The 39.9 of the title refers to the age of the heroine and narrator of Monika Rakusa’s book. She spends the nine months after reaching middle age trying to achieve a balance in life, in order to “grow up” at last and come to terms with herself. She sets about it in a radical way, not just with the help of a diary, in which she describes her entire life from childhood onwards, but also with the help of some specialists. To her mind, what she has been through and still cannot shake off requires psychotherapy. Aware that her life is burdened not only by a toxic relationship with her mother, but also her Jewish ancestry, she decides on a therapy called Hellinger’s constellations.
Even though the therapy does not produce any spectacular results, the auto-vivisection the 39-year-old woman performs clearly brings the catharsis she seeks. She puts her life choices in logical order, gets to the origins of her complexes and step by step works out what has shaped her outlook on life. It all has its roots in Poland’s post-war history, which in her case began at the end of the 1960s. Thus it is a tale where large-scale history on the social and moral plane clashes with small-scale history; quite literally small-scale, because the key events in the heroine’s life story happened during her childhood.
Apart from evocatively describing reality, the book includes two remarkable portraits of women, the heroine and her mother. Both are drawn with impressive sincerity, made possible by the time lapse separating the narrator from the traumatic events. Only now can she judge her mother’s strengths and weaknesses, her struggle with the limitations imposed by disability, and her heroic efforts to find a partner. In the daughter’s account this search, finally crowned by success, takes on a tragi-comical form, featuring a whole series of conmen and perverted “uncles”.
Rakusa’s diary uses the same genre as Bridget Jones’ Diary, but the form is the only thing they have in common. Rakusa’s protagonist also battles with her disobedient body, or imposes decisions to improve on herself. However, she does it in a way that has no rationale within a genre designed to amuse. But as it turns out, the inflexible format can be truly inspiring.
- Marta Mizuro
Monika Rakusa (born 1966) is a social psychologist, journalist and documentary film writer. She is working on her second book.
18 February – The day I find out what a man is.
Mummy never had any illusions about men. She kept telling me her bitter views on the subject almost from the day I was born. In the process she gave me to understand that I had all the necessary equipment to manipulate them perfectly. “With your good looks, you’ll do what you want with them”. “Just make sure you never show them you depend on them”. “A relationship is a game. The person who comes out best in it is the one with the marked cards.”
I was four or five then. We were driving along in a Trabant. Mummy had committed some traffic offence and we were stopped by a policeman. I was extremely frightened. I started to cry and spluttered: “Please don’t take my Mummy to prison”. The policeman shrugged and let us go. From then on Mummy and I had a way with the traffic police in Wrocław and thereabouts. I could cry at will, and repeated the remark about prison several times a month. Mummy was delighted.
That was an important lesson. I could tell it wasn’t about some wretched fine (though she didn’t like paying them). It got through to me that I was her sweet little goddess of revenge. I knew one day I’d show them all, I’d pay them back for everything, but above all for her.
19 February – The day of my Mummy’s lovers
Mummy never had any illusions about her capabilities. Almost from the day I was born she kept telling me that a woman with bad legs has to pay dearly for a relationship with a man. She gave me an endless stream of examples of educated women who had got themselves involved with “men several classes beneath them”. “A woman called Ewa, for example, and my family law professor, Ludmila, and Krystyna, Wanda, and my doctor friend from Cieplice”.
The price my mother was prepared to pay for her relationships was always rising. First there was the artist who had lost a leg. She met him at Chylice. However, an artist without a leg ranked higher than a woman with two bad legs. So some other woman took him away, a completely healthy one apparently. Then there was the chairman of the housing cooperative, but he wouldn’t get divorced for her. When I was seven there was a man called Adam. He didn’t seem to work at all. When he moved in with us, he spent day after day walking about the flat in tight green underpants. He was nice, he used to draw rabbits and horses for me. One day he decided to help with my bath, and as far as I remember, he even started washing me in a solemn way. My mother came in and put an end to this scene. But she didn’t leave him at once. She sent me back to Skorusy. Then, apparently, Adam stole from her, so she threw out his things.
I can remember a whole array of various “uncles” with whom she came to see me in hospital. One of them was having a chat with the lady they rented a room from. Mummy was busy with something and I was playing in the corner. The landlady came in and sat down for a moment.
“What a pretty, agile little girl,” she said.
I smiled very charmingly as usual and went on playing.
“And to think a cripple could give birth to such a pretty child.”
“She’d be quite a woman too, if she didn’t drag her legs like that,” added the man. Then they both sighed at how tough life is.
And I probably smiled even more charmingly. We went out to dinner, for which my mummy paid (though she didn’t like paying). Then they went back to Warsaw in the Trabant, and I suppose she dropped him right at the house.
In Warsaw there was our caretaker’s husband, a driver at the television station. Apparently he drove Maciek Szczepański himself. He knew the taste of a better world and he didn’t fancy his own wife any more. He used to come to our door after drinking and shout “Open up”. Once he asked me if I’d like him to be my daddy. There was also the friend of Zdzisia, the hairdresser Mummy went to in Ochota. And then Juliusz Wierusz Biełowski, the seventy-something-year-old military man who every time he introduced himself cried “I am Julius, but not Caesar”. And that was his only joke.
It ended with Robert. Mummy met him at a singles club in the 1980s. He was a bookbinder. When he came to our place he was wearing a purple suit. Mummy adapted him and changed his clothes. She put his things in my wardrobe and sent me off to Szymanów. To make herself feel better, she used to dress him in a cravat to go to the theatre and the concert hall. When she broke her leg in 1984, she sat in a wheelchair, to make a “better entrée”. A few years after she stopped walking, her progressive dementia began. Robert, whom she called “Robcio” and I called “Robotcio”, turned out to be a decent person. He took care of her until she died in 2003.
20 February – The day I found out what love is.
Mummy had enormous illusions about love. I beat her hands down with my knowledge of the subject when I was a teenager. With a persistence worthy of a much worse case, she believed she’d succeed every time, and that if she invested more and tried harder, she’d become a forty-year-old Juliet on crutches.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones