With her new book Joanna Bator proves that she is one of the most interesting Polish writers of her generation. Like her very well received novels Sandy Hill and Cloudalia, this one, Dark, Almost Night, takes us on a journey to the town of Wałbrzych, in Silesia. This time, however, it is a more sinister trip. In the company of the central character, Alicja Tabor, who is a newspaper reporter, we will learn the painful history of her family and those closely connected with it, which goes back to the Second World War. Alicja travels from Warsaw to Wałbrzych, her home town, in order to write an article about the mysterious disappearance of three children called Andżelika, Patryk and Kalinka. The case also involves some other unexplained events, including several incidences of cruelty towards animals, and people who turn up and declare themselves to be prophets. Alicja takes up residence in a large, old, formerly German house, and as she gathers material for her report, she starts talking to the locals, who are behaving strangely. From their tangled tales she discovers the truth about herself and her own tragic childhood, over which a shadow was cast by her mother’s madness and the death of her sister, who was obsessed with the legend of Książ Castle and its beautiful resident, Princess Daisy, who was under a curse… As in her previous books, here too Bator weaves her unique tale out of several literary genres. She makes bold use of the Gothic novel, but also of the psychological and crime genres. However, Dark, Almost Night as a whole is not just a playful way of parodying various literary genres; the curious thing is that, despite referring to the Gothic, which these days is highly prone to comical interpretation, the book offers serious thoughts about a world that is permeated by evil (which here becomes personified in the mysterious “cat-eaters”), suffering in the historical past, madness and the tragedy of those who are too sensitive to bear the weight of it all. The past turns out to be a difficult, if not insuperable burden, history likes to repeat itself, and the demons can reawaken at any moment. And somewhere beyond these reflections of a general nature, the story of the heroine’s loneliness is being told too, a woman who is incapable of entering into a deep, satisfying relationship with another person. Bator describes it all in language where simplicity appears alongside lyricism, and legend alternates with raw modernity. This is an interesting, original book.
As I closed the door behind him, I slammed it too hard, knocking off the horseshoe that was hanging on its inner side for good luck, which had evidently ignored this sign of encouragement. It wasn’t the last thing to fall down that day, to disintegrate or turn out to be broken beyond hope. The house was dying before my very eyes, as if wanting to take revenge on me for having abandoned it for so long. In the light of day I could see patches of peeling paint on the ceilings, swollen bubbles of damp under the wallpaper, warped floorboards and carpets so badly eaten away by moths that in some places there was nothing left but the white backing. The transfer with violets on the bathroom door had lost its colour, and the once purple petals and green leaves looked like the wings of dead insects now. I was standing in the rust-coated bath tub, waiting for the ancient boiler to come on so that I could take a shower, but when the hot water finally began to flow, the shower hose couldn’t cope with it and snapped in two. “We’ll put in tiles and a terracotta floor,” my father used to promise, “or maybe instead of boring old terracotta we’ll have a cedar-wood floor? And a jacuzzi too – you’ll be sploshing around like the baby seals at Wrocław zoo – what do you say to that? Or maybe we’ll get a brass bath tub from France with lion’s paw feet?” he would wonder, generously squandering imaginary money. Compared with such wonderful plans, running repairs didn’t seem to him worth the bother. I filled the dreadful bath tub with water and immersed myself, head and all, as in childhood, when my sister used to sit alongside to make sure I didn’t drown. In those days I was fascinated by the underwater noises: knocking, the grate of metal against stone, a voice calling in various languages, hooting sounds and groans. That was the world our father had gone down to, and for which he eventually paid with his life. Regardless of where we actually happened to be, he would point downwards, under our feet, and in the tone of someone who believes, would say: it is here somewhere. Somewhere. Here. It’s Hitler’s treasure. When I find it – and now I have a map of unique value, definitely real – our life will change out of all recognition. It will make us so happy that we will have to get to know each other all over again. Somewhere under the old bath tub, in which the noises of the underground city resounded, there was treasure, which our father used to look for in his shabby Czechoslovak shoes, lighting his way with a miner’s headlamp. I tried to understand why he preferred to be there, rather than here, with me and Ewa. “Ladies and gentlemen,” my sister would joke, “here’s Alicja Tabor, the water Camel, explorer of seas and oceans, which she tours when she’s tired of the desert! The only Camel in the world with fins and gills. A rare species. Highly protected. Today she’s going to tell you what she has seen and heard in the underwater kingdom of our bath tub.” The game involved me telling the truth, that today I had heard knocking, a voice counting in German and in a language like German, where instead of ein there was eins, and the sound of a glass being dropped on a stone floor, and Ewa would add the rest. She’d think up a story, because she was best at that. I was good at listening.
I thought perhaps I’d been wrong to think I was strong enough by now, and that this house full of death and ghosts couldn’t hurt me. I knew I couldn’t give in to fear, so I was staying here, and not at the hotel booked for me by the newspaper, where no one had a clue I was the owner of an old house in Wałbrzych. I was reluctant to talk about the past and rarely came into close enough contact with anyone for them to expect me to open up. “I have no family,” I would reply, whenever the question about parents and siblings was asked, the question my friends were so fond of, because they could go on for hours about the wrongs and traumas they had experienced, as well as their ways of coping, or rather not coping with them, at therapies that went on for years. Throughout my adult life I had been gathering strength, like stocking up supplies for a long winter, and I reckoned I was quite well prepared for this journey. When the children began to disappear in Wałbrzych, I knew the right moment had come, and that it was I, known to my work colleagues as Ironclad Alicja, who must write about them. Now here I was, and the house whose key I always carried on me was snapping its decaying, ex-German jaws at me.
After the shower and the underwater concert I decided to do a tour of all the rooms, to convince myself what this old ruin was good for and what I, Ironclad Alicja, was good for. Upstairs there were two bedrooms; one had once belonged to me and Ewa, and here, on the old double bed with an oak frame and an ancient mattress, I planned to go on sleeping during this stay. A small table, at which we once used to do lessons, two chairs, an empty wardrobe, a rug made of rags, nothing else. The other bedroom had been empty for years – there was nothing in there but a metal bed with no mattress, sad as the wreck of a boat left on a sandbar. Once, in times I don’t remember, my parents had shared it, but later my father had moved downstairs, and from then on the study acted at the same time as his bedroom, dining room and hiding place from the world. That was where I went next, down stairs that creaked so badly I was afraid they would cave in under my slight weight. I was annoyed by the banality of decay, because maybe in the depths of my soul I had been expecting this house to be dying in a more curious, less predictable way. As I opened the door of my father’s room, condensed time hit me in a wave. Through the window, Książ Castle rose out of the beech forest, and whenever my father worked at his desk, still heaped with piles of dusty papers and books, he saw that building every time he looked up from his historical essays, maps and plans. Now I, his younger daughter, was gazing at Książ Castle, at the mist billowing beneath its stone walls, and it was one of those few things that still seemed to me just as large and beautiful as in my childhood. I set the old wall clock going, and as the pendulum began to swing, I felt imprisoned time get moving. Something clicked, as if my time and this house’s time had only now come together. The sofa covered in deerskin on which I used to sit as a child, in the rare moments when my father was not busy looking for treasure and felt ready to face up to being a father, emitted a sighing noise under my weight. For a while I sat still, trying not even to breathe, but I felt nothing but sadness. I peeped into the kitchen, plunged in grey light, as if it were full of water, and water really was dripping into the sink non-stop, flowing from a small stalactite which had formed over the years. From a door leading into the garden came a chill, and the mist was pressing against the window panes. The table and four chairs looked like the skeletons of long dead animals that no one had got around to naming or growing fond of.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd -Jones