"The Harlequin Mask" follows "That Summer in Zawrocie" and "Sleeping Serpents’" Mountain as the third in a series of novels by Hanna Kowalewska. All three are linked by the main heroine, Matylda, the cottage in Zawrocie where the action is set, the diary as a narrative form and Matylda’s deceased grandmother as the person to whom she addresses her confidences. Each separate part portrays the heroine’s ups and downs (mainly romantic ones), but what distinguishes the episodes is that each one features a different issue from the past at the centre of the action. The house in Zawrocie is a sort of catalyst for Matylda’s detective tendencies, because clues are hidden there that lead to her family’s secrets, and this is also where ghosts from the past “materialise”.
One such phantom is Olga, a fellow student and former rival of Matylda’s. Olga was involved with Filip “The Nutter”, later Matylda’s husband. In fact she lost the rivalry, but she was the one and only witness to Filip’s tragic death. Ten years after that event, she returns to Poland and provokes the heroine into taking up her next investigation. To find out the truth, Matylda will have to face up to the most traumatic experience in her life. And along the way she must engage in a sado-masochistic game with this woman who hates her. However, time will reveal which of the protagonists is in the worse pain.
Hanna Kowalewska confirms how good she is at building tension and intrigue. She is also an expert on human nature. Thus "The Harlequin Mask" is somewhere between a thriller and a psychological novel.
And then a pretty good weekend began. Olga let herself be persuaded to go on a tour of Warsaw, which she hadn’t seen for nearly ten years.
It turned out to be a different city than I had thought. At any rate Olga saw it completely differently from me. Above all it was a city of clubs, pubs, bars, cafés and beer gardens. Every single place we looked at was an interesting joint Olga had to drop into.
Apart from that, this city suddenly turned out to be full of holes, and the holes were after Olga. Every few minutes her heel fell into some crumbling concrete or a crack in the tarmac.
“Europe!’ she grumbled, examining the latest scratch on her Italian leather shoes. “What a bloody shambles! It’s even worse than under the commies. At least in those days you knew what might happen to you. You were spiritually prepared for it. But now you don’t know what to rely on!”
Ten years ago Olga didn’t wear high-heeled shoes, flesh-coloured tights and gauzy little dresses. She didn’t have dyed hair, long nails coated in bright polish and tons of mascara on her eyelashes. And she didn’t move about like Lady Muck, just stomped around the world in solid shoes with thick, flat soles. Why was she now insisting on getting to know the old-new world in heels that were suitable for an office where you sit at a desk for hours on end not far from the boss’s room, and on foot as well? What did she want the discomfort and pain for? Why was she set upon tormenting herself so badly? Was she trying to prove to herself and me that this city is no good? Did she really need to bring it down so badly? But why? To elevate her own present life? In Berlin? Elegant? High-heeled?
It didn’t all make sense, or at any rate I couldn’t see the point. She minced along as I walked beside her at my usual pace, in comfortable shoes, quite a decent shape too. So just like years ago we didn’t fit together, though for completely different reasons.
Not just the city, but the whole world was different somehow in Olga’s presence. It was raining, though it wasn’t supposed to be. Or at least Olga was convinced that day it shouldn’t rain. It was meant to be hot again, but it wasn’t. Olga went blundering down the cold streets in light things, with goose bumps, freezing, surprised by the sudden cold that chilled her to the marrow. It looked as if she couldn’t understand this city any more, or this country or the climate, none of the things that had once been as close to her as they were to me. On top of that she stuck to her guns, as if the city and everything else had to adapt to her imaginings or memories, not she to her surroundings.
Near the Centrum shopping mall, in a small side street – where Olga was looking for a little tea shop that apparently used to be there, but was now refusing to be found – we bumped into Jakub. He was carrying a colourful box under his arm, with a label that told the entire world he is not just a caring, but also a generous dad. A telescope! A present for his son! Well right, what else would have dragged him from his car in the city centre, a place he disliked?
“Jakub? Meaning who?” asked Olga provocatively once we had sat down together under the umbrellas of a little café. “Friend? Colleague? Boyfriend? Lover? Fiancé?”
Jakub was confused for a moment. He himself didn’t know what he was to me.
“Friend,” I said for him, and he didn’t object.
“I don’t think he liked that label very much,” noted Olga ironically, and at once took out a cigarette, waited for Jakub to give her a light, then began her monologue. “Either he’d like it to be more, or you weren’t telling the truth.” She had an unbearable manner of speaking in a way that meant someone was always left outside the actual course of the conversation. This time it was Jakub. “Let me guess, lover. But I don’t know if past, present or maybe potential.”
“Don’t worry,” I muttered to Jakub. “She’s just like that. She thinks provoking people is the simplest way to work them out. That’s why she shoots blind.”
“Sometimes she gets a hit,” replied Jakub, though he knew I didn’t like that.
“And thank you very much!” said Olga, laughing triumphantly. “Shall we go on shooting?”
“Stop it!” I objected.
“Just as you wish.” For a while she busied herself with her cigarette smoke. But she didn’t stop staring at us.
To put an end to it, I reached for the menu.
“They’ve got quite a good choice here, especially the teas. Jasmine, tropical, cranberry, ginger, wild strawberry.”
“So that’s the sort of taste you have these days…” said Olga, taking no notice of my recital. She wasn’t concerned that her words, and especially her tone, might offend Jakub. “Because you see…” she turned to him, “Matylda and I haven’t seen each other for nearly ten years. Long time, isn’t it?” She flicked her ash. Jakub nodded. “I’m re-discovering her again. Everything about her is different. You too are nothing like the guy she was in love with then. Her husband… That sounds strange when you’re talking about someone like Matylda.”
She looked at him with an ironical smile, wanting to see what impression it would make on him. But Jakub had already assumed a mask of indifference. He blew out smoke and calmly watched the small grey cloud, as if her entire speech did not concern him.
“Ten years?” he asked after a pause, also allowing himself a hint of irony. “Abroad, prison, or mental hospital?”
“You’ve guessed it. You only have to chuck out the ‘or’,” she said. “But it was worth getting out of there for a while to take a look at you and all this. Not a bad loony bin either. Or a circus on wheels perhaps. Yes, I think that’s a better definition. And this one,” she pointed at me, “always on a tightrope, with a little umbrella. She used to saunter along it, because she thought the earth’s gravity didn’t apply to her; now she knows that’s not true, but she wants to remember what it felt like to delude herself. Or maybe there’s another reason? Maybe she’s looking for tightrope walkers in the air? Hell knows. What about you, what do you think?”
“I think you’d have a hard time walking a tightrope in those heels.”
He made her laugh again, though he also annoyed her because she hadn’t managed to provoke him.
“I’m sorry,” I said, when Olga went to the toilet and we were left on our own for a while.
“No need to apologise. It’d be going too far to say I’ve enjoyed this meeting, but I’ve learned a lot.”
“A lot?” I said in surprise.
“About women,” he said, brushing his hand against my cheek. “Especially one in particular.”
He drank up his coffee, took out some money and began to get going. I didn’t try to stop him.
“Say goodbye to her for me.”
He gave me a hug and headed for the exit.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones