Young Polish writers are returning more and more to poetic styles, such as so-called turpism (designed to be anti-aesthetic by introducing tones of ugliness) or surrealism, that were most popular about a half century ago. It may be that the selection of forms of expression that rely upon the deformation of reality signals a disenchantment with the palpable “here-and-now” as well as an unwillingness to engage with running socio-political debates. Either way, Siedlecka’s stories are not based in any defined time or space. Admittedly certain set pieces connect some of them to the twenty-first century, but there are also tales in the collection that take place in other worlds (such as the remarkable story “Children”).
Although many characters and situations described in these stories have an oneiric provenance, and the development of the plot follows the logic of dreams, in other cases what we have is really discreet surrealist staffage. But what connects these works is the fact that for the most part their protagonists are sick people, physically or mentally deformed, abandoned, forced into the margins—of literature, too. In exhibiting their world, the author commemorates their existence, which we see especially in those stories in which the narration is entrusted to a sensitive young woman trying to alter the order of things, to return a sense of humanity to those condemned to inertia and oblivion (“Plaster,” “Last-Minute,” “Hotel Barcelona”). Although the behavior of the self-appointed “sisters of mercy” is irrational, at the same time that serves to motivate them: it comes from a deep-seated sympathy. The gestures of the women protagonists seem crazy only because they differ sharply from the indifference generally shown to those wronged by fate.
"Pups" is an exceptionally coherent collection. It’s held together by the same philosophy, the poetics of surreally distorted reality, as well as Siedlecka’s engaging, lyrical language. The evocative sequences depicted here are simply captivating, and they remain in your mind for a long while, forcing you to rethink your understanding of the world. This book cannot be ignored, nor its author, who has shown herself to be a truly unique personality from the very start.
Kids that haven’t been christened don’t go to heaven - when they die they’re carried off to hell by big buses.
The children have left behind their bodies, so small you could easily put them into a violin case. What is the fate of those bodies? Many of them end up on a table, they autopsy them, professionals look into their insides and find out the same thing over and over again: beneath the rib cage there is a heart and two lungs, and obviously white bones, red blood, a little flesh. Some of them look into their heads, it doesn’t take much to bisect the skull, you just have to have some shears, the skulls of children are soft, after the incision the head opens up like a ripe fruit.
They make great baby-dolls, so beloved by little girls, out of some of the bodies. Inside you can put a barrel organ or a device that imitates crying. You install little springs in the eyelids that make the doll blink. The eyes don’t dry out because they’re varnished, and they’re always shining. But you can’t buy those dolls just anywhere, only in special shops, and they don’t make very many of them, either, it’s expensive, they’re so-called hand-made crafts, less and less popular in this day and age. The last master craftsman like that I heard about some eight years ago. He lives - if he’s still alive - in the little town of Chichester in the south of England, and his name is Augustinus.
The fate of many bodies is unknown, but I can tell you about the posthumous fate of the souls of those children: I happen to know something about that.
Big buses run day and night, in good weather and in bad, so that the eternal order is preserved and so that everything goes smoothly. They go both ways, some to hell, the others to heaven, such is fate. Their route runs through the mountains, it’s chilly, there are smooth granite rocks, almost no plants, the air is brisk, and the sky cloudless. The children who are damned travel upwards along a switchback - the myth about heaven being above and hell below is the invention of a pair of crafty guys, you can believe me or not, but I assure you, it’s exactly the opposite. Heaven is located in the sheltering core of the earth, warm as amniotic fluid, while hell is way up high, amidst heavy cloud masses, and who knows where it ends.
The bus climbs upwards, the fog thickens, the pressure falls. The children are aware of this, but they don’t cry. They are well behaved. Some of them have pacifiers in their mouths, smuggled out from this world.
The bus to paradise goes downwards, lower and lower, where there are lots of trees, the grass is succulently green, and the roses purple. There are some animals there, too, but gentle ones, they don’t have claws or teeth, and even if they do, they don’t use them. The children look at the roses, they can touch them, and they don’t prick themselves on thorns, because in paradise everything is made of light. There aren’t any weeds in heaven, either.
There is in the eternal timetable a moment when the children’s buses pass each other. And then for a second the eyes of the kids from one bus meet the eyes of the children from the other bus, the children look at each other without being able to say anything or make any gesture in greeting—they hadn’t had time to learn yet on earth. That little short circuit is my favorite moment. Because the kids oughtn’t to look at each other—did someone mess up somewhere, or is there just no other road?
Some of the newborns took animals with them, live ones or plush toys. A cat, four puppies, a toy panda, a rat, and in the fist of one child even a golden fish. It had been dead for hours, but the kid didn’t know that, which was all right. The kids try to hide them, thinking that someone is going to take everything away from them. Nothing of the kind. Nobody’s interested in animals. Some of them, impatient with the long journey, run away through the bus’ airshaft, mainly the soft plush toys remain.
The journey goes on, it starts to get dark, the children receive blankets and hot cocoa, they have to keep warm, because it’s chilly. Some of them sleep, but most of them stay awake, dozens of pairs of eyes shine in the darkness like bats’ little eyes. The children are patient. In the end they reach hell. The first thing that has to be done is to name them—they generally didn’t get names while alive. You couldn’t say that their names have been chosen with particular care, but they definitely aren’t entirely random, either. Two twins (yes, sometimes both die rather than just one) will be named Kamil and Emil, a pretty girl with black eyes and very red lips will be called Carmen, and so on, and so forth.
They have names, but they don’t use them. Evidently the names serve some other goal. In hell things are rather quiet. There is no fire, no deep-frying people, or ripping out fingernails, or flogging, or blood. It’s like a November night, when you can’t fall asleep, and in tossing and turning you observe a gloomy dawn through the window. The red is diluted, turns into gray, and then into a cold, milky shade, and somewhere out there there’s a pair of crows perched on a branch, and the trees are bare. That’s it, a dismal autumn.
The children don’t get enough sleep, that’s the first of the punishments that awaits them. Newborns need a lot of sleep, and in hell they only give them five hours. Because they have to work. But you have to be able to walk to work, you’ll say. Yes, well, some of them can, they walk strangely, shakily, unnaturally.
Those that can’t, crawl. Some of them aren’t even capable of that, so they just lie there. I can’t say why some of them can master the art of walking and others can’t. Perhaps it’s a question of their bone structure? Those that lie there look at the ceiling, but they’re not sad. Who knows, maybe they’re even happy that they don’t have to work. Their substitute for walking is a weekly bath in the pool. The pool is enormous, the water in it is black and thick like chocolate or like venous blood. It floats the bodies of the children, even those that haven’t learned how to swim. But they can swim, they remember that still from their mother’s wombs.
The basin is the only place where music is played. Mainly tango seeps out of those speakers. On Saturday (which in hell is the same as Sunday in heaven and on earth) instead of tango the speakers emit the sound of a beating human heart. They attach wires to one of the kids lying down that run to the speakers, which transmit the rhythmic beating to the stereo system. No one is worried that someday a silence will fall, when the kid dies. You don’t die in hell—hell is a second more eternal than heaven. The kid won’t die, then, but nor will he go anywhere ever, he is, as they say, seriously ill, he can only move his eyes. But you would be wrong to think he’s sad. I see joy in his eyes.
Translated by Jennifer Croft