the secret cabinet, when the door of the treatment room was ajar. I almost wept for joy. This ward is well stocked – you could fight a war against pain here. I just have to get on well with the nurses. Not play up, not complain, not ring my bell without a good reason, and never, ever at night, unless I’m dying in agony. Anyone who wakes the nurse on night shift is really in the doghouse – better never to have been born. Next day he’s sure to get aspirin or ibuprofen.
Could you bring me a few bars of Lindt chocolate? The big ones with nuts. And some coffee, preferably Jacobs instant.
I’d judge the age of “my” nurse to be about fifty, not more. She’s thin, with long blonde hair tied in a bun. As a child I’d have thought that when she died she’d change into a bright poplar tree or a lilac with white flowers. She knows her job, as I found out at once after the first, highly professional insertion of a needle. It takes me longer to open a bottle of beer. I’d swear she doesn’t make a fuss of the patients, but definitely believes in the old principle that the patient is a long way from the booze, and dying isn’t a scandal. She has quite a curt personality and androgynous looks – a bit like Cate Blanchett’s older sister. She’s beautiful and ugly, striking and hideous all at once – like in Vermeer’s paintings. It all depends on the given set of circumstances, such as which moment you look at her, from where, and how the light is falling: whether from a fluorescent bulb, or from a sun-lit window. And whether she’s raising her head proudly, or happens to be glowering sideways. If the former, she’s a truly fascinating woman. If the latter, she’s nothing, she looks like a guy, almost like an old codger.
Krystyna Ceynowa has one more rare feature: she is an albino, judging by the alabaster skin on her face and hands, and by the striking colour of her eyes. I’d only just asked for a little more medicine, when she wagged her flawlessly white finger and fired me a backhander with the priceless comment: “The patient’s teeth aren’t chipped, and ketoprofen’s not like rusks!”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones