Jerzy Pilch’s book constitutes one of the most interesting collections of short stories to have been published in recent years.
The individual tales are not linked by any common storyline. The main characters sometimes give the impression of being the same people at different ages - at various stages of their existence, and in differing family configurations. But there is little certainty in this assertion. If there is something that links these stories, it is rather the figure of the narrator, and the mood and style.
The mood is one of grotesque melancholy, a mood of comical but undeniable sublimity that arises from the paradoxical juxtaposition of life and loss. It is not a matter of the passing of things themselves, but of the fact that for Pilch life becomes sublime only when it can be seen and experienced from the perspective of loss. One must sense the absolute impossibility of attaining that which is most important and most valuable if one is to live in a state of sublimity. Yet at the same time this fundamental lack renders life impossible - it is experienced as something insignificant and alien that is observed from a distance. Only from such a position is it possible to “commit suicide for the first time” - an act that is at once final and yet also repeatable. Suicide can be committed many times only when life itself ceases to have permanence.
Problems are presented by everyday things: we recognize landscapes, household appliances, means of mass transit. At the same time, however, we find ourselves far away from history - so far that it is sometimes hard even to recognize whether this is prewar or postwar Poland. And we are even further from politics - the heroes of the stories seem to exist in an extrapolitical space and time in which only existential dilemmas prove to be real. Books like this are a rarity - firmly rooted in reality, yet refusing to be explained through the lens of politics. This quality emerges from the fact that the fundamental experience described by Pilch is unfulfillment. Not as a consequence of socialist or capitalist processes, not as a result of the operation of history, but as a chance yet at the same time irremovable feature of human life.
It is for this reason that in Pilch’s prose a romance with the most beautiful woman in the world lasts for only two weeks; childhood is stamped with thoughts of suicide; the most meaningful recollections of his father are associated with the most expensive thing he ever bought; and the memory of his grandmother is maintained stubbornly through the image of her husband’s death, and that of a life that became the experience of loneliness.
The unfulfillment that Pilch writes about causes three things of utmost importance to become incomplete, insufficiently defined, and unstable: personal identity, the world, and a reason for writing. To put it differently, unfulfillment, like a virus, contaminates everything and causes life to become a condition devoid of a clear goal, the world a dispensable entity, and writing a suspect activity.
- Przemysław Czapliński
Six months ago I was dumped by yet another woman with whom I’d intended to live in a permanently snowed-in house, watching films on HBO in the evening, drinking tea with raspberry syrup and so on. Asked if it was the aspiring singer in the lizard-green dress, I shall respond with a word of caution: Never get involved with aspiring artists. Once they start to blossom, art may indeed gain, but life (especially yours) will lose. And if they do not start to blossom—let’s not go into that.
In any case, beset by an increasingly painful sense of emptiness and distress, once again I plunged into a whirl of chance consolations. With each one my actions were more desperate and their results more woeful. I hit on shop assistants and waitresses in bars, and scoped out girls sitting on their own at the movies. With a thought of solitary swimmers I starting going to the pool. Hoping for pliant manicurists, I became a regular at beauty salons. Since a vegetarian living on her own is easier to find than a solitary carnivore, I forced myself to consume beans and hung out in vegan cafés. I responded to even the most hazardous invitations and traipsed about at often thoroughly hopeless art exhibitions, promotions, and openings. I drove out to malls. It’s no revelation that in the ardor of shopping, certain young ladies weaken, perilously exposing their souls. Almost every day I went to Central Station, and amid the shoals of lady travelers swimming through the underground passageways I picked out those who were clearly in no hurry. By some miracle I refrained from stopping women in the street, though I thought quite seriously about placing a personal ad in the paper.
I had high hopes for Empik and other megastores with music and books. For a mentally clouded guy in his fifties these were fine places. After all, I could hardly have been expected to start frequenting discotheques and hip coffee houses, or to throw myself into the clubbing lifestyle. And it wasn’t a question of my gray noggin, which in such company could have been a source of consternation and awkwardness. That would have been no special problem for me. I’ve experienced worse embarrassments in life. But for me any kind of late evening life, not to mention nightlife, is out of the question for purely neurological reasons. In the evening—this may come as a shock—I get sleepy. After I’ve watched “Fakty” and the main evening news my day is essentially over. I’ll glance at the papers as I sit in my armchair, or pick up a book I’ve been reading for weeks, but my head droops and my eyelids are closing. In light of this fact, Empiks and other establishments open till ten o’clock are for me nocturnal haunts, and at such a late hour I am never to be found there.
I would go by in the early afternoon and conduct a formal review of the candidates. I took into consideration only those who were sitting and reading literature or, with futuristic headphones on, were listening to classical music. Readers of magazines and devotees of rock music I eliminated from the get-go—by the very nature of things they constitute an unpredictable constituency. I had my eye out for fans of Beethoven and Tolstoy—an acquaintance with the classics generally guarantees a preference for depravity. Besides, it was obvious that as long as they were sitting engrossed in their book or listening intently, they had time. More: since they were reading and listening in the store, in all likelihood they were not exactly flush. They probably lacked the wherewithal to buy the book or the CD and take it home; and poor girls are always easier than wealthy girls to entice into harlotry. Lastly, finding out what they were reading or listening to made it ever so much easier to begin the conversation.
The thing is, though, that I never did so. In virtually every one of the aforementioned locations I never managed to properly start a conversation. From time to time I emitted a kind of futile whinny, but that is best passed over in silence. My torments were astronomical. I dashed about like a madman and leapt into action like a lunatic, but I lacked self-confidence, and my lack of self-confidence undermined the beauty of my madness and the directness of my lunacy. Sensing that with stunning super-babes I didn’t stand an earthly, I focused on middling ones. But before I could approach the average-looking babe I’d identified, I would be overcome by misgivings that I was setting my sights too low, and would give up. Swinging from one extreme to the other, I would raise the bar to its highest point and desperately swear to myself that from now on I would concern myself only with masterpieces. Yet when some miracle of nature happened along, I lacked the necessary instinct and courage. As a result the super-babes and the average babes, and every other kind of babe, passed me by. I would return home, my head splitting from my mistakes, miscalculations and capitulations. All at once, with blinding clarity I would realize what treasures had escaped me that afternoon. In my imagination I replayed every episode, correcting my errors. I was quick and decisive. Now everything worked out, everything came right; the specter of the beauty I had seen an hour before took me by the hand, straightening her hair and her shoulder strap, and the agony was beyond endurance.
All the time I strove to keep myself under control. I did not waste entire days in search of the next woman of my life. In the mornings I worked as before, though a little more on edge. In the late afternoon, as always, I would swing by the Yellow Dream for a grapefruit juice. Every two or three weeks I would travel to a Cracovia game. Somehow or other I had a kind of life. Somehow or other—with the utmost difficulty—I continued to breathe.
Translated by Bill Johnston