In his stories Wojciech Chmielewski portrays people at various stages of life. One of his heroines is only just starting it, as a little gypsy girl (“The Gypsy”), while another is a retired female painter who has had a heart attack and wants to bid the world farewell in a beautiful way (“The Buried Village”). But most of the people he depicts are in their prime, and he catches them standing at one of life’s crossroads. They are lonely, resigned and exhausted, losing someone close to them, the purpose or meaning of their existence, or trying to get themselves out of a state of lethargy, to escape from depression. Most of them succeed. A busy manager returns on his birthday to his favourite place, a bar that he associates with his youthful lack of cares and duties (“The Birthday”). Meanwhile the heroine of “Dumpling”, who as a student was once active in the opposition, now finds peace by buying a house in a small town and enjoying the freedom she fought for. In turn a young widower finds consolation in his love for his little son (“Short Story”). But there are other characters who seek solace through more desperate acts, like the hero of the title story “The Razor”, an energetic training-course designer who reacts to stress by harming himself. In turn, the character writing the notes in the story “The Notebook” drops his studies, gets the first job he can find and embarks on an affair with his boss, who is much older than him. The setting for this escape from life is interesting – it is 1989 and the political system is changing, which the self-absorbed twenty-year-old hero fails to notice.
The gallery of portraits is built up in a disparate way; the narrators, depiction and language keep changing, and the length of the action varies too, from a few moments to an entire life remembered by a woman who has been seriously injured in an accident (“By the road”). The story called “The Sun” is a sort of summing up or short sketch about what stimulates or weakens a person, and is also proof of Chmielewski’s talent; the characters keep changing, like a kaleidoscope, as each of them reacts differently to a heatwave.
Wojciech Chemielewski knows how to seize life as it happens. He does not specialise in absorbing plots, but he is a sensitive analyst of human nature, and so the point here is what’s going on inside. He is interested in people not when they’re in action, but when they’re at an apparent standstill, in a state of suspension that has various causes. He shows his characters at very intimate moments and in situations that the outside observer would regard as trivial. This is a book that proves that we shouldn’t be too quick to make judgements.
Wojciech Chmielewski (born 1969) graduated in history and journalism from Warsaw University. His stories and essays have appeared in literary journals, and he also writes reviews.
The Buried Village
The street climbs uphill. There’s a lot of traffic on it, cars and motorbikes. There are shops and snack bars on both sides. There’s a smell of fried fish, exhaust fumes and sun-baked pavement. She hasn’t the strength to get up the hill, her brow is pouring with sweat. She sits at a café table and doesn’t even wonder if it’s a self-service place or if someone’s going to come up to her.
Amber. It sparkled in her ring, reflecting the sharp sunlight. She stared at the stone, with her for so long now. She’s worn the ring since her divorce, instead of a wedding band, some thirty years. There are some particles buried in the amber, like strange fish scales, tiny fragments that have survived for hundreds of thousands of years. And they’ll still be here when she’s not around any more.
“Yes?” says the waitress’ pleasant voice.
She orders some water with ice and lemon. On this little street there’s as much traffic as on Marszałkowska in the centre of Warsaw. She doesn’t like it. She’s sorry she set off for the beach this particular way, but it’s the shortest route from the boarding house. The first time she came here was with the little Mikołaj the year before her divorce. He was four years old. Even then her ex already preferred to spend the holidays apart, though she believed he’d come back to her. She had tried, she had even made love with him every day, but none of it had convinced him at all. A pitiful, almost entirely faded memory, comical even. So the first time she came here the streets were quieter, in those days not so many people were coming here from Warsaw yet. Ancient history. Now there’s traffic, people crowding the pavements, lots of children’s pushchairs.
Her favourite thing was to stretch out on a towel and doze off, yielding to the effects of the sun. She didn’t have to think, she didn’t have to plan the next few days of her stay, or worry if tomorrow would be a nice day. Coated in sun cream, in a one-piece bathing costume, hidden behind a screen. The sky above her, a calm sea, small waves. She can hear its murmur. She can go for a swim.
The white walls of her room at the boarding house run by priests from the Society of the Divine Word – rooms, or rather cells, in which these missionaries rest after trips to various places all over the world. Recently during his sermon at mass in the chapel one of them talked about his trip to Colombia, the drug cartels and the leftist guerrillas in the mountains. They only kill priests there when one of them meddles in politics. But the ordinary people, said the young lad in the cassock, apparently they’re wonderful, lovely, grateful for the work of madcap volunteers like him.
After returning from the beach she gazes at the ceiling. Yesterday a big black spider emerged. She flicked it off with a shirt. Silence. From the window she has a view of the Lagoon. There’s a crucifix on the wall. Her son Mikołaj works in a foreign country too, he’s building roads in Jordan. He and his entire family are already in their third year there, he even invited her for the holidays, but she didn’t want to go. Too far, too hot, she said thank you, but she wasn’t leaving the country and came here instead. It’s ten years since she visited this place; she has chosen others. Something tempted her, maybe the priests’ cheap offer, the good conditions here, peace, civilisation, no screaming from the other side of the wall, and no disco. And the beaches here are beautiful, wide and clean, with no glass from broken beer bottles or used condoms.
She had become especially fond of a spot just beyond the harbour, in a semi-circle formed naturally by the dunes. She wasn’t bothered by the cry of circling gulls; she watched their uneven flight and subconsciously memorised the composition formed in the sky. Ever since she had closed, and then sold her studio, she didn’t want to paint, but images captured her imagination anyway, crept in at various points in the day, enticing her. Roots protruding from under a layer of sand in the nearby woods where she went for walks after dinner, the crowns of trees and the misty shore beyond the Lagoon, which she gazed at from her balcony as she inhaled her first morning cigarette, though at the priests’ boarding house smoking was forbidden.
Yesterday she had met one of them. He lives in the room opposite. There’s a long, clean corridor with a grey terracotta floor. There are framed maps on the walls of African, Asian and South American countries, and also portraits of missionaries, some of them were blessed holy men, saints too. The man with a tired face and several days’ stubble who’s occupying one of the rooms on her corridor surely thinks about saintliness too. Normally Father Dariusz, as he once introduced himself in the dining room, goes about in civvies, an open-necked polo shirt and sunglasses, but one morning when she met him gliding silently down their corridor, he was wearing a cassock with a wide black belt. He was heading for the chapel to celebrate mass. In the corners of his mouth as usual there was the shadow of a smile, which was a sharp contrast with the tiredness in his grey eyes.
The rolling mounds of the sandbar were incredible. Covered in mixed forest, they formed real gullies – you could ride a bike down them, go for a walk and get warm in the clearings, and then go down to the sea and cool off on the beach. This was where she spent the afternoons; she did run into other people, whole families, but she was always alone. Years ago she had gone off with little Mikołaj on a trip to a place eleven kilometres away, the last before the border that cut across the narrow strip of land between the sea and the Lagoon. They had eaten fish and gone bathing – there was a wide, clean beach there. They’d hitchhiked home. What year was it? Nothing remained in her memory. At home she kept a few black-and-white photographs of that trip. She wasn’t doing badly in those days, she was selling a lot of pictures, mainly vases of roses, and regularly receiving alimony.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones