The hero of Jerzy Franczak’s book is, like the author, a talented young poet and writer who lives in Krakow. However, Franczak plainly distances himself from his literary character, by putting his existence in ironical parentheses. The main problem for Jurek in The Fitting Room is his lack of a defined identity or fixed life plan, because being a writer is a bizarre profession: it condemns him to endless revision of his own life with the help of literary means, telling the story of it, which always means shifting from the realm of reality into the world of fiction, where you don’t have to take responsibility for anything, and at any moment people and things can be subjected to correction, revisions that result in caricature, or total annihilation.
Jurek lives among male and female friends who, like him, are struggling with the unreality of the world around them and with the artificiality of the roles they are playing. We could say that they are all stuck in the “fitting room” of the title. There they try on ready-made personality masks, which they keep swapping in a futile search for one that “fits” their faces. All at once this is an existential problem – and an excellent literary game, because the masks are at the same time sets of languages and quotations that are actively used within the milieu of writers and lovers of literature. And so, having found a job at a publisher’s for a certain time, Jurek can “re-amend” the text of The Divine Comedy, as “amended” by Gombrowicz in his provocative book On Dante – thus restoring its former shape.
However, literary games and dressing up in masks are not just for fun: Jurek, his girlfriend and colleagues battle with a genuine hunger for real values and with an inability to really experience the world, and even if The Fitting Room makes you think of books in the “banalist” trend, the questions posed in it do not fit in with “banalism” – they are closer to the very old, very serious philosophical question, “how should one live?”
For whom am I writing these words? It’s a little as if I’m talking to myself, or have miraculously divided in two, into me and him – some other me, strangely familiar, like a newscaster. Behind every word there’s a “you” hiding, but I can’t stop him and ask him for a light. I can only talk about myself, mince about and try on more or less uncomfortable costumes. Form an alliance with those who believe in me. Draw up a different will every single time.
“I leave all my movable and immovable property to the Jutrzenko towel factory in Oświęcim and to the Missionary Priests of Sobibór.” A few words scrawled in the dark, and at once my life has meaning. I am saved from disorder, liberated from confusion – everything I do is a sacrifice for humanity.
But humanity is asleep, there is no humanity. All that’s left of it are parks full of rat poison, phone booths, empty streets and flats hidden from the light of the Moon behind closed shutters.
It’s empty and silent, as if man has not yet been invented.
Time to begin.
As we know, to write the book of your life, first of all you have to be able to write. You have to know what words to use to convince the reader that you existed. “Well all right,” you’ll say, “what if you forgot about all that for a while and relied on your own memory?” “I can do that,” I reply, “but be so kind as to advise me how I’m supposed to describe the nooks and crannies of my room, into which I have pushed my bonneted head? Or galloping down the shady corridor between semi-circles of light? Or my fear, when the darkness, lurking until now between the bars of the bed falls on the bedclothes in heavy, snake-like coils? How can it be that I don’t remember the moment when I made my greatest discovery – that I am I? I remember a scene like this: we seem to be walking along the sea. Now and then I raise both feet in the air, and the huge hands I am holding carry me across a puddle or a crack. I admit, I don’t know when it was, I don’t know where or whether it really did happen, nor do I know if it has any significance.
“What is my earliest memory?” – is that what you wanted to ask? What came first? First of all was my father’s departure. That’s the earliest memory I can summon up and dress in words. It’s hard to say if I actually remember that evening, or convinced myself of it after hearing my mum’s accounts of it. It is definitely one of those already fully conscious experiences that I can arrange into a coherent story: a taxi ride at night, yellow streetlights swaying and blurring on the windowpane I’m pressing my brow against, successions of glass doors, airport mezzanines, a terrace leading out to the tarmac – we’re standing on the terrace waving at the aeroplanes soaring into the air. I’m feeling sleepy – it’s cold – Mum’s holding my hand tighter than usual, Dad picks me up with a long inhalation, kisses me on both cheeks and puts me down. I sit on the railing and watch: the plane turns two circles and flies off, getting smaller, disappearing, still winking for a while, until it vanishes among the other stars. In its place a stub of Moon shines brightly – my hand hurts from waving – Mum’s fumbling in her bag, looking for tissues.
You’ll say that’s not much, barely a handful of vague images, blurred and diminished by having been frequently recollected and amended. But I do remember it well: I was convinced Dad was flying to the Moon. “He’s gone there to work,” said Mum. “So we’ll have something to eat.” From then on I called the Moon “Canada”. When I looked out of the window at night, I felt watched – I imagined Dad was lying in a hammock looking at me from above. But soon I forgot what he looked like. The Moon went on rolling across the sky like a great big eye, still watching me, but differently somehow, I’d say: all by itself, though there was a force behind it, alien and strangely familiar. Another time I thought that shining disc was concealing some funnel-shaped depths, or corridors – I could almost hear a black bowling alley rumbling away behind it! Then I became confident that if I were to open the window, climb up on tip-toes, reach for the Moon and turn it over, I’d see its real, four-sided shape.
It may not surprise you that I had only just started to put letters together when I fell in love with astronomy. It was love at first sight. It began one solitary afternoon, when in search of a lost toy car I wandered into the family library, and the spine of a big fat book caught my eye. There on the glossy dust jacket sprinkled in stardust was the title, printed in a huge typeface: The Sky On A Plate. I took it onto my knees and eagerly leafed through it. I felt a great emotion stirring in me for the very first time. I was thrilled by the disintegration of supernovas, the grand scale of the giant planets girded with rings, the panache of comets wandering paths unknown to anyone, the motley colours of nebular overflows, the polymorphic suspensions fixed in the invariably black passe-partout… There was magic in it, a sort of wizardry that instantly took the place of the myth about Dad. Now I can see it like that – at the time it was all a muddle; I didn’t even try to understand it, I plumbed the mysteries of spiral galaxies, while Canada shone in at my window, painting the curtains silver as they rippled in the evening silence…
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones