Terrazzo Tombstone

Krzysztof Varga
Terrazzo Tombstone
  • Czarne
    Wołowiec 2007
    125 × 195
    356 pages
    paperback
    ISBN: 978-83-89755-92-6
    Translation rights: Czarne

This novel begins around the year 2070. On the brink of suicide, the world-weary narrator looks through the mementoes left him by his dead grandparents. This provokes a torrent of memories and reflections about the meaning of life. "Terrazzo Tombstone" is written in the form of an extended monologue, in which the narrator attempts to sum up the experiences of three generations (that of his grandparents, his mother, and himself). His grandparents married in 2005, and the protagonist’s mother was born the following year. All were deeply unhappy people, with each generation more miserable than the last. Varga’s work is not a typically futuristic one. This is, firstly, because the vision of the future presented in the novel is unexpected. With the exception of a few insignificant details, the reality depicted there reflects the world we live in; all the ostensible civilisational and social changes are no more than that. Secondly, the figure the narrator focuses most on is the grandfather, Piotr Paweł, born in the same year as the author. And this is the essence of the novel’s literary device: "Terrazzo Tombstone" is an attempt to see oneself from the perspective of one’s own grandson. However, this doesn’t mean that Varga’s novel is autobiographical. The author is quite obviously at pains to generalise. He’s interested in the condition of contemporary man, his spirituality and his intellect. Everything is described in a distanced, usually ironic, manner. This is a profoundly melancholy, possibly even depressive, work, an impressively artistic novel from which it’s impossible to extract anything even slightly uplifting.

- Dariusz Nowacki

I didn’t go into the army in 2058, nor to university, neither did I start a job, although I’d reached an age in which one of these three options – assuming one wasn’t in prison – was absolutely required. Nobody reminded me of my duties, a fact of which I thankfully took advantage. The army demonstrated spiritual, rather than physical, strength, and had I been a seminarian, I’d have had to reckon with the clergical corps; but I wasn’t a seminarian and in fact didn’t even go to church, something I could do with impunity as it was easy to overlook someone among the crowds crammed into every church or at the huge outdoor masses. Anyone who knew me and went to church had the opportunity of overlooking me and did so, Sunday after Sunday. The nation’s religious rebirth filled me with amazement, as I could well remember the closed churches that were now opening like clams in boiling water, offering uninhibited prayer, food, drink, and entertainment on tap. This mass praying augured another defeat, like the distant drumming of a hostile army approaching the country while everyone is exclusively occupied in dancing with garlands on their heads. Ten years later I became a man in transit, cleaning up after people who didn’t belong to those engrossed in prayer, who saw more than just the tabernacle.
So neither the army nor the university nor a job reminded me of my duties, and I for my part kept mum. Nobody needed me and that suited me perfectly. It felt as comfortable as the light blue shirts that I put on every day, throwing yesterday’s, crumpled and stinking with sweat, into the rubbish bin. In 2058 I didn’t run around libraries, or brothels, or even visit the circus, to which I’d never been; although I did go to the Sunday matinee – sure to be empty – at the cinema each week, just as my grandfather had done 70 years earlier.
Just under ten years later I didn’t go to the first democratic elections either, in which my mother’s party was to enter a power-sharing deal with the opposition. The opposition had been created as the result of an internal vote and my mother had been assigned a place somewhere near the end of the New Party’s electoral list in Warsaw, for the Mokotów constituency of course. She was supposed to become the parliamentary representative for the district in which my grandparents, she and I lived. If we were anyone at all, we were Mokotovites, featureless, inhabitants of Warsaw’s greatest chaos.
Nobody knew my mother and so there was no danger that anyone would vote for her. Although the people at the top of the lists were even less well known, because at least my mother was recognised by myself and her neighbours, whereas absolutely no one knew the New Party’s candidate for prime minister, not even the candidate himself. He was created by a computer programme for cosmetics, and by 2067, despite the efforts of both American and Japanese scientists, it still hadn’t been possible to provide hominids from the hairdressing programme with artificial intelligence.
The free elections took place in free fall and people were free to speculate on their outcome, just as everyone is free to speculate on the possibility of life after death. My mother’s party had won the election anyway, except that by then it wasn’t my mother’s party, seeing as she’d been delegated to the opposition. She’d got what she wanted – she’d sacrificed herself and had gained nothing from it.
On that day, I didn’t even go out for a walk. I stayed at home, unwashed, unclothed, even though it was a beautiful Sunday, one of those Sundays when some sit down to write poetry, others kill themselves, and the rest prop themselves up in front of their TVs, but nobody does anything that might make sense. My decision not to go out for a walk – to make sure I wasn’t tempted into a voting station – was the most sensible I could have made. And anyway, my surname may not have been on the register, since a 2066 law had stipulated all names not ending in –ski or –cki had to be changed. The great organisational and financial effort this had required had paid off handsomely; in return for a gigantic budget deficit it had finally been possible to put an end to any lack of clarity regarding any citizen’s origins. After the surnames, documents and papers had been exchanged in state registers and banks, Poland was finally composed one hundred percent of Poles. And so from being an ordinary Frattner, son of Zuzanna Frattner, née Frattner, grandson of Piotr Paweł Frattner, I became Dominik Fratnerski, 28 years old, a citizen of the VI Republic, employed in the funeral-entertainment industry.
For in the memorable year of 2061, I found well-paid work at ‘Divorces and Funerals’, a firm that dealt in recycling human emotions and existences. The job freed me from money troubles, as DaF paid incredibly well, and also from the problem of what to do with my free time, as in return they took possession of every minute of my life. We had relationships falling apart by the bucketful and marriages that had been declared illegal, we shredded masses of ended lives – and within a few months of arduous labour I had earned a promotion, a nervous disorder, insomnia, and money with which I finally, years later, bought an abandoned apartment in Saska Kępa. All these things happened with such ease that I didn’t even notice when they occurred. I lived at work, ate there, washed, and occasionally slept, when I didn’t have the strength or the desire to return from Tarchomin to Mokotów, because until I made the final move to Kępa, Mokotów remained my home. At that time I still lived with my mother, right up until 2068, when I started my journey through the abandoned apartments and finally bought one myself from the last émigré, on Victory Street, which all the defeated inhabitants had left in order to seek rescue somewhere or other abroad.

Translated by Katya Andrusz