The Latest Stories is three short stories about a grandmother, mother and granddaughter. The narratives add up to a novel, but the three tales do not create a full picture. This is no typical family story, no warm tale about close relationships. It is rather an anti-saga, a tale about torn family ties, lost relations, and the impossibility of finding oneself in the links of the family chain. The three female protagonists, Praskowia, Ida and Maja, lack not only deep ties, but also common sympathy. If something is binding them together it is a feeling of duty, alienation and guilt. The Latest Stories tries to answer the question of how intolerable repetitive patterns get formed.
First, a woman seeks emotional fulfillment in a relationship with someone else. Then comes the feeling of entrapment. The protagonists, starving for a feeling of acceptance and some recognition of their individuality, set out on the road, casting off their husbands, parents and loved ones, and exchanging their settled lives for nomadic wanderings. Each of the three protagonists lives farther away from her unattainable “good place,” in other words, home: the eldest, Praskowia, was removed from her small homeland during World War Two; her daughter, Ida, is a tour guide who goes around five countries in Europe; Ida’s daughter, Maja, travels about the whole world assembling travel guidebooks. Praskowia was a prisoner of marriage, Ida and Maja are free.
And yet they can find no joy in their lives. Is the “male world” to blame? To some degree, yes… It is not by accident that men are absent from these tales: They have left badly-structured realities and broken relationships, and departed. They have left suffering behind them. But it doesn’t seem as though Olga Tokarczuk has written a “gender” novel. It is rather about the unconquerable alienation of existence, of general non-adaptability to life, of the cost of delusions, and about how one can achieve fulfillment in life. This is more than disillusionment with the male world, it is also disillusionment with family relationships. A child, though it be “of woman born,” need not maintain faith in that woman. A person, though she may be able to imagine an ideal life, may also be entirely unsuited for it…
It would be hard to find a book as sad and hypnotic in the Polish literature of the past decade.
The image appears reluctantly, languidly, first a rectangle of window shows grey against the uniform darkness of the room, then it starts to shine cold and silver, like a screen woken from inertia where something’s just about to be projected. Ida cannot pinpoint the moment when she woke up. But she has a vague idea of what’s going to happen, she has the feeling this is a repeat of another morning, lots of other mornings even.
Consciousness differs from sleep in the intensity of our thoughts, they’re the world’s immortal, flexible atoms, strings that twang and vibrate without beginning or end, missiles that flash through the cosmos at the speed of light like the spawn of Aliens. They settle in our heads and link together in endless chains of single details, associations and analogies. No one really knows how they link up, what holds them together, or what order governs it all, and they don’t know either, they don’t need any order, they just form the lining under it, briefly creating logical configurations and fantastical snowflakes, cleverly lining themselves up in rows where there’s a reason, a cause and an effect, only to suddenly destroy and smash it all up, break it off and turn it all upside down, then move forward, but deviously: in circles, in spirals, in zig-zags, or else they do quite the opposite: they disappear, fade away, pass into a dormant state and then unexpectedly explode and come tumbling down like an avalanche. You can get hold of one at random, catch it like the string of a kite, and it’ll let you carry it along or hold it down for a while, take a closer look at it and then set it aside to make room for another one that’s even more tangled and insistent. When you’re awake they put on a show of order, they fool you, but sleep frees them of pretences. At night they lead the high life.
As the light falls through the window they become more and more aggressive and distinct, line up in their deceptive ranks and march off to conquer the day, stretching it out between them, cutting it into little strips and making it go soft. The thinking machine is in motion.
One of the thoughts is more forceful than the rest; it pushes its way through to the front and in a split second dominates all the others. It’s an image, of May, of springtime. Ida recognises the scent of earth that has just put forth the first buds and is now resting for a while. Sunlight is falling through small, scratched window panes, ennobling the house, changing it into another building, bigger and brighter. Almost horizontal rays of light are illuminating the contours of the plaster, some mysterious stains and damp patches on the walls, bringing old layers of paint into view. The sun is more like the world’s canny art dealer than its creator.
Ida is eight years old. She’s learning to do magic, and spends the afternoons playing at making potions that’ll give her magic powers. She’s in her room upstairs. She goes up to the window and sees that the sun has brought out a butterfly from somewhere. It’s lying on the window sill, dusty and dirty, clearly one of last year’s. Its wings are wide open, showing a beautiful, symmetrical pattern. It’s not just the usual swallow-tail, but some rare specimen. It has the shape of two eyes drawn on its grey-and-brown wings. The illusion is perfect, the almond-shaped eyes have grey-green irises and black pupils in the middle. The butterfly is lying still, like a beautiful, fascinating object, like a subtle, whimsical piece of jewellery. Little Ida thinks she can see the wingtips shuddering. She carefully slides her hand under it and sets it in the very middle, where the lines cross, where the vertical destiny line bisects the heart line and further on the life line. Ida and her mother sometimes play at palm reading, that’s how she knows. She closes her eyes and imagines a life-giving mist flowing from the middle of her hand. The fragile butterfly is entirely bathed in it, the mist washes the winter and the dust off it and brings it back to life. Her excitement grows, until finally she feels something stirring, a gentle, nervous tremble, and when she opens her eyes she sees that the wings really are moving, trying to flatten themselves even more and cover the entire space. The butterfly starts wandering awkwardly about her hand, pattering to and fro, circling on the landing field. Ida moves very carefully, holding her breath. She opens the window and stretches out her hand. Brisk ripples of air flow in, tiny gusts of it. Feeling the sunny open space and the warmth of the day, the butterfly comes to life, and its wings starts to quiver. Ida’s heart is racing as she goes on holding her breath. Her eyes climb her middle finger and gauge the trails of wind, like a hang-glider pilot who’s waiting for the right moment to take off. “Fly, fly,” she says to it, but it stubbornly resists, its wings fluttering and its thin legs still gripping the skin on her finger. Finally, reluctantly, in slow motion it lets go of its support and moves forward, first falling downwards, but soon gliding up again. Ida can see it at the height of the edge of the roof, where it turns a few circles and finally flies towards the chimney. In the corner of her eye she catches sight of a small shadow to her left. It all happens very quickly. A small brown bird the size of a sparrow, with an orange tail, flies up to the flight-intoxicated butterfly and gently seizes it, as if it were a scrap of paper snapped up by the wind. It disappears behind the house.
She stands there amazed, her hand outstretched in the open air.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones