Ivan Michurin was a Russian geneticist who crossed plants in order to create species that prove resistant to hostile climates. He does not feature in any of the stories in Weronika Murek’s first collection but his words - “We can’t wait for nature’s favour. Our aim is to seize it from her ourselves” - serve as an epigraph to her book. The short stories in Growing Southern Plants the Michurin Way are, indeed, an experiment in narration. The author crosses, among others, two perspectives – the very distant and the immediate. Her details are highly polished yet her narration is located in a space which is unreal, in the clouds (often literally, as both a religious thread and the ‘other world’ as place of action are important in he stories).
The author animates devotional objects, makes use of folklore and frequently places the sacred within a concrete, carnal framework. For example, an angel annoyed by another angel crunching on a sugar-dipped rhubarb stalk, or Our Lady, who carries butter biscuits in the pocket of her dressing-gown and “puts one in her mouth, smacking her lips”.
By colliding styles, Murek creates a mosaic of children’s, folk and reporters’ stories: at times full of cruelty, at others poetic, and still at others full of absurdity - each time quickly lowering her voice as though running away from the reader. Murek’s stories are a demanding read, something like a charade. The reader has to concentrate hard in order to keep up with the narrator.
This juxtaposition of various styles provokes surprise which is the key to Murek’s sense of humour. In one of the stories, while preparing a New Year’s party for neurotics, the hostess announces a lottery: “Every draw wins. There’s a box of shoes in the cellar. […] They don’t fit us. Can be passed on to the sick”.
Weronika Murek says of her priorities and literary techniques: “If I walk down Stawowa Street in Katowice and walk down this same Stawowa Street in Katowice every day, I don’t feel like walking down the same street in my writing. If I don’t think that there is anything interesting happening there, I provide it with little access doors and crannies which open up to yet a different atmosphere on the street – not another reality but an atmosphere”. Her debut collection is precisely such a field sport, opening up a different atmosphere.
- Agnieszka Drotkiewicz
Translation by Danusia Stok
Only like this from now on and only this much forever, she thought as she crossed to the other side of the street and peered into her letter-box. Nobody had written. If it’s true what people say, she said to herself, that’s how it’s going to be and I’ve got to start accepting it: increasingly transparent moments lightly unfolding along the ring of hours for nothing now in fact, towards the days, the weeks above, propelled by momentum, the weight of habit, nothing else – that’s how it was going to be now.
“Don’t go in, please,” she heard behind her.
The front door of the apartment was wide open; the smell of dish-cloths and lemon detergents floated around.
“Someone’s died here, I’ve only just washed the place. Everything’s still wet.”
“No, no,” replied Maria, “I’m not going in, only taking a peek.”
She broke off for a moment.
“It’s my apartment, you know? I’ll take my shoes off, just go in my socks.”
She bent over and started to untie her shoelaces.
“Was it from you they phoned?”
She tread on the heel of her shoe and slipped her foot out, then kicked the shoe away a little towards the wall and bent over again.
“For the disinfection,” said the other.
“No,” replied Maria. “Nobody phoned from me.”
“They must have phoned but you don’t know anything. You have to look after your affairs, you know. I’m carrying in the water now so don’t go in. Do you hear? You’ll just have to wait, too bad. You go in now and there’ll be damp patches. You have to wait for a bit.”
“Alright, alright,” said Maria. “A minute makes no difference.”
The woman slowly walked away. Before disappearing around the bend of the stairs, she turned and threw Maria a suspicious glance.
So fast, thought Maria, so fast in disinfecting it, as though wiping the traces away.
Suddenly, she was overcome with anger, powerful and brief as though a bubble of air was bursting in her head. She put on her shoes, tied them carefully, and with great satisfaction entered the apartment. The net curtains and drapes had been pulled down and, suddenly, the apartment had become far more spacious than she remembered. The folding couch had been moved to the wall and plastic sacks thrown over it, the wardrobe had been emptied and the books removed from the shelves and put on the floor.
“So,” said the woman, standing in the door right behind her. “You went in after all, there are marks.”
“So what,” replied Maria. “It’s not the end of the world.”
She walked up to the couch and peered into one of the sacks.
“My things,” she said. “My green dress. Surely you’ve no right?”
“Disinfected,” said the woman. “It’s all got to be disinfected.”
A moment later:
“P’haps we should open the windows, make a draught, would dry quicker.”
“Disinfected,” repeated Maria. “But I was clean.”
“Apartment’s going to go up for sale,” replied the woman.
She approached the windows, opened one, then the other. Now, in the brighter room, she appeared younger to Maria; her face was, indeed, wrinkled but her hair was surprisingly thick and dense, shiny, gathered at the back in a loose bun. From the hairline right up to the orb of hair over her nape, she had pulled a thin, well-matched plait which stood out from the smooth, gleaming dome like a fresh, diagonally suttered scar.
She reached into her semi-circular pocket, extracted a piece of paper, folded it several times and deftly slipped it under the embrasure.
“Whether someone’s lived clean or not has got nothing to do with it. The apartment’s going up for sale and has to be disinfected, it’s normal. There are regulations.”
“But look, I’m still alive.”
“Aha,” replied the other with no interest, walked up to the sacks and started tying them. That’s fine. But you don’t have to explain yourself to me, you know. Why should you? You’re an adult, and felt like it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Pieces of paper lay scattered over the desk. Maria quickly looked through them: someone had got to her e-mail, printed out her mail, and then read it, tracing a wavy line under the more intimate fragments. Someone had also found her diary and left it open on March 2000. Someone had written the numbers of her account and I.D. diagonally across the page with a pink felt-tip pen.
“Somebody’s broken into my e-mail,” said Maria. “Somebody’s read my notes.”
“Maybe they thought they’d find something interesting,” replied the woman, bent over and started to pack the books into a box; in rhythm with her movements, a golden streak of light glided over her hair.
Just next to the pieces of paper and notebook, lay a coloured duster; next to it someone had stood a bottle of some green concoction and, so as to gather her thoughts and not have to answer, Maria reached for it and pretended to read the label: “Thanks to us – it reassured – damp cellars and apartments are soon dry”.
What a life, she thought, suddenly feeling angry, to get up like that everyday and plait your hair. Get up early so as to have time to calmly plait your hair and plait it carefully, even though the rest of your day is going to be small-time, bending over a bucket, using detergents thanks to which damp apartments are dry again, and, above all, accepting that probably nobody is going to notice, or if they do they’ll soon pass over this unusual luxury of a plait and shake off the brief moment, needlessly wasted. And the woman doesn’t worry about anything, Maria continued to think angrily, she gets up in the morning and plaits her hair; that nattiness, which Maria never had, wakes her, that faithfulness to feminine diligence. And if Maria had lived like that, maybe she wouldn’t have died, or if she had died, then it wouldn’t have been now or like that but at a more appropriate time and in a better way.
Footsteps resounded on the stairs, the floor squeaked; whoever had come had stopped at the threshold and was now taking off their shoes. This took a while; an elderly man entered, carrying a pot wrapped in a towel.
“Lunch,” he said. “Soup’s still hot.”
“Good,” replied the woman. “The woman from death has come.”
“Because it’s my apartment,” answered Maria. “Because I’m still alive.”
“Aha,” said the man, standing the pot on the table.
He unwrapped the towel and opened the lid.
“Good. It’s still hot.”
“Everyone’s read them,” said Maria indicating her desk. “Haven’t they? Have you read them, too?”
“Uhm,” replied the woman. “We’ve read them, too. Hear that, old man, we’ve read them, haven’t we?”
“We always do,” said the man. “Could be a laugh.”
“But chiefly the family. They were more interested.”
“We only skimmed through them. Don’t have much time anymore, have to look for my glasses, don’t feel like it so much now. But sometimes, for a change. Who could stand just working, cleaning empty rooms? For a change, I tell you,” he nodded at Maria and added: “Have you seen the bed? The dark stain? How’s one to deal with it? Get rid of it?”
He broke off, turned to the woman:
“Eat, eat, love, it’ll get cold.”
“What do you mean?” replied Maria. “They say it was in the bath.”
“No,” replied the woman. “Not in the bath. They clearly said in bed.”
“We have our instructions, and follow them,” said the man, going through to the small room. “Put some things aside, give some to the poor, burn some.”
“I’ll take it all with me,” said Maria, following him.
“Oh, I don’t know about that, rules are rules,” he said. “See the stain?”
She stood by the bed. The sheets and blanket had already been removed; all that remained was a brown mattress with a dark, narrow stain which looked like a locust’s husk.
“Facing the wall,” said the woman from the other room, her mouth full.
“The window,” he replied.
“One’s already seen a fair share of things like this,” he said. “It’s incredible, how people die so much.”
“But I don’t want to,” replied Maria, and took a few steps back. “I don’t want to, simply don’t want to.”
“Come here,” the woman called. “We’ll eat together.”
“You don’t want to what?” he asked. “You made a decision, now have to push on.”
“But I’m still alive.”
“Come here, while it’s hot,” called the woman. “Oooh, there’s boiled beef. Have you got a knife?”
“I didn’t kill myself. It was an accident. Besides, I’m still alive.”
- Translated by Danusia Stok
This translation was supported by the Sample Translations ©Poland program.