Aleksander Jurewicz’s new novel is a requiem for the writer’s dead father. The author returns to events that took place over twenty years ago; his description runs through the three days from when news of his father’s death was announced in his native village, until the funeral – three days of suffering and fear. Three days during which the world of the writer, then thirty-two years old, came crashing down. The trauma caused by this loss is still intense, even after so many years, which is why the writer is making this attempt to come to terms with it, writing with painful sincerity, sometimes even bordering on emotional exhibitionism.
The narrative is fragmentary and piecemeal. The author weaves two main plot-lines and mixes time-scales, writing not just about the days immediately before the coffin was lowered into the grave, but also recalling events from his childhood. Why? Why are these scenes of despair following the death of his father juxtaposed with humorous or absurd recollections of days gone by, such as the anxiety that struck the village when a prophecy declared the imminent end of the world?
The death of a loved one disrupts the set order of life and plunges it into chaos. Funeral rites, described in detail in this book, are helpful here – they work like painkillers, though their effects are limited. The narrator is ashamed that he is unable to conquer his fears. He has to appear in an entirely new role, one he is completely unprepared for. After his father’s death, he has to support his mother and take care of his frightened younger brother. This is the source of the mood swings he has difficulty controlling.
He returns to the past, recalling who his father was for him, and some pivotal, often happy events. He tries to imagine how his life will be. In his head he has ongoing conversations with the deceased, more frequently even than when his father was alive, and more intensely, as if he wanted to atone for the lost time, when a burst of anger or his ambitions prevented him from hearing his father out. This atonement is painful and difficult.
Jurewicz has written a very beautiful, moving, nuanced and poetic testimony of a son’s love for his father. This is a true rarity these days, and thus worth reading.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Aleksander Jurewicz (born 1952) is a poet and novelist, and has written six works of fiction.
Papa had changed since yesterday evening, when I saw him locking up the chapel as if he had spent the night of our absence feasting with our friends and neighbours buried in the cemetery. I’d never seen my father like that before, and if I’d passed him on the street I might not have recognised him straight away. Although it was almost noon, lights were burning in the chapel. When I went in, holding my daughter’s hand, I caught the singular smell of powerless mourning and melancholy – the smell of flickering candles, wilting flowers and a body wasting away. And undoubtedly Mama’s lament had its own smell, as did the tear’s of Father’s sisters and brother, and our orphaned dismay had its own smell too. And the smell of the September stubble fields and forest seeped in through the cracks in the windows and the open door. It was as if Father had gone even more grey. “It’s happening too quickly, incomprehensibly fast, the pace is too abrupt, too crazed a gallop to this small pit in the graveyard.” And again I recalled Father’s panicked escape from the madhouse long, long ago. I looked at my sister, who was standing there with her head hung low, her hands folded on her swollen belly, as if wanting to shield her future child from the world of the dead, which we were now touching. If I could only drag her away from there right now and take her by the hand, like in our childhood, which we were on the verge of burying along with our father. If we could only go back there again, to how it was at the beginning, go back where the currants grew. If only we could hide there, I would wipe the tears from her cheeks, though they weren’t as soft and warm these days as they were when we were children and we had a father, and I would say, pronouncing the words with difficulty through the stony tears gathering in my eyes:
— You know, Grażynka, our father is maybe just pretending to be dead. You must remember how he lay down on the bed that day when he escaped from the madmen and the spokes in his bike got all bent, and he lay there motionless till the next day. Remember?”
“I don’t remember.”
“No, I don’t remember.”
Those are the last moments in our lives when we see our father. His hands seem cast in wax, a thin stream of posthumous blood keeps trickling from the corner of his mouth, and his face is puffy. He’s barely my father any more. Maybe the real one is at home now, patiently waiting for us and wondering where we are?
The messengers of Hades stood patiently by the wall in their black suits.
They were waiting for me to give the signal, but I still wasn’t able to, although the mourning choir had finished their songs, and according to Father’s watch it was already twenty past twelve.
Father wasn’t bearing it well either, growing more purple and swollen, as if exhausted by the whole thing and wanting to rest right away.
An unbearable silence set in once the last song had ended, and in that silence I heard the choir flicking through their hymnbooks, the scraping of chairs, and a hubbub gathering in the courtyard in front of the chapel.
On the green clock face the large minute-hand was approaching twelve twenty-six.
I clenched my jaw and was unable to make any sort of gesture, though I knew it had to be done, that they were waiting for it, they were ready, that they had to remove the body that had once been the incarnation of Father, to begin their cleaning up after death. “God,” I thought in despair, “I can’t do it, I haven’t the heart....”
In a panic, I started counting to seven in my head, and then counting once more. Only after the third count, which even today torments me before I fall asleep, when I have insomnia before dawn, in foreign cities and on the country paths of my childhood, when I wanted to count a fourth time for father, I shot a glance at my sister, and then looked father in his closed eyes one last time, kissed his hands wound with a rosary, and then said in a loud, quavering whisper:
“That’s all now, mama....”
After that I only managed to register the lid of the coffin and, pushing my way through the crowd of mourners, leaving my mother crying behind me, I fled in a panic.
I got caught on something prickly, maybe a hawthorn bush, out of which flew some startled sparrows.
I heard the first powerful, hollow blows of the hammer beating down the coffin lid, then more blows, and a brief silence before the next nails came – the even, focused echoes of the hammer pounding the heads of the nails into the coffin. Then another brief empty moment, and the next nail draws a groan from the coffin planks, then another nail and another, as if there was to be no end. And when the silence lasts longer, I grasp that the final nail has been hammered in, and I will never see Father again; at best I’ll recognise him from time to time in my dreams. Only now do I feel pain, as I untangle my fingers from the thorny branches.
I hear someone wrestling with the rusted hinges of the door, the bang of wood or iron, and the smell of death pouring from the wide-open chapel doors settles on the hawthorns.
A priest in a funeral cape came down the cemetery road in the company of two altar-boys.
The hollow ring of a bell resounded from the village.
Translated by Soren Gauger