For some time now we have known that the strength and beauty of Rylski’s writing lie in the main heroes he creates (nor are his incidental characters at all inadequate either). Each of the four stories in "The Island" features this sort of impeccable composition. These characters are ordinary and unique by turns: the wretched accountant; then (in "The Smell of the Court") the great, dying émigré writer, made to look like Gombrowicz in general outline; the provincial ninny who is the victim of a holiday romance ("Like Granite"); the eminent, rebel playboy-prince on the threshold – at least until a certain moment – of a career in the Vatican (the title story). Regardless of their social origin or moral and intellectual qualifications, each of these characters is, to use the title of one of Rylski’s novels, “a man in the shade”, a flawed person, gloomy and disillusioned, having well and truly lost. I do not mean to say that Rylski always uses one and the same character stencil or relies purely on a formula. That is clearly not the case.
The book’s careful, well-considered structure is notable. And so the action of all four stories takes place by the sea: the first and third on the Baltic, the second and fourth on the Mediterranean (the south of France and the title island, off the north African coast). In the first and third stories the main characters contend with creatures of their own imagination, while in the second and fourth we find the classic set-up, a duel between two opponents. The heroes of two stories die in highly meaningful circumstances expressed in metaphors, and in the other two the denouement is a mysterious exchange of roles. There is more of this sort of symmetry and counterpoint in "The Island", and all the stories confirm something we have always known – that Rylski’s craftsmanship is incredible; here it makes itself felt not just within each individual story, but in the way the whole set is composed.
While beguiling us with meaty plots full of surprises, adding drops of tension and working perfect story-telling bluffs, Rylski also sets up absorbing, confrontational debates. He wants us to admire his fiction-writing flair as well as his playwriting talent, if I can call it that (his brilliant, impressive dialogues). Naturally, in the stories that rely on dialogue there is no question of neglecting the plot. Eustachy Rylski’s latest book is a success on all fronts.
- Dariusz Nowacki
A trainee hairdresser from Wągrowiec, intimidated by life, a little heavy with sleep, sweets and the first flush of youth, decided to go on holiday with a girlfriend, at her instigation in fact, to one of the fashionable seaside places.
The resort was on a par with her imagination of the great big world, and so was Sylwek, the handsome thirty-year-old who emanated the smell of success, money, self-confidence and Paco Rabanne cologne.
Sylwek and his pal Hoodie were the kings of life – designer-label clothes, good cigarettes, expensive alcohol, bracelets on their wrists and divine nutriment for every occasion.
Monika was impressed by the boys and the world they revealed to her, so once she’d been picked up on the beach, with no particular intention or even strong feelings, definitely in a moment of boredom or mindless foolery, she eagerly surrendered to the holiday romance.
She was too greedy for happiness, for the showy impunity with which the young men and their mates used life, to restrain her in any way. Pub brawls, daredevil pirouettes on jet skis, hard gambling at the preview casino that had gone rotten before it got ripe, nocturnal car rallies along the small streets of the terrorised town, or finally the foul, suburban language that broke through the thin veneer of pseudo correctness like a poisoned spring did not put the girl off her infatuation.
On the contrary, the more impetus this life gathered, which happened by the day, the more Monika’s appetite for it grew. There’s no denying that the girl was too young, stupid and insensitive for a moment’s reflection to disturb her obsession. All the more since she herself took on a new shine, metamorphosing from a grey mouse into a woman in love, conscious of her own allure.
The resort took on a new shine too, to the girl’s eyes becoming Hollywood, Monaco, San Remo, familiar to her from the gossip columns in colour magazines.
She felt a bit like one of their heroines.
But before it had picked up speed for good, the holiday ran to its end, as happens with every bit of good luck.
The lovers parted, Monika back to Wągrowiec, and Sylwek, it goes without saying, to the capital.
They promised to correspond regularly and to visit as often as they could. Monika did not go back to her job, because you don’t return from paradise to a provincial hairdressing salon, and from a fairytale prince to the boring customers who don’t know what luxury is. What would she have to talk to them about anyway? Conversations were the heart and soul of her work.
She planned to look around for something more suitable. Meanwhile, her time went by on daydreams and letters. She put on a lot of weight from crisps and Coca-Cola, and took some knocks in quarrels with her parents.
Having been outwardly unconfident, cautious and shrinking before, now she made up for it with a greater range of domestic self-reliance than would seem likely from the status of a dependent child. Now, if only for the lack of a job, the dependence grew stronger, but the arbitrarily self-awarded autonomy soon went brown with boorishness.
She wounded her parents with it, regardless of the circumstances.
Open until now and unyieldingly patient, they shut themselves in a silence that sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of self-driven malice, Monika brutally broke. Not without success, when boorishness clashes with the defencelessness of simple, diligent, responsible people who are shocked by the times and prepared to have feelings in spite of them.
As for the correspondence, it only went in one direction. Monika got no replies to her more and more impatient letters.
There were days when she thought about suicide and days when holiday memories brightened her soul, yet the one and the other flowed in the same stream of feverish euphoria, as if thoughts of life and death led to the same thing.
From time to time, mainly over the telephone, she shared her state of mind with her girlfriend, Ewa, who showed more restraint in her hopes, had not dropped her job, had swapped her holiday romance with Hoodie for intimacy with a rich married man, and was doing well.
Two months went by. The days were getting short and grey. Worse thoughts came to the fore as the better ones retreated. Her friend encouraged Monika to take action. She shouldn’t remain in uncertainty. Why waste life? Either she could say to herself it was past and over, or she couldn’t, and she should draw the conclusions from that.
When Monika asked what those conclusions were meant to involve, Ewa began to take action herself. With some difficulty she managed to locate Sylwek’s pal and, after keeping Monika in uncertainty for a short while, gave her the directions for her now forgotten summer-time lover.
Hoodie agreed to meet the girl in one of the clubs, which was like a rat’s den, not much bigger than one, anyway, full of the spasms of psychodelic music. The place was teeming with dreadful young people, talking in dreadful language about dreadful things, and with his unconcealed hope of screwing her anywhere at all, at the bar, in the toilet, in the car or in the street, Monika thought Hoodie the most dreadful thing of all.
He led her on, conned her, made ironic remarks, ordered beer after beer, didn’t answer her questions, or told her things without being asked, but after two hours of this drudgery, which seemed to the girl an eternity, he gave up, wilted, switched off, dictated the address to her and vanished.
As if a spring had unwound in him.
The high-rise block sinking into the slums on the edge of the city did not dispirit the girl when she got there after dark. Nor did the wheezing lift as it struggled up to floor X, because it wasn’t lit, nor the squalid flat she entered after ringing the bell at least a dozen times, because only the city gave it any light. Nor even the man who opened the door, nothing but an emaciated, dirty, drugged up, horrified piece of scum, because she didn’t recognise him. The shock came when the man spoke.
Because it was Sylwek’s voice.
So the hole that gave off a stink of sweat and unwashed things was his flat. An endless corridor led to it, soaked in Lysol and all manner of human failure, every kind of poverty, frustration and bad thought seeping out of the flats, like from a jar that’s not fully closed; not even the draught from the broken window could blow them away. And the lift, scalped of its panelling, with charred buttons and a wound where a mirror used to be, was the lift that had brought her here. Just like the taxi she had got out of five minutes earlier below the ten-storey block, neighbouring identical ones, indistinguishable, dead in spite of the signs of life, with the November wind raging in between them.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones