In her latest book, poet, writer and columnist Anna Janko combines all the genres in which she writes. The Passion According to Saint Hanka is extremely bold erotic literature, unique in the Polish tradition, written from a woman’s point of view. Disciplined, concise, at times ironical, but ever full of genuine, erotic passion, this prose is a radical affirmation of a woman’s sexual freedom. The story appears to be plotless, fragmented and not linear. In fact it is very carefully composed, rather in the style of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Through micro narratives, analyses of individual ideas and newspaper-column-style texts, Janko tries to get to the heart of what may be mankind’s greatest mystery: erotic love, in all its intoxicating and destructive manifestations. How does it work? What effect does it have on life, on the chemistry of the human organism, and on writing? How is the choice of our object of desire connected with our childhood? What are the typical behaviour patterns for men, and what are they for women? In what way is this woman in love similar to all other people in love, and in what way does she defend her individual persona against passion, as it bids her to undergo the cataclysm of love in her own unique way? Janko provides the answers to all these questions as a poet. For her, the decisive factor is the language in which one talks and writes about love. Only language allows a person’s integrity to remain intact as he or she is flooded by a powerful stream of sexual impulse and enchantment from an unknown source.
Woven out of bits and pieces, the plot appears on the surface to be an everyday story. A pretty, talented girl becomes a wife and mother. Gradually her capacity for sexual arousal closes down, and her brightness begins to fade. But then a man appears, simply referred to as He, who is not her husband, but a lover. The world starts to spin and to sparkle, as inner and outer barriers crumble. On this wave of elation, all the moods of this kind that she has experienced in the remote past and long since forgotten come back again as the most important thing in her life. The desire to create also returns; betrayed and abandoned, her loved ones become at the same time even more present and important. What happens when this mood passes? Nothing. The world turns out to have carried on in the same way the whole time.
Anna Janko (born 1957) is a writer, poet and literary critic. She has published several volumes of poetry and a novel entitled The Girl With Matches (nominated for the Cogito Media Prize 2008 and the Angelus), which was very well received by critics and readers alike, and was described as required therapeutic reading for any woman. She currently contributes to Polish Radio and to a number of journals.
Love goes round among people looking for lovers. It’s all the same who they are and how deeply involved in life, how old they are, how much strength, money or time they have, what views, plans, obligations or duties they have.
It will start in the spring. For now it is still winter, there’s already something trailing like a wisp of smoke above the snow-coated shingle, but it will start for real in spring, in Kazimierz on the Vistula. And it will erupt in summer. This eruption will cause great turmoil, immense disruption, and the world will stand on the brink. But for now I know nothing about it. I can sense something, because inside me everything is already ripe for change. For Change, with a big C. I’m waiting for the big Now. Because love is the only opportunity for a person to be able to sit back, and then immediately take control of the here and now. Because having an actual experience of the here and now gives one a taste of eternity.
Those who are truly in love are creatures from nowhere. With no roots, no mothers, fathers or grandparents. And always heirless, even if they have a dozen children. They are people with no past and no future. The fact that they tell each other their life story and that they make plans to escape together doesn’t mean a thing. Those are just inevitable elements, stage props, points in the game. In reality (as far as love is any kind of a reality) they have nothing to hold onto. Light and darkness play with lovers, taking them from each other by turns. And the lovers, like avatars, desensitised automata, pretend to be the same familiar characters as in their life until now, but inside they are made of crystal and dark silt, they are endlessly creating something out of nothing, and nothing out of something...
It is still winter. Hanka (that’s me) is 37 years old. To those over twenty, that’s a lot. To those over forty, that’s not much. She is slender, quick in her movements, has long hair and wears baggy jeans. She gets up early in the morning, sends the children off to school and her husband to work, and then stares out of the window. And is getting ready to jump...
