47 and a Smack in the Face

Natasza Goerke
47 and a Smack in the Face
  • Prószyński i S-ka
    Warszawa 2002
    147 x 202
    88 pp
    ISBN 83-7337-187-7

Natasza Goerke, who lives in Hamburg, writes rarely but delightfully. She plays masterfully with her fictions and presents her readers with riddles such as: what literary work does this sentence bring to mind? Where does this phrase originate? This, of course, is addressed at literary connoisseurs, while less expert readers take pleasure in dealing with interesting prose, all the more alluring because of the sense it is an intellectual game. This is also the case with Goerke‘s lastest work, a ‘longer short story’ called 47and a Smack in the Face. The reader frantically searches his memory: it sounds familiar, but what bell does it ring? The title might conceivably have something to do with Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, although the significance of this relationship should not be overestimated. The number refers to the protagonist’s age – and the rest of the title? The day has come when he recalls the events of his life, it stands before him and „smacks him” with its hopelessness, tediousness and many frustrations. But perhaps it is not as it seems? Perhaps it is only a dream? Goerke leads the reader a dance with extreme scene changes and leaps in time, and, characteristically for a dream narrative, she fleetingly introduces the concrete person of the narrator, who looks on from the sidelines on the protagonist telling his story and then disappears again. Goerke paints a witty portrait of the contemporary „man without character,” who has not achieved anything, who has failed to mark his presence in the world. She mocks contemporary culture, which glorifies the nobodies of this world, which is happy to raise monuments to living people and idolises people whose only distinction is that of being indistinct.

When I opened my eyes, the clock on the wall said a quarter past nine. I was lying on the floor, my kidneys and my head hurt, and the moon was hanging above the roof next door like a balloon. I’ve always felt that the border between sanity and insanity is dangerously blurred, and I have occasionally crossed it quite unconsciously. I remember a particular evening, it was in January, to be exact the first of January. At the time I was going through a series of critical experiences in my development: I had quit smoking, I had changed my brand of footwear from clod-hopping Doc Martens to slightly frivolous ‘Calypso’ style shoes, and I had started to discover the unpretentious charm of Neil Young’s songs. The latest woman had also left me, a student of dentistry, with whom I had shared a plan to escape. Where to, we didn’t know, but we did know what from. She was escaping from her mother, and I from myself, or maybe it was the other way around, I don’t remember. In any case, we had managed to put this idea partly into action, as she really had escaped from her mother, but I was still stuck with myself. Her decision to leave me was more sensible than painful, and as a farewell gift I got a PJ Harvey record. I don’t know why women give men PJ Harvey records when they break up, but it wasn’t the first time it had happened to me, and I’m not the only person it has happened to. Although, if we’re going to be precise, I stopped listening to PJ Harvey when I found out her attitude to fox hunting. Not that that serves as an explanation. I put on a Neil Young record, did up my new shoes and for a few hours, hardly recognizing myself, I tap-danced in front of the mirror in the corridor. It was December. I wasn’t pining for anyone, I felt strong and well, and apart from a slight ache in my bladder there was no pain bothering me. So the Christmas holidays were all the same to me, and I spent them with my mother, watching several Westerns and Roman Polański’s film Repulsion. Catherine Deneuve was a real beauty, though my mother didn’t share my opinion. „She’s a complete mess, she’s got her hair in her eyes and ugly knees. And look at that nose – these days she’s got a much smaller, neater one.” But I wasn’t looking at her nose. Ever since my father left for good, after thirty years of comings and goings, all love for humanity had poured out of my mother like water from a broken vase. It worried me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I accepted money from her now and then, went round for lunch every Sunday, and asked after her health fairly regularly. I know that these small gestures meant the world to her. Unfortunately I was an only child, and at a certain age every child who is not an orphan gets a clear idea of what it means to have no brothers or sisters. And at some point every child comes to realize that he is more and more of an orphan. I saw in the new year alone, curled up underneath a plush blanket, buried in The Lexicon of Gods and Demons. It was indisputably a most purgative night. From the street came the din of the excited rabble; the vapid carnival sounds of bangers whizzing and bottles breaking against the pavement tortured my ears. Without knowing when, I began to fall into semi-consciousness. It was a rare, creative state, and in just this sort of state I have produced works as perfect as a perfect sphere. Fearless as a tiger, I explored the realms of my own most deeply hidden fears, from the metaphysical ones, such as fear of eternity, to the existential, such as my own end. I suddenly saw myself with the third eye of my intuition – a wilted fern cramped into a cardboard box on a street of the city where I myself crossed the road for the very first time and where I learned to read and write. Yes, I loved that city and never wanted to leave it. One after another, my friends had all left, because our city wasn’t the capital, but I didn’t care about not living in the capital. I loved this city, and only this one, with its port, its marketplace, and the faded splendour of its neglected tenement houses; I loved the amber jewellery, the off-licences, a bench in the park, the Green Apple pub, I loved the crowds in June and the desolation in November, I loved the monuments, the pissed-in lifts, the crumpled faces of the passers-by at dawn and the fury of the young women with huge bellies. I was hopelessly in love with this city, and maybe that was why I knew that one day it would defeat me. I ran into the kitchen and noticed the bread knife. I drew the sharp point of the knife across the table. Yukio Mishima, Yamamoto - I thought of them at that moment. A true Samurai always chooses life, I smiled to myself, and cut a slice of bread. That’s the only reason why I didn’t die then, the only one. I chose Yamamoto’s path and remained myself. I remained myself because leaving the world with the help of seppuku was equivalent to the end of life, which means the end of love. I couldn’t afford that sort of pain – after all, I was an expert at beginnings. It was past two in the afternoon. I was sitting on the floor, and the music of my life playing on non-existent records reached my ears. If there’d been a woman in my flat, she’d have said, „Get up, go and do it. And please deal with it today, OK?” „OK,” I’d have said. And I’d have gone and done it. If the woman I love had said it. Sometimes I get the feeling I’ve never loved any woman. Of course I’ve desired a few – what man doesn’t feel desire? But it was past two in the afternoon. I loved my city, and went out.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones