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Dluga Street didn't belong to our world. It had little in common with the historical moment, with the moment designated by that proud, often misused phrase "the present day." It was a flagrant anachronism, even though a few steps away Warsaw Street ran obligingly in the direction of the capital and Dluga Street itself bisected Three Poets' Boulevard, already a busy thoroughfare by the 1960s. But of course this kind of distance from the reigning age is something completely different for a street than it is for living, feeling people. Streets are usually mindless: their low brows don't conceal hope, despair, or ideas. The rooftops rest placidly on apartment buildings. But one may suppose or suspect certain things nonetheless. Thus it seems to me that Dluga Street preferred horses and horse-drawn carriages. Peasant carts probably suited it best, but it had no objection to smart coaches with cushioned rubber wheels rolling merrily on their springs. There was a place for such things, they fit the street's tricky character. In the winter fragrant horse dung garnished the white snow with yellow spots, steaming lavishly; it lured the local sparrows, greedy for any sort of diversion. Dluga Street was caught painfully off guard by modern history. It didn't like electricity or internal combustion engines; it didn't like Hitlerism, introduced by the triumphant Wehrmacht, or Stalinism, imported by the Red Army. It would have been happy with horses, carts, and the sweet scent of manure. Servants' shouting, the parasols of elegant ladies, the changing seasons, rain, snow, and sunthese would have filled its modest lifecompletely. Some of these enduring things lingered on. In the fall, heaps of coal rose on the sidewalk, transported in scuttles, or shoveled with spades straight into cellars. Before the Christmas holidays, firs and pines sprouted on balconies, and luckless, bug-eyed carps with voluptuous lips were brought home by patresfamilias in nets from which drops of water fled. There, in the dense hedgerows of apartment houses rubbing walls in solidarity as if boosting one another's spirits in troubled times, there on the fourth floor, lay the tiny estate of Mrs. C., where I rented my first room in Krakow.
Mrs. C. is doubtless no longer living. Mrs. C. would certainly not have wanted her noble surname disclosed to the reading public. Thus she will remain simply Mrs. C., former member of the landed gentryan F.L.G., FLAG, as they were usually knownalthough now, after the war, she governed not an entire estate but a single small apartment.
I didn't know much about her. I didn't know what had happened to her husband, or if she'd actually ever been married. I didn't know if she had children, and if so, where they lived. Mrs. C. despised her tenants and almost never spoke with them, that is, with us. Her personal life, the prehistory of her present existence, thus could not be uncovered. But no, I misspoke, she didn't despise her tenants, it wasn't anything so simple, so vulgar. Her true residence was elsewhere, in a different realm, in some imperceptible, inscrutable register of the cosmos. She wasn't there among us, among those who had agreed that the gray world of Communism actually did exist. She refused to endorse a treaty with Reality; she performed in a different theater, dwelled in a different country. She wasn't among uswe met her only in the apartment's corridor, a dismal hallway that called to mind the ruined parts of town. Mrs. C. was determined to maintain her prewar status in this shabby setting. She had decided to remain an heiress, the mistress of an estate, and continued to look down her nose at those from other walks of life. This decision determined everything, since she wasn't actually distinguished in any way, she didn't know any more than ordinary people, she wasn't a blue blood, a true aristocrat. She was a short, heavy woman with a cross, homely face like a crushed doughnut, hair of an indeterminate color, and a damp, unpleasant voice.
Her policy was simply not to appear, to leave the parlor that was also her bedroom as seldom as possible. To be invisible, not to be swallowed up in others' eyes, to shield her essencebut what was her essence?from contact with other essences. She almost never left the house, and exhaustive preparations preceded her infrequent outings, as if major international publications had sent swarms of photojournalists to lie in wait for her on the street. Once I heard her say, "Each exit is my Rapallo." Why Rapallo? She probably didn't know herself, but Rapallo had a nice, round ring to it. From time to time she entertained companyaging ladies drawn only from her own class, the F.L.G.'sand then only in the afternoon, at English teatime, never for dinner in the evening.
Mrs. C. was preoccupied with her historical mission, with the defense of her own social position, the defense of feudalism in a hostile Communist environment. It was taboo to touch a broom, peel potatoes, wash the floor, make dinner. Such seemingly inconsequential actions could lead to only one thing: the annihilation of her higher substance, the substance that was her greatest andwhy beat around the bush?only treasure. If she were to make herself a soft-boiled egg or fry a schnitzel, then the dignity of an entire era would collapse with a crash, the Middle Ages would finally grind to a halt.
Fortunately, there was someone to wash the windows and floors, do the shopping, make lunch and dinner: Helena, the maid, the servant, the serf. Helena got up every day at 4 a.m. and took the early streetcarfull of desperadoes with eyes red from exhaustionin to work. She worked as a janitor in the city's center for rat control and perhaps as a result she herself looked a little like a rat: she had a narrow snout, a straight nose, and small, bright eyes. She was short and deft, restless and meddlesome. No one ever did battle for this Helen beneath the walls of Troy. When she left for work at dawn, the rest of the apartment house had not yet woken up; most of the town's inhabitants were still sound asleep. Mrs. C. was undoubtedly asleep, I was sleeping, and so was my roommate, an enigmatic engineering student two years older than myself. The entire house woke up only around seven-thirty when Helena returned with the brisk air of one who had done her small part in exterminating the city's vermin. Helena came home from work just as bleary civil servants were approaching the city's many office buildings, and as the rats lay down to sleep in their lairs.
