Monika Mostowik’s first novel will be no surprise to those already familiar with her two volumes of short stories, so pretty and Acrobats, because although the longer form demands a slightly different method, Mostowik uses one that has already worked well in her stories. She not only uses characteristically resonant, lyrical language, but also explores her favourite areas of reality, moving between waking and dreaming – she can shift smoothly from a sensually described exterior to things that lie hidden in the subconscious. She is fascinated by the comedy and absurdity of human behaviour, but also has a very sensitive approach to the tragedy of loneliness, inability to communicate and feeling emotionally lost. Her heroes are sensitive people on the edge of a nervous breakdown, or else have already crossed the threshold of madness.
The four main characters whose fates are described in Reproaches fit the same bill. They are young people stuck in a permanent lethargy, doing any old jobs or being out of work, isolated but apparently incapable of emotional commitment. The key to explaining their behaviour is a shameful secret that each of them is hiding. However, while realising that they are stuck in the captivity of their own secrets, they make no effort to deal with them, but nurture them instead. Meeting each other will give Emilia, Mariola, Jacek and Paweł an opportunity to find out if they are capable of love and if they can start fighting to make their dreams come true. Although it sounds like a trivial tale about twenty-year-olds on the verge of adulthood, it would be out of character for Mostowik to finish this story by pairing off the couples and implying a happy end. Instead, a confrontation between the main characters reveals something no one was expecting.
This novel can be read as an ironic variation on the theme of the romantic novel, and also as a parody of a story about the existential choices made by a group of close friends, choices that in more stereotypical books usually result in more or less spectacular success. By taking that stereotype to absurdity, Monika Mostowik leads the reader astray, but not beyond the boundaries of the extremely original world she has created.
Monika Mostowik (born 1975) is an author and poet who writes short fiction and film scripts. She graduated in sociology and studied screenwriting at the State Higher Film School in Łódź, and is a great fan of flamenco.
Emi moved about among the tables, taking each step with great solemnity, as if walking on ice, at a reduced speed, like on a catwalk, though she would never have a chance of that with such a big bum. All those models were twiglets, and she had too many curves. Once in a while she peeped at Jacek, but he was more interested in his coffee, though she was sure he was just pretending to be.
“He wasn’t looking at you at all,” said her friend when she was back at the bar, putting away the empty glasses. Emi undid yet another shirt button. Jacek looked as if he’d fallen asleep with his eyes open. He was remembering the wonderful times he’d had yesterday. People lose so much by not seeing themselves in their dreams. They should record films of them and then watch themselves. That’s what psychology is about, not poking about in people’s confessions, childhood memories, lying on a couch and endlessly staring at ink blots though the first thing you see in them is tits or an arse – then you’ve got to do everything you can to make them remind you of something completely different, an apple, for instance, that might symbolise sin and guilt, and that’s the whole point. Now there’s something to talk about and poke around in. Dreams write the whole story out on our faces. Looking at ourselves in the mirror in the morning gives us nothing but the hope that soon we’ll go to sleep again.
Emi wasn’t beaten yet, so she went on hovering around Jacek, changing the napkins or adjusting the flowers in the vases, or flashing her bust in front of him. She looked as if she were posing for Playboy. Guys who were obviously playing hookey today started making passes at her, though they seemed to have slept through many a spring. They called out: “Hey, doll, darling, baby, sexy”, and other pet names. But Jacek didn’t react at all. He could at least have drooled a bit at the sight of her, she might at least have made him drop his teaspoon, but nothing happened – he just went on drinking his coffee, as if laughing at her in his head. For Emi it was no ordinary challenge. Especially as she and her friend at the bar seemed to have bet Jacek would crawl to her feet any moment and beg her for a single glance, to which she would say: “Get lost, titch, go play with the spotty truants.”
Her friend at the bar was plainly impatient.
“He’s gay,” Emi made her excuses.
“He doesn’t look gay to me.”
Pity Jacek couldn’t hear this conversation – he’d have been pleased. Emi had already started making another plan when he stood up from the table. He left a tip, because that’s what you do, and went back to his taxi. His head hadn’t stopped aching and he was gradually starting to regret that he hadn’t got in the plane with the tearful passenger.
Emi was in despair. All evening she poured out her woes to Mariola over a glass of beer. But luckily she didn’t cry, because it wasn’t her style. She was in the habit of getting annoyed, but not of feeling sorry for herself. That was probably why they’d made friends. Mariola was a tough cookie, though she didn’t look like one. She was so petite that people moved away from her on the tram as if afraid she were about to break like a crystal ballerina standing on a piano. They should even have swapped voices – Mariola’s deep voice was much more suited to Emi, who didn’t look at all dainty and subtle. They made a pretty good match, like two puppets that played completely different roles on stage, though they were exactly the same. They played different characters from the ones they were in reality. They played any part except themselves, unless they were alone, all on their own, not even alone with each other, because in each other’s presence they only occasionally let themselves get carried away just like that. Though if they heard that, they’d definitely deny it and be terribly outraged, because after all they were so natural and sincere. Sometimes they seemed to be each other, though this pretending didn’t tell them much about each other – they made most of it up and learned their lines by heart. They knew it was doomed to failure from the start, but they didn’t know if it would end well, if it ever did end. They never stopped to think about that. Emi had her theatre, here in the café, wiggling her arse so that every guy, even the gays, would stare after her. These were the minor victories that gave her life a meaning. She provoked men mercilessly, convincing them they’d have an incredible time with her, promising top-class sexiness, or alternatively some hot bestial shagging. Though she never said it in words, she made it powerfully clear, and each guy could write in his own scenario for it –there was always room in their lives for this sort of scenario, whether the guy was married, or a priest, a teenager, a businessman or a taxi-driver. The bottom line was to have an aim in life, and Emi always had one, and invariably achieved it, again and again. Mariola could not entirely understand how it failed to bore her, but then she herself had always dreamed of having an interesting aim in life.
“One day someone’ll grab you and you’ll see. He’ll take what you promise by force.”
“I don’t promise anything, so stop predicting doom.”
“Maybe you don’t think so, but you do. Anything can be imagined when you behave like that.”
“I’m a waitress and I live off tips.”
“But when we go out in the evening you’re not a waitress any more. Don’t start pretending to be a saint.”
“I’m not. You’re no saint either.”
“But this isn’t about me. I’m afraid for you.”
“The devil leaves the bad ones alone. I’ll manage. Anyway, some big strong man will always turn up to defend me. They love coming to your defence, don’t they? There’s always one of them wanting to show off.”
“But never for free.”
“Mariola, you’re so suspicious. You always expect the worst.”
“Just in case – it doesn’t hurt.”
“Except you’re spoiling my fun.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that. It’s just that it has stopped being fun for me.”
“That’s not my problem. Go find yourself something or someone to amuse you and loosen up.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones