This story is like a tightly coiled spring. It is composed of short scenes which tell the story of life in a Kraków family over a few decades. It is full of tension and conflicts; in essence there is a lack of mutual understanding so fundamental that it begs a question that haunts the reader throughout the book – how does this family carry on, why doesn’t it fall apart? Of course there are hints throughout the novel, which lead us towards a number of different answers to this question, but none is entirely convincing: perhaps the sacrament of marriage keeps the family together; perhaps it is weighed down by past events and becomes – at least for the husband – a form of penance; perhaps it is the attraction of opposites and so on. However nothing is fully explained and we are not dealing here with a straightforward journalistic report about a hellish experience of family life. This is simply great literature, and serious literature at that. It is written with verve, intensity and great literary skill. Zośka Papużanka uses language boldly; she freely engages in word play; she has an ear for the particular speech of different individuals, which brings the characters to life better than any narrator’s description could do. She does all this superbly and her discernment in planning the story is admirable. I suspect she was guided by something you might call “authorial self-restraint”, so instead of constructing the expansive narrative which this subject seems to call for, instead of giving us a protracted family saga, she records episodes from various periods in the family’s life in an almost telegraphic style, changing the point of view and the narrator, along the lines suggested by the first paragraph of the novel. This work could be seen as the essence of a novel, a “concentrate” as it were, which would have to be diluted by “adding water” if you wanted to turn it into an ordinary novel. I doubt such dilution would improve the book, as it might well weaken the powerful impact it has on the reader – as it stands this novel pulls no punches.
Zośka Papużanka (born 1978) is a theatre studies graduate and works as a polish language teacher. She is currently studying for a doctorate in literature. A domestic charade is her literary debut.
It always happens. Children get lost in the woods, the same old story. Nothing can be done about it. In spite of any efforts to disrupt our habitual reactions, we will go down well-trodden paths. Such effort is a waste of time and won't save anything. In spite of our effort to try and remember a particular moment, it always turns out it didn’t happen quite as we remembered; no telling who did or said something; we are left with only a few shreds, dirty streaks on our plates, which don't relate to anyone. It will never be clear which person is the narrator and which person a character, who has a cameo role and who is a central figure, whose are the words forming on the page. What is clear is which person is going to lose: the loser is always evident from the start.
It was impossible to find any explanation for that marriage. Any. Rational or irrational. No feelings, for sure. There weren’t any particular circumstances or twists of fate, not even any money behind it. They neither liked nor suited each other. No one was able to say why he married her. For her part, she had already been married once before. It's true her spouse was six feet under but surely she could’ve stopped with one in the grave? Not much was known about her first husband. She herself readily mentioned his fine singing voice, but was less keen to mention that he went looting, in other words he broke the law and that was his way of providing for her.
After her first husband, who developed legendary status like the outlaw Janosik, got dirt in a leg wound and died, she returned to her family home bringing a single suitcase and partly dragging, partly carrying a three-year-old nipper with grazed knees. Her mother sighed, opened the front door and carried on with her own business, not even giving the returning prodigal daughter a second look. "Well, there you are. I only just got the yattering din out of the door and back it comes multiplied." The prodigal daughter wasn't bothered by her mother in the least; she sat the child down in the corner, thrust a slab of bread into its hand, rolled up her sleeves and got down to work.
She made no demands on anyone: she helped everyone a bit and hardly took any care of herself at all. Autumn turned into winter, winter into spring; her old dresses started to fit a little more tightly around her stomach; her hands became worn from doing the laundry and working in the fields. She put her hands on her hips, planted her legs wide apart so as to block the view as much as possible and held her head cocked slightly to one side, like a hen pretending to understand something or other. She always told everyone the truth and at once, even if it was something the person didn't want to hear. One man was too thin, another spotty; that woman would never get herself a bloke, certainly not in daylight. Everyone showed her respect, no one liked her: that was just what she wanted. When she was selecting seedling potatoes from her basket, she would bend down over the flat strip of land and position her big, hard backside on the stable scaffolding of her legs and everyone knew that her stuck-up rear end showed exactly what she thought of them.
So why, oh why, did he marry her? She was a widow with a child, spiteful and eternally dissatisfied. He can only have felt sorry for her.
"Dear brother," wrote Bronek, "Warmest greetings from Kraków! The city is huge. There are so many historical buildings here! When I have time to spare, I take a walk and look at them. I've already been toWawelCastleand in the Dragon's Cave. Everything is different here. I've got a good job: it's in a shop. I'm living with a mate for now, but I'm putting money aside to get my own place at last. I met a girl, you see, when I went to the café for a coffee. She works there as a waitress, but she comes from the country and we plan to get married. So that's my news—lots of changes. Don't shilly-shally, pack what belongings you have and join me. I'll help you find work and you might meet even meet someone at the wedding. How long can a man live on his tod for goodness' sake? With brotherly love, Bronisław."
"Dearest brother," ran the ready reply both in his thoughts and on the sheet of paper, "I've been thinking of doing that for a long time now. Mother is pacing the house: she had to sell the cow as things are going downhill at home. Stasia and her husband are still living with us because they've got nowhere else to go and a third child is due in the spring. Walenty is also going to take a wife and where would they live other than our family home? Jan, on the other hand, acts the landowner through and through: he's settled on his hectares of land, which came as part of the dowry, and won't let anyone past the threshold. Nobody needs me here and it'll be one mouth less to feed, so I've packed already. Jan, the dear fellow, will lend me the money for the ticket if I promise not to come back."
He was barely off the train when he was pushed into his place like a sheep amongst wolves, halfway between the vodka and the appetizers, half the time between Bronek in his new suit and Bronek's bride with her thick plaits and token maiden's garland, because Bronek had plucked her real flower a week earlier in the barn—he had been dead set on doing it even though the hay was jabbing him painfully in the arse while he was at it. So he was given a seat betwixt the lord, the village elder and the parson at this unpoetic wedding reception on the outskirts of Kraków: without Rachel, without any golden horseshoes, but amongst a whole bunch of Straw Men. Bronek repeatedly returned to keep his brother well watered with vodka, as if he were an exotic plant. The bride's aunts took him under their wings, engaging him in their cold-sausage-and-cucumber chatter.
Someone's granddad, who knows whose, but he was certainly at least a hundred years old, was ruffling the tablecloth with his mighty snores, when he suddenly woke with a cry, "Who said I was a gullible old stag?" and then he dropped into blissful slumber once more, holding up an impressive set of antlers with his hands. A merry cousin who had been drinking dejectedly for an hour, suddenly got up her courage and decided to publicly announce the whole truth about her husband, at which he decided to publicly spank her bottom and then it publicly transpired that her bottom was bereft of underwear. All the girls kept a careful eye on the groom's brother, a guest from afar, who was announced loudly, which made him feel very self-conscious. All the girls watched the movements of his slim hands, busy handling the cheesecake and the cabbage and meat stew; all the girls including those who were dancing with others, gleefully exposing their chubby, bulging knees from beneath layers of skirts and petticoats; all the girls including the one Bronek had put him next to, the one who laughed the loudest, danced the most and drank the most; the one who had just sat herself down beside him and leaned back against the wall as if she wanted to knock the whole house down. She was now fastening her hair, which had come loose, into a bun, revealing the round stains of sweat on her white embroidered blouse. She was the woman next to whom Bronek had intentionally seated him, intentionally because it was high time he stopped living alone. "This is my brother. He's come from the Pomeranian region. He's going to work with me in Kraków. He's a good bloke, but all alone in the world." "Well let him have some vodka then, he'll get to like it here in no time." "I've taken a fancy to this place already. Won't you have a drink with me, miss?" "I'm no miss," said the two rows of strong teeth, biting the pink, juicy flesh of her tongue. "No, I'm no miss. I'm a missus—a widow." "So young, yet widowed already?" "Yes, a widow." She sounded proud rather than sad. "My husband passed away two years ago, so I'm a widow. But what's the point of being upset about it? Life's crap anyway, why should I make it worse by getting upset? Death comes to us all. Will you be staying in Kraków for long?" "Probably for good, dear lady. Probably for good."
Translated by Kasia Beresford