Helena was called upon to deal with the outside world, with history and nature, with pigeons and crows, with cats, with the milkman, mailman, and chimney sweep, with soot and milk. She was the one who handled concrete objects; she inhaled dust, polished the doorknobs, and scoured the kettle. She was always in a rush, no time to rest, she hurried and scurried. She slept in the kitchen, on a couch covered with a brown bedspread by day. At night she pored over the local paper by lamplight; this was her only chance to contemplate the varieties of human folly. She would put on her wire-rimmed glasses and scrutinize the events listed in the crime column: someone had murdered someone else, out of love or envy, for money. I think she sighed then with relief, since this meant the world had not entirely lost its earlier, prewar imagination and wasn't yet reduced to meetings of the one party's central committee. Mrs. C. handed down instructions, managed the expenses, and, like any minister of finance, complained about costs and Helena's unconscionable overspending.
From time to time horrific quarrels erupted between the mistress and her galley slave for no apparent reason; as in an arsenal, the slightest spark could set off an explosion. Helena would give her oppressor notice, slam the door, run out of the house, come back, slam the door again, and scream, "I've had it! Why is it always me, me, me, always just me." Because of her daily streetcar rides and her contact with people, Helena had a better grasp of what was actually happening in Krakow and the country. She was the one who sensed the city's shifting moods; she was the one who read the paper, even though she only read the crime column. In theory, she should have gradually gained the upper hand in the household; Mrs. C. would then have been reduced to the role of a British sovereign, forced to approve automatically all decisions taken by the government. But Mrs. C. demanded absolute power; she refused to accept reforms. Her reign was not founded on education or a grasp of modern life. Her right to rule was underwritten by a certain style, a certain manner of speaking and dressing (she liked white blouses, washed and pressed by Helena), a certain fussy way of puckering her lips, her four words in French. Knowledge was beside the point. Mrs. C. had no interest in current events. What had to happen had already happened. The notion of following changes in Communist policy and ideology never entered her mind. If someone had told her that there was a real difference between Communism's most brutal year, say, 1952, and the Gomulka period in the sixties, she wouldn't have believed it for a minute. No, she would have refused even to listen.
Helena's rebellions never got off the ground. Mrs. C. didn't suppress them, she simply waited them out. She locked herself up in her little parlor as if it were a fortress, fasted, and patiently waited for the storm to pass. And the storm always did pass. Helena always relented and returned to her endless duties. For a time she would be cross and fight-lipped, but resigned. She would snort angrily and mock everyone who spoke to her, but finally this routine bored even her and, shrugging, she'd regain her usual good nature. Sometimes she took it out on us, the tenants.
She was a magpie, a snoop. I suspected her of regularly rummaging through our things and once left a card that said "Please don't look here" in my desk drawer. Helena took offense and didn't speak to me for several days, and then, when her anger had subsided, she reproached me bitterly: "How could you even think such a thing? So you don't trust me at all."
These two aging women, ugly, taken from a second-rate Dutch painting, hating and tolerating each other by turns, forgiving or forgetting the differences between them, truly existed; brisk, nimble Helena and phlegmatic Mrs. C., pursing her lips. They both went to church on Sunday, but never together. Helena preferred the early mass, while Mrs. C. attended only high mass, carrying a black prayerbook in her right hand and a genuine calfskin handbag in her left.
They lived trapped in a cage, in a second-rate Dutch painting, in a cramped apartment, in spite. I was a student then, attending lectures, everything seemed open, possible. I rushed out of that fourth-floor apartment and instantly forgot the two women's tragedies and hatreds. I paced the path to the net-Gothic university with rapid steps. I strolled beneath the lush trees of the Planty gardens. At times I pitied the two women, caught once and for all within their little fates. It wasn't fair: infinity was humming right beside them, the stars came out at night. Everything was possible. I heard lectures on Husserl, on Descartes, who'd had his epiphany one night, on Pascal's fire. Some books took flame while others held only straw, clay, feathers. I knew I wouldn't stay long at Mrs. C.'s place, although there were in fact moments when I too took part in the women's dull pain, when their ill humor captured me. These were only moments, though, and I shook them off quickly. But the women were chained to their misery, their inferno; they couldn't break free of it.
Was it naïve to think of them this way? Yes, it was. The jaundiced Mrs. C. couldn't suddenly run from the house and become a young girl yearning for knowledge and revelation. Helena probably couldn't escape the center for rat control.
No, it wasn't naive. They didn't want a great life. Yes, it was naïve. A great life had been snatched from them forever, for all eternity. Figuring out crossword puzzlesI glimpsed this once completely by chancewas Mrs. C.'s secret. Not a cross, just a crossword. The words marched up and down, but they didn't make sense, they were powerless, crucified. A great nation's capital on a small river. Champagne for children. An African city.
And it had come to this. Mrs. C. had three tenantstwo students and a tall old man, already half-dead. Hard of hearing, he listened to the radio for days on end with the volume turned up so high that the walls shook. Of course, he listened only to Radio Free Europe. He moved cautiously, as slowly as possible, shuffling his slippers across the floor. It had come to this: a few pennies in rent, a pension, a cleaning woman's pay.
No, it wasn't naïve, since life is for each of us, for everyone.
I lost two homelands as a child. I lost the city where I was born, the city where countless generations of my family had lived before my birth. But the onset of Soviet-style rule meant I also forfeited my easy, natural access to a general, self-evident truth. It took me many years to return to life's main current, to accept once more the simplest certainties, certainties that only charlatans and madmen call into question.