Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s new book consist of two thematically linked, yet entirely independent stories, Róża’s House and Krýsuvík. The plot of the first story revolves around the autobiographical hero’s experiences of working at an old people’s home in Iceland. As a result, it combines two elements, a documentary one and a contemplative one. The reality of Iceland can mislead the reader and dull his senses. Meanwhile the old people’s home in Reykjavik – or this remote island situated on the very edge of Europe – are metaphors. The author is interested in various aspects of our condition, such as loneliness, a sense of being lost, uncertainty about the future, and above all how modern Western civilisation copes with death and dying. One of the most important issues in the book is consent to quiet euthanasia. Krýsuvík by contrast is a fine ballad written in the style of an old Scandinavian tale about love and the tortuous fate of two simple people who are devoted to each other. The author’s favourite device is counterpoint – in Róża’s House in particular we find a lot of sharp, sudden transitions, from shocking episodes in the lives of the decrepit old people and their soulless carers to lyrical, life-affirming images full of geniality. The nostalgic dimension is also important; subtly, as if in the margins of his main account, Klimko-Dobrzaniecki evokes scenes from his early youth in Lower Silesia, reveals the ebb and flow of his own life story, and talks about searching for his place on earth. In spite of appearances, this is a very personal, very Polish book.
Róża. Dearest Róża. We met in rather strange circumstances, hmm, yes, it was strange, because in my first few days working on the Roof no one told me there was a blind woman living here, I was unaware of her presence, because at the beginning I took no interest in the other side of the corridor, I never went down to the last apartment and I never took a look at her nameplate. Róża never came out for meals – the kitchen lady always took a tray of food to the end of the corridor and came back a while later with it empty. I never asked where she was going, or to whom, I never went into the details, but a couple of days later it turned out I’d been chosen, because Róża was cared for by the woman in whose place I had got the job. One morning the manageress told me Róża had been assigned to me and said I was to be good and kind, because she was a very sensitive person and fully conscious, that I must be careful what I say and how I say it, that she was blind, but seemed to see everything – she said I’d find out for myself.
I knocked. A warm, serene voice came from inside, and I opened the door. I thought I was dreaming – for months on end working on other floors and wards the smell of urine had almost never let up; on the Roof it didn’t smell quite so bad, but it still wasn’t a scent of roses, while here there was an entrancing fragrance – it really was a scent of roses, how amazing, how amazing, I thought as I sniffed the air. “Nice, isn’t it?” came the encouraging response of an old lady sitting in a deep armchair covered in green velvet. Her eyes were shut. She looked lovely in that chair, stately as a queen, and her face had a sort of majesty about it, a wisdom, and at the same time the fresh breeze of my first love; I couldn’t get away from the idea that it was Ula sitting in that chair – of course there was a huge age difference, and yet, and yet my heart missed a beat, just as it had a very long time ago at a party in Dzierżoniów. “It’s rose oil,” she said quietly. “It smells wonderful and has a relaxing effect. Please sit down. Tell me about yourself.” I sat down facing her, but somehow I couldn’t get started – it wasn’t fear or timidity, but rather surprise because I was sitting opposite Ula, but she couldn’t see me, and now I was wrestling to decide whether Ula was a reincarnation of Róża, or the other way around. In some beliefs reincarnation works in both directions, or maybe I just misread the religion textbook I was given as a prize in the fourth form at grammar school. It was meant to be an experimental subject, and that’s how it remained, because the experiment is still going on, it has never ended. It was also surprising that a blind person should have such a tastefully decorated room, that the colours didn’t clash and it was all in harmony. Maybe she could see and was just pretending. After all, I had met plenty of fakes along the way, in Poland and even here, in the old people’s home. Some people sneer at fakes. I remember a little Romanian girl, about five years old or so, who used to sit outside the church on Świdnicka Street in Wrocław begging, and someone played a joke on her, writing a sign in Polish saying “I’m pregnant, please help”. She didn’t earn anything that day, or maybe at most got a hiding from her father that evening, who hadn’t amassed enough zlotys to convert at the 24-hour exchange. Or a guy called Elli, at the old people’s home – if anyone asked him for something, he couldn’t hear, but if he was asked about a loan of a thousand crowns, he would immediately reply that he hadn’t got it. Above the armchair hung a portrait in oils. It showed a little girl sitting on a chair in a navy blue dress topped with a white collar. The girl had green eyes, her hair was tied back, she was a bit pale and sad, and was holding a doll dressed in national costume on her lap. “That’s my sister, my younger sister,” said Róża. She gave me a shock. Maybe she really could see. “Her name was Karitas – she died at the age of five, and that portrait is all that’s left of her. And the memory, of course, the memory, my dearest sister Karitas… You feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone like me. You’re not saying anything and you probably think I’m faking, and that maybe at best I’ve got poor eyesight. The girl who worked here before you was also suspicious of me at first. I’ve been blind since birth, but I’m old now and I can imagine things as well as if I could see them. I know you’re from overseas, so say something, let me hear your voice.” “My name is Hubert.” “What?” “Hubert.” “Hypert? What a strange name.” I’ve got used to this distortion, this muffled way of pronouncing my name. That’s how everyone here pronounces it. “And what does the word Rosa, my name, the flower, sound like in your language?” “Róża.” “Ooh, please say it again.” She struggled to try and pronounce it but couldn’t, though she clearly liked the Slavonic whistling sound, the tremble of the tongue, the air that may have set it vibrating. “I can’t pronounce it, it’s too hard, but I like it – you can call me that, Hypert. Say it again.” “Róża.” “Yes, yes, you can call me that.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones