Twenty-something Klara Wiśniewska is anorexic. She knows all of her measurements and can tell you the calorie content of all food products. She eats mainly green beans, carrots, rice, and sweetener, though she sometimes alters her diet in order to see what gives her the best effect. She could do a doctoral dissertation based on her observations of alterations in her organism and skin. The heroine of Marta Syrwid’s novel is rarely aware of how hunger impacts her mind, but this is precisely what she decides to do something about. She decides to face herself, really splitting into two Klaras: the Klara that is sick and the Klara that sees the degree to which the illness has advanced and tries to understand what caused it. To weigh all the psychological baggage she’s carrying. To shed some light on the infrastructure.
Syndromes featuring anorexia are well-known. The author concentrates on one concrete instance, which she analyzes in detail. She carefully describes Klara’s family situation. She examines the relationship between the heroine’s parents, focusing on the figure of her father, who is not only incapable of displaying affection but who also psychologically and physically torments Klara and, later, her little brother.
Little better is his stance toward his wife, although she is not a push-over either, and as she stands up to him, fights break out at home just about every day. Unable to influence this domestic hell in any way or to run away from it, Klara hopes to attain control over what she can – over her appearance. Syrwid’s diagnosis is clear: the girl’s illness is the result of living in a toxic family, not the result of an unquestioning acceptance of models of beauty in today’s media.
The psychologically perceptive account of the Wiśniewski family, firmly grounded in socio-economic realities, is the most original element of this novel. The description of the struggles of hunger are also noteworthy. This is mostly thanks to the poetic—though never overwrought—style that Syrwid employs. The highly artistic language and unusual feature of the split personality, used consistently throughout the narrative, testify to the maturity of this young author. Syrwid already has a lot to say, and she knows how to say it.
- Marta Mizuro
Marta Syrwid (born 1986) studied ethnology and cinema at the Jagiellonian University and has been a student at the Krakow Screenplay School since 2008. She has been published in the young literary press and has also written a novella called Hiccups.
Sometimes there are wonderful days. When Dad isn’t there. We look forward to those. I eat the condensed milk that is bad for you, Mom takes the day off. She lets me stay home from preschool, from school. A couple of years later she holds Olek on her lap and plays Monopoly with me. We eat popcorn and watch cartoons on tape. We go to sleep late. When Dad comes back, it gets quiet and scary. It’s stuffy inside my mouth. Like we’re all hiding from a monster in the cabinet. And trying not to breathe so he won’t know we’re there.
I’m afraid of Dad when I sit at the table with him. I’m a couple of years old.
Not anymore. Not anymore because I don’t see him. We haven’t spoken in a long time. I haven’t see him in over a week. He lives in the room next door. He and I have an unwritten agreement. When Dad hears that I’m in the kitchen or the hallway, he doesn’t come out of his room. So he doesn’t see me. It’s bad when someone calls. We run into each other at the phone.
You’re asking if I want to turn you against him? That that’s a negative trait. That I’m venting. You know what I’m going to say. Right? Talk, Klara, quietly, Dad will notice you’re sitting here at the table. He’ll chase you off and hit me for bringing strangers home. By the way. Do you want me to bring you something from outside? You sit there all by yourself in that store. Don’t you?
The Maggi packaging crackles. He’s done eating.
“Come on, eat it!” He talks like he’s yelling.
I hate soup. Mom knows. But she poured my portion and put it on the table. As soon as Dad came back. He yelled.
“Helka, the soup!”
He washed his hands and splashed water on his face, using Mom’s towel to dry off. They always argue because Dad can’t remember which towel is his.
If Mom gave only him the soup and came to my room with me. We would make Dad suspicious. He would start knocking on the door. He would snarl at us. That we’d better admit it. What was going on?
Mom would repeat that nothing was going on.
He wouldn’t believe her.
Both of them would explode.
Mom would cry.
That’s why I got soup too and am sitting over my bowl opposite Dad.
He stands up. He stands over me. He puts his hand on my head. He takes up my hair in his fist. He doesn’t pet me. I am shivering. I can tell he catches on. To the fact that I am disgusted by him. With every ounce of my being.
I look at Dad, from below. I don’t lift up my head very high. I wait.
His mouth is moving. He doesn’t open it. He clenches his lips together and moves them left to right. Licks them. Turns around. Goes.
I have goosebumps on the inside.
The same goosebumps as when Dad makes me flush his spit-covered cigarettes down the toilet. Out of the heavy, navy-blue glass ashtray. I’ll carry it in my open palm. Shaking. Trying not to touch the brim. He spits on the cigarette he’s just put out. Mom will not be home. The spit will start to sizzle on the cigarette butt as it goes out. I throw up my breakfast. On the couch. I’ll get hit in the face. Slapped. I’ll get hit on the head. I’ll fall over on the carpet. I’ll get hit in the butt. Covered in puke and tears. I’ll feel cold because I’ll know he’ll do something else, too. He’ll strike me. He’ll break the ashtray over my head. But he’ll just tell me to stop crying. He’ll tell me to shut my face. Push me one more time.
“I don’t want to have to see you, you little sleazeball. Wash your hands and your face and don’t bellow like an animal. You pig, look what you did, everything is covered in puke, now you’re going to have to wash it. You’ll clean it up, you’ll lick it up with your own tongue.”
I will run to the bathroom, lock the door. Clench my fist and put it up against my mouth. I’ll bite until I stop crying. As quiet as I can. I’ll hear buses passing by the window. And the buzzer a few years later, half a minute later, Mom running late. Dad won’t be able to hurt me now.
I’ll let Mom into the bathroom. She’ll see me sitting between the washing machine and the trash can. With my fist between my teeth. I’ll smell like puke. Mom will pet my hair, lick her lips and clench her teeth.
“Oh my God, baby.”
She’ll squat down beside me. With one hand she will take my fist out of my mouth. With the other she’ll start straightening up my hair. She’ll give me a kiss on the forehead like she’s checking if I have a fever. Her mouth will still be soft and moist.
I don’t eat the soup. I stand up quietly from the table. I will run to Mom. She is watching from the window of the dark kitchen. She’s been observing me and Dad the whole time through those dirty curtains. I nestle against her legs. She smells. Like warmth and sweat.
Dad has noticed I can’t stand him. The air between us is seething.
I’m not quite eight years old. I’m with Dad in the apartment. He pours the soup. Krupnik. I hate krupnik. Cooked meat, groats, brown, yellowish, repulsive. Floating celery and potatoes. I know I can’t. Just not eat it. Dad gives me bread to go with the krupnik. Old bread.
“There you go, for dipping.”
He took that bread from the cloth bag. Mom puts leftover bread in there for the swans. In the park near us. I eat the cooked potatoes out of the soup. I can’t do any more.
Mom doesn’t come back.
Dad comes back into the kitchen after years of my swinging my legs underneath the table. After hours of blowing at little crumbs, left to right. Bread untouched. Soup the same except for the potatoes.
“I just ate the potatoes because I can’t eat the soup.”
“Eat it, now. You better eat it. I’m in charge now, you’re not moving from here. Till you eat that!”
His nose, eyes, ears, hair, everything about him matches what he says, the tone is exactly the same. All the softness filed off.
He sits down next to me. I don’t eat. I know it won’t stay quiet. The bomb will go off.
“You’re not going to eat it?”
“Well then I’ll help you. Right now. You better eat the whole thing, all of it, you little cow!”
He grabs my spoon and fills it with soup. His hand is shaking. He shoves the soup in between my gums.
No, no! I’m not going to let him feed me by force. So he can smile after? With those teeth. Sickening, yellow. From coffee and cigarettes. So he can show how pleased he is, and strong. Because he can force me. No, no.
He forces a couple of spoonfuls into my mouth. Hard, and stronger each time. He presses on my teeth with the spoon. When I open my mouth, he turns the spoon. The soup spills down my chin. The handle of the spoon retreats. This excites me. And I’m scared. That Dad is going to hit me finally. The tension of the game is rising.
My shirt is covered in soup. It’s dripping onto my pants. Dad is getting up.
“Then you’re going to eat something else, you sleazeball. Or I’m going to beat your butt so you’ll never forget. I’m not your mommy. There’s no screwing around with me here!”
He points at the tip of my nose.
He puts some potatoes from lunch into the soup bowl. Meat. Fried beets. A meal I really love. I take my fork. I pick them up from the top. The potatoes and beets. I leave the meat, soaked in krupnik, and the pieces of the beets that are tainted by the groats from the soup.
Dad stands over me. Watching. I can feel him looking at me from behind his glasses.
Translated by Jennifer Croft