Sugar Level Normal by Sławomir Shuty (born 1973) is a collection of short stories told in a similar style to his novel The Heap (2003), which became the manifesto for a generation and won the author a prestigious award from the weekly paper Polityka. In it Shuty gave a metaphorical image of the present-day condition of young Poles caught in the machinery of capitalist enterprise. So we have the tale of a generation cast onto the rubbish heap of the supermarket and the job centre, we have the rat race, the merry-go-round of promotions and professional training, we have cynicism and hypocrisy in wholesale and retail quantities, we have internet sex, the emptiness of consumerist hustle and bustle, and a satire on a home-grown Babylon. In the short stories collected in Sugar Level Normal (part of which was written earlier than The Heap), he gives even stronger vent to his passion for satire. He is the chronicler of a growing “under-class”: people fabricated by the victorious, domineering consumer culture. He portrays the frightful residents of frightful suburban tower blocks. Their churches are supermarkets, their heads are furnished by TV “reality shows” and the tabloid press, and their tongues are swollen with television gibberish. They are the new “hollow men” of the twenty-first century. Shuty describes their language, their imaginations, their typical day and their morals. He might seem misanthropic, but his is the kind of misanthropy that readers once used to find in the prose of Jonathan Swift or Yevgeny Zamyatin, and nowadays Michel Houllebecq.
That special situation
Irena ran and ran, until at last she was standing in the middle of the field, and began to wonder what exactly she was doing, in other words why she was running and running like that. Was it to lose a few extra kilos, as they sometimes recommend in the women’s colour magazines, saying running is good for that, or was she running away from someone? Because if it was the former, she could probably go home by now – she knew from her tiredness that she had already run a long way and must have burned off a lot of extra calories, but if it was the latter, then perhaps she should keep running. Faster even. And be smart about it. So she stood there, and her head was roaring inside the way the television sometimes does when the programmes are over and the screen’s all white, it just buzzes but you can’t see anything.
So what should she do? Run or go home? She looked around in search of something to prompt her, some sort of sign or something like that. Just something, the way they sometimes show such things. But there was nothing. Even if you got really worked up, it wasn’t there. Just sky, grass and a few young birch trees in the distance. She couldn’t feel anything inside herself either to tell her, the way they sometimes say instinct’s telling you something. Nothing. In other words she didn’t know what next. She stood and stared. She stood there and stood there until finally she hesitantly put a foot forwards. And backwards. The sky had gone dusky now, and dew was settling on the meadow. But the blackbirds were chattering away like mad. What were they chattering about? Certainly not what Irena wanted to know. And even if they were, Irena wouldn’t know, because however worked up she got she couldn’t understand bird talk.
What should she do? Such a lot of nothingness was going round her head. Was it that she should eat something, or something else? But you can’t eat if you want to lose weight. If you’re running away, however, perhaps you should eat something to give you more strength to escape. So should she lose some weight, slim down at last, or run away? Eat or not eat? She wracked her brains. But the longer she did, the more flummoxed she felt. First she felt her stomach to check if there was some flab to lose, then she tried hard to remember if she’d done some harm to someone, so she had to run away. But there’s always some weight to lose, even when there isn’t, there is too, or at least that’s what they show in those programmes about happy foreign people. And people always have various reasons to chase others too, and they do it without a reason too, because the stupidest things come into their heads, that’s what they’re like.
Well, neither this way nor that. She went on and on standing there. Her shoes were getting damp with the dew that had risen on the meadow. The sky too had gone completely dark and here and there stars were timidly starting to appear. So what was she to do? Go home? Or run? She just went on standing there.
Until finally he caught up with her, so quietly she didn’t even notice, as she was standing there – her husband, Włodek, a big strong guy. “So, you were meant to lose it and you’re not moving?!” he shouted. “I’m gonna make you run right now, you’ll see! You slut! You slag!” And he cracked his belt across her back so hard it whistled.
It stung her too, that belt, really badly. And at once her memory came back. At once she remembered the whole thing. About her sister-in-law’s wedding, on Saturday. And that the belt of her dress pinched a bit; she didn’t have another one, because she hadn’t the money for another, but somehow she had to look good. And about the vegetable salad that’d be served, and the delicious ham, the fizzy drinks and all those goodies, such a lot of them. Aha, she thought – now I know. So let’s get going, across the meadows.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones