Ada, a young physiotherapy student, is forced to care for her deeply depressed father, and starts to betray symptoms of the illness herself. Through no fault of her own, another young student called Anna becomes the object of desire of Tadeusz, an elderly veteran of the Warsaw Uprising. Jan finds his vocation in writing funeral orations for people who are still alive. Longin the tram driver cannot come to terms with the fact that his marriage only keeps going out of habit. Lucyna the pensioner, an eager fan of the conservative Catholic channel, Radio Maryja, is aiming for sainthood. The characters in Małgorzata Rejmer’s debut novel all share the same place of residence (one of the oldest, poorest districts in Warsaw), and also the fact that all of them are to some degree sick. They suffer from an incapacity to form normal human relationships, and thus they are condemned to extreme loneliness. When for various reasons they are brought together, their individual diseases merely get worse. Finally it comes to a confrontation between all of them in one single scene, when a tragic accident occurs.
This young writer is decidedly interested in the dark side of life. She portrays a world full of repulsive, ugly and bad people who inspire as much disgust as sympathy. The strength of her novel lies in the fact that she gets as close as possible to her characters and brings out the demons lurking inside them, never for a moment losing credibility, though the characters have grotesque features and habits. Just as strong are her sense of humour and her language, which is lyrical, and at the same time suitable for the viewpoint that she has adopted. Rejmer alludes to the literary style of the grotesque and to distorting “turpism” (a literary trend in Polish poetry based on so-called anti-aestheticism, the cult of ugliness), both of which have been dropped in recent years, though they have a wonderful tradition in Poland. She not only recalls, but also refreshes them, applying them to new socio-political realities. Toxaemia has been acclaimed as the most expressive of the young debut novels, and considering the talent and maturity of this young writer we cannot be sure this is just a one-hit wonder.
- Marta Mizuro
Małgorzata Rejmer (born 1985) is a post-graduate student at Warsaw University’s Institute for Polish Culture, and is also studying psychology and American studies. She made her debut as a poet at the age of 13.
The tram Longin drove was spectacular: aromatic, clean, very EU. Sometimes, as he drove it through Warsaw, Longin imagined himself as a tram driver in France or in Germany. How driving around France he would be reciting Apollinaire. Or driving around Germany reciting Rilke. How do you do, he says to the passenger he sells a ticket to, and it just happens to be none other than Gunter Grass. Or Le Klezio. Or Hokelbet.
Longin says, Mersi, but no. Free ticket, good book. He inclines his head. He drives deeper into the plaster-coated world. No graffiti, no mischief, no filth. People smile at each other; all their teeth are even, and their legs are even. The blind and the lame walk down an even sidewalk.
While here it was all messed up, somehow, all sort of pointless. People went around like gloomy puppet-effigies with their heads on sticks. They were always in such a hurry, but what were they hurrying off to, if they had nothing. Just then, off in the distance, an old lady was racing at a snail’s pace down the sidewalk, moving in sluggish spurts, with a cane that looked like a pole. Longin could have cashed in his chips right then and there.
He waited with his chin in his hand.
Go! someone shouted.
Go, goddammit! shouted the train, in full rebellion.
Longin watched the old lady. She was gasping for breath, seeming close, but still, not close enough. Longin shut the doors.
He went on. One, two, three.
He began to nod off. He was just so tired.
The old ladies all raced, and raced. Then there was one with a trail of bandages hanging around her leg. Longin thought that that was probably the textbook definition of bad luck: your ankle rolls, something slips, something’s twisted—and you’re disabled, you’re stuck. But it’s not like anyone cares what he thinks.
His head had dropped down, and he was driving without seeing much or knowing where he was going. His gaze had filmed over like onion in a pan. He rubbed his eyes and looked lively—he had just passed by his own house, his nice, quiet family home where his wonderful wife Alicja, a beautiful wife, right out of Dostoevski, somewhat gloomy, perhaps, somewhat capricious, perhaps, but with a great, expansive heart, a lively nautre, a character of steel. Of course, perhaps all her liveliness was to cover up some sort of grudge against him, some wanting something at her core, some longing for something greater, but Alicja, thought Longin, I can’t give you much, I don’t have much myself.
And yet, she loved him.
She might still love him.
He was going to ask her that evening. If she still loved him. And what they meant when they used the word love.
Longin nodded his head at this. When he raised it again, he saw him.
A weirdly twisted figure, a hand against the stomach, that ran right onto the tracks. Right underneath the wheels. Longin honked the horn and slammed on the brakes. Groaned. Crossed himself and for a fraction of a second thought of Saint Francis, who was so near, about Alicja, who was so near, about the children, who probably hadn’t left home yet.
He heard a bang. And then a weird sound afterwards, sort of like a crunch. The tram jerked like it had run over a log.
This is it, he thought. Braking with his eyes shut, he had the sensation that the blackness under his eyelids was dispersing. A very weird whistling entered into his ears—could that be the wind? He opened his eyes. The windshield was so terribly filthy, and beyond that there was a massive emptiness.
Behind him Longin heard the artilery fire of lots of voices, like a provincial opera booming and thundering. He raced out of his cabin and up to the body, but almost immediately he turned around again. Sobbing, he leaned over and vomited in disgust, fear, and despair. For a moment he felt better. And then he wiped his mouth off and realized that all the really bad stuff was just starting. He looked toward the sky, but the sky was peaceful and merciless.
And there was the terror of sudden silences. And there was a void over the whole sky.
Longin rubbed his face with his handkerchief, blew his nose, exhaled and took a step in the direction of the body. He stepped back again and went to open the passengers’ doors.
They all poured out onto the street like bright, foamy sheepskin. Longin watched as some of them discussed and crowded in a frightened cluster, while some of them ran over to the other side to see the corpse.
Oh shit, fuck me, said one of the young guys.
A couple of people took out their cell phones and started recording. Longin ran up to them, wanting to stop them, but right away he realized he wouldn’t be able to.
He was waiting for the ambulance, the police, the sentence.
Fate is fate, the words spun around in Longin’s head. You can’t outrun your fate.
But whether he had thought of this himself, or whether someone else had already thought it, he didn’t know.
A man came up to Longin and patted him on the shoulder.
Don’t worry, he said. I saw the whole thing, you didn’t do anything wrong. And you’re not drunk, so they’re not going to do anything.
Longin nodded slightly and then went off to the side and cried. Wiping his eyes, he looked on helplessly as the team with the lift spread out around the tram.
The ambulance drove up, and then the TV crews, and right after the TV crews, the police. A girl in a pink blouse with a microphone was fluttering around through the crowd, begging everyone’s pardon and collecting eyewitness reports.
Maja Maj, she introduced herself to Longin. I’ve taken this tram before. Could you please tell us about how you felt when you ran over that man?
Longin took a breath but shook his head and moved off to the side.
He watched the girl walk up to the people with the lift and then, with her hands folded, observe them as they worked. When the tram had been lifted a bit, she squatted down.
Holy shit! she cried. I know that man!
And she leaped back up.
Tadeusz Storocki, she cried, distinguished patriot of the Polish people. Retired. Fought in the Uprising.
And a murmur went through the crowd, and Longin felt his legs give out beneath him.
Great Polish patriot hit and killed by tram, cried out Maja Maj, quickly placing herself before the camera. Great Polish patriot, murmured the crowd.
A man with a mustache came up to Longin.
How could you? said the man. Kill a great Polish insurgent. Like that.
And the police, who had been sluggishly circling around the tram, now took to the task at hand, pulling Longin aside immediately to test him with their breathalyzer.
Longin closed his eyes. He breathed.
Well well well, said the police officer. Here we go. You’re not going to get out of this. Point six. I don’t even know where to start.
Shall we put him in handcuffs? said the policeman next to him.
What’s the point, the first said with a wave of his hand. The guy’s fucked. He’s not going anywhere anyway. Who are you? he said to Longin.
Longin Wąsik, stuttered out Longin.
Well, Mr. Wąsik. Not being sober, you were responsible for a tram accident that led to the death of, excuse me, what’s his name?
Tadeusz Storocki, Polish patriot, offered the second policeman.
Yeah. Polish patriot. If you ask me, that’s not too good, but maybe I’m mistaken. We’re just going to take you to Warsaw now, Mr. Longin. The weather’s fine.
And he smiled at Longin.
Translated by Jennifer Croft