After coming home from Kazimierz I was as if drunk. Not sober, not sane, not serious, but strange. I was drunk on love. There was a smile wandering about my face. There were thoughts wandering about my head. I seemed not fully conscious of the reality of my existence in a real-life family. I shut myself in my bedroom. I closed the golden blinds in both windows and sat there in a golden box. I didn’t eat a thing for a week. I just drank water, by the litre. And listened to Schubert. “Death and the Maiden” round the clock. As performed by the Travnicek Quartet. I waited for the heart-wrenching andante con moto, then I would wind back the tape and steep myself once again in this resounding pain, trying hard to understand what was up, what had happened to me. And I did understand, as I wrote letter after letter to my beloved. I wrote to him: It’s not you that I love you, but through you something that’s bigger than us, life itself, the wonder of it and its transience, and freedom from all this.
I drank water, I wrote letters, I listened to Schubert, I laughed and I cried by turns, and over and over I died away into semi-sweet non-existence. As I did so I wrote dozens of bad poems. Bad both in terms of literature and ethics, because they were in praise of infidelity, they extolled the innocence of betrayal, they expressed my readiness for ANYTHING, right away...
That was the beginning. Like flying towards the sun. And then it was impossible to come down to land any more. I had to keep flying, on and on, because I no longer had a nest. Until finally the earth came to an end too, and the abyss began.
People believe that in the depths of love there is hidden treasure. That the meaning of existence is contained in an ardent relationship between two beings. They believe that if they surrender to love with the greatest determination, boundlessly and definitively, this meaning will be revealed, they will touch the core, they will be pervaded by the truth. People believe that at that moment the four points of the compass – always and never, everywhere and nowhere – will merge into a single, comprehensible time-and-space continuum.
And they are filled with a thrilling sense of peace. At last.
Tell me about your lovers.
Tell me about your women. What were they like? How much did you love them? For how long?
Did they have breasts like apples, or like pears? And what colour was the hair at the juncture of their thighs?
What did their necks smell like in the heat? And how agile were their tongues?
And their bellies, were the bellies of your women silver in the moonlight, did you lay your head on them to cry for the unattainable point of origin?
Were those women good to you? Did they feed you with hunger and water you with desire? Did they give themselves to you without shame? Did they shout louder on the night of the full moon?
Did they know the song which I sing to you?
What prayer did they whisper at dusk, as the city went to the bottom like a carved stone relief?
What did they hum at dawn in the green rays of the rising gardens?
What were you trying to catch up with as you ran together, panting and shouting, across the sparkling desert of the night?
How badly did they break your heart when they left?
My curiosity is like a victory, after all my name is Now.
Tell me about them – we shall kill them together.
The anatomy of betrayal. Betrayal is love. It is justified. It does not hurt. It is beautiful. It gives a foretaste of transgression. It has an aftertaste of freedom. It is innocent. Even if it keeps repeating the Ten Commandments to itself by heart, it doesn’t understand any of them. It is love. It is love. It stakes everything on one single card, to win one single night. And it does win.
What happens the next day is quite another story.
Being in love is like a dream about flying, and when you wake up from it, you can’t believe in gravity, but everything has its weight again – you can remember exactly what it’s like to break free of the ground, but it simply doesn’t work any more.
It’s like when you wake up from an easy life. One day something dreadful happens, and you wake up from an easy life into a hard one. The old life seems unreal, as if you just dreamed it; you can long for it, you can try on the forgotten emotions, but they are like dummies, they can’t be made to move, and you are like someone else who has taken himself off to a different consciousness.
The schizophrenia of a double life. The symptoms: mixing up the names of the two lovers. A lack of coherent vision of the immediate future – every plan has two versions, just in case. What is said and what is done are perfectly separable, and yet if need be they can cover each other like a sandcastle mould. Further symptoms of a split personality: a total lack of social sensitivity – being so absorbed by details that determine the character of both realities that there isn’t enough room for other people’s problems. They only count in as much as they take part in the game, as “one of ours” or “the enemy”. Moreover, communicating with one’s actual self is greatly encumbered. Because the crack is getting bigger...
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones