Sandy Hill

Joanna Bator
Sandy Hill
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa 2009
    448 pages
    125 x 195
    hardcover
    ISBN: 978-83-7414-553-4
    Translation rights: W.A.B.

The Polish title of this novel, "Piaskowa Góra" – which means "Sandy Hill" – is the name of the prefabricated housing estate in Wałbrzych where the story is set. In the early 1970s a miner called Stefan Chmura and his wife Jadzia come to live in the biggest block of flats at Sandy Hill. In 1972 their daughter Dominika is born. The novel is a detailed account of the lives and fortunes of these characters, and of Stefan and Jadzia’s mothers (Dominika’s grandmothers, whose names are Halina and Zofia). The earliest events described in "Sandy Hill" go back to the pre-Second World War era, and the latest are set in the present day. With an impressive epic sweep, Bator’s novel works on several levels. On the one hand it is a panoramic novel, which reconstructs the social history of communist Poland in an extremely credible yet also critical way. On the other, the story is told in the form of a family saga, presenting the individual, small-scale dramas of ordinary, simple people. Finally, from yet another angle Sandy Hill focuses on women, not just because the main characters are the four women mentioned above (the daughter, her mother and her two grandmothers), but also because Bator concentrates on the desires, longings and fears of women from three different generations and depicts their notions of personal happiness. She confronts this last aspect with all the brutality and crudeness of so-called real life. The most shocking fate is that of Dominika, whom we follow from her birth through her school years up to a youthful affair with a priest, a relationship that ends in disaster, although afterwards the heroine picks herself up and becomes stronger. Nothing is left out of the other three portraits too. The women’s ups and downs are imaginatively described, especially their tangled relationships with men, and also what their inner life consists of, though it would be better to call it their fantasy life, full of daydreams and magic spells. Notably, the author has adopted an ambiguous attitude to her characters. She sympathises with them, but at the same time she does not spare them any nastiness, commenting sarcastically on their unwise actions or trashy ideas about what constitutes a good life. The novel is written in an ironic tone, with striking language – a mixture of naïve, coarse speech and the style of the smooth, controlled narrative. Thus the remarks the characters utter are blended with the voice of the hyper-conscious, sneering narrator. This creates a sort of detachment, as if the writer is trying to establish her position half way between empathy and derision.

Dariusz Nowacki

Jadzia Chmura is heavily pregnant and is not bearing it well, because it’s hard to bear something you can’t stop bearing. For the first four months she spends half the day throwing up, which can happen again at any other time the instant she smells burning. All it takes is an innocent little match to ignite the dormant volcano in her guts, and at once Jadzia erupts through her nose and mouth. The smell of vinegar helps, though only briefly, so Jadzia opens the bottle and sniffs it, but as soon as she puts it down she rushes off to the bathroom again.
But it’s impossible to vomit out the cause of the vomiting, so after four months Jadzia gives in and starts to eat; now her body devours food with just as much ardour as it brought it up. Jadzia guzzles buns with strawberry jam sent by her mother from Zalesie, and tinned sardines, even drinking the oil, finally licking the tin clean like a cat and cutting her tongue on the sharp edges. She devours salted herrings and pickled gherkins, sugar lumps and smoked pork fat, soft-centred toffees and black pudding. Stefan eats with a hand shielding his plate for fear Jadzia is just about to swipe something from him, and at night she waddles into the kitchen and eats up whatever’s left. She plunges her hand in a clay pot of plum jam, breaks through the sugar crust into the soft, wet substance and licks it off her hand, cleaning each finger and scooping specks of sweetness from under her fingernails. She feels as if there’s something inside her that keeps demanding more and more, it’s a hunger that isn’t her hunger, so she can’t control it. Her large breasts are drooping, and the skin on her buttocks and thighs is starting to lose its smooth texture, so now it looks like a lumpy quilt – there’s more in Jadzia than it can accommodate. She can see in the bathroom mirror that her bottom looks like orange peel. She has rarely seen an orange, but she can remember what they look like. In Wałbrzych no one thinks of orange-peel bottoms as a malady yet, and no one has ever heard the word cellulite. She’s put on weight, say the neighbours, and so have they, or they’re going to. As a heavyweight pregnant woman she has special privileges in queues and on buses, people let her through and make way for her, although she hardly fits in the seats vacated for her, and is afraid of getting wedged in for good and all.
The women she knows from Szczawienko who have been pregnant before tell Jadzia, the novice, about their labour, during which they were in danger of death at every moment, of being torn to shreds or split in half, and only extraordinary luck and great stamina kept them alive. Every story is full of pain, terror and blood quite beyond the imagination of the war veterans, who had trenches, bayonets, and as a last resort the opportunity to desert at their disposal. The bidding on childbirth stories involves beating the previous offer with more dreadful pain and a bigger perineal incision. The ones that aren’t cut split crosswise (the least of your worries) or lengthways, as if the woman were being torn apart by horses, and then there’s a gaping wound from navel to tailbone, into which they splash iodine by the bucket load without any anaesthetic. As Jadzia listens, she can feel the hole between her legs tying itself in a knot, and now she’s got two belly buttons. She sleeps alone on the couch and avoids Stefan, who keeps a couple of German porn mags in the bathroom for consolation, hidden under the bathtub. Jadzia counts the days according to the date set for her by Doctor Lipka, and thinks that if it’s a girl she’ll call it Dominika or Paulina. Those are the nicest names in the calendar, and it’s hard to decide which one she prefers. When she gives birth in January, she’ll make the final choice. She doesn’t think about having a boy, because it doesn’t seem possible for her to have someone of the opposite sex in her belly. It’s all the same, says Stefan, as long as it’s healthy.
The delivery, due according to Doctor Lipka on the seventeenth of January, came prematurely and at a bad moment, when Jadzia got up during Christmas Eve dinner to help herself to more herrings in sour cream. No one in the apartment block has a phone, it’s a long way from Szczawienko to the hospital, and everywhere is waist-deep in snow. Jadzia falls over, knocked for six by the first wave of pain, which is only a foretaste of what a woman who’s expecting can expect before she pushes her expectation out into the world and loses it. So the holy trio set off for the phone booth, because none of them wants to remain alone at home, least of all Jadzia. Her feet are so swollen she has to go in Stefan’s galoshes, six sizes too big, and only her old spring coat fits over her swollen belly. Halina pulls a fake leopard-skin hat on her head and they’re off. Jadzia heaves along the path trodden in the snow under a sky as hard as ice; this winter the birds keep crashing into it, causing their hearts to burst; Jadzia’s haemorrhoids are bursting too, and so are the blisters on her heels. She goes flying face first into a snowdrift where Stefan’s shoe will remain until the spring. On both sides of the road there are blocks of flats where the doors are shut and the curtains are drawn, with Christmas tree lights twinkling merrily through them. Jadzia squats down and howls, and onto the snow a few pink drops of blood and two tears drip out of her. Halina thumps on the door of Zenon Kowalski, the man who owns the laundry mangle, and who’s also got a Warszawa car, but it’s no good, there’s no petrol and he’s drunk – he would help, if circumstances hadn’t conspired against him. A sledge! There’s an old wooden sledge leaning against the wall – maybe the good people will lend it to them to drag the heavy Jadzia, half barefoot and pregnant. Halina knocks on the ground floor window, but the good people at table can’t have heard, because they’ve started singing carols, and of course you can’t blame them, though God willing, they’ll get what’s coming to them. The sledge changes owner illegally. With Halina and Stefan harnessed to it and Jadzia seated astride, the sacred sleigh glides across Szczawienko, picking up speed as sparks fly from under the runners and soar into the air, knocking icicles off the roofs and zooming over the high tension wires that are growling with the cold like dogs. Like a cloud of snow, with frozen eyelashes and eyebrows, Jadzia leans back, closes her eyes, loses the second shoe and stares at Stefan, thinking if only he was the Magnate off the telly, if only he was a Foreigner, maybe it would all seem more romantic and it wouldn’t hurt so much. There’s a pool of urine gleaming in the phone booth, and Silent Night in the receiver, which is swinging on its slashed metal stalk. Parked in front of the booth, Jadzia slides off the sledge, and the ball of pain rolling through her, faster and bigger than its predecessor, bursts into the colours of the hollyhocks and dahlias from the garden in Zalesie. At the top of her voice Jadzia roars NO, never so determined in all her life, but sadly the effort is wasted. The clips holding up her stockings open their gobs in surprise, and Mother Earth opens too. Turbid waters full of sharp-pointed objects push towards the tunnel that only a trickle can squeeze through at most. I’ll stop a car, thinks Stefan all of a sudden, but on seeing the group of people by the road the car just blinks its Cyclopean eye, accelerates and disappears. Jadzia howls, and screams NO again, because the bones in her pelvis are starting to come apart like tectonic plates in an earthquake. Why aren’t there any taxis or phones in this bloody country?! weeps Stefan.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones