The Whale, or Objective Chance

Droshky

Before a screening at the Wrocław Film Festival, an acquaintance explains her problem at length. For a wedding-present to a friend, she had decided to hire a droshky to take the bride and groom from the church to the restaurant. Although the distance between the buildings is barely a hundred meters, the driver was demanding an astronomical sum. “So let them go on foot,” I suggest, certain that the less money spent on a marriage, the greater its chances of survival. Our acquaintance, however, doesn’t want to hear about it. She claims that walking even a few paces can easily spoil your dress. Her deliberations on how to make the driver reduce his rate are interrupted by the start of the screening. The film is a half-hour study with a title that says very little. In the opening scene, a car traveling along a forest road stops suddenly and a man’s hand pushes a bride dressed from top to toe in white tulle onto the hard shoulder. Throughout the next twenty-seven minutes the discarded bride wades through bogs, slithers over boulders, forces her way through dense thickets, falls into a stream–in ever filthier and flimsier attire, its tattered shreds marking her journey of martyrdom. Clad only in sexy underwear bespattered with blood, she eventually arrives at a remote hut in the wilderness. The film ends with a return to the opening scene: a car traveling along a forest road stops suddenly and a man’s hand pushes a bride dressed from top to toe in white tulle onto the hard shoulder. When the lights go up, I advise my acquaintance to pay any price for the droshky. Although, of course, one can’t discount the possibility the driver had his plant among festival organizers.

Cleanliness

We board a taxi standing at the taxi rank but have to wait until the driver finishes polishing the already-shining door handle. Inside, our throats burn from the smells of air freshener and cleaning products. When I tell the driver he has the cleanest car in town, he replies he used to wash it non-stop. He couldn’t control himself: every few days the urge seized him; he would abandon everything and rush to the car wash. After a while, however, he observed that after every visit, it rained. The connection proved true so many times, he decided to tame the impulse. He invented the most varied occupations, if only to divert his attention and wait for the mood to pass. He took up the struggle against his addiction like an alcoholic or a smoker terrified by the prospect of cancer. His theory continued to be proved right: after every attack, a storm would break or rain gush from the clear sky. Today he’s no longer in doubt that the tension triggered in his organism by the change in atmospheric pressure immediately before a downpour manifested itself in his need to clean his taxi. He is glad he conquered the addiction because, so he claims, people prefer to get into dirty cars. When, half an hour after returning home, I glanced out of the window, he was still polishing the rear windscreen. It was well after midnight, but even in the light of the streetlamp, the taxi shone like a kitchen worktop in a Pronto advert.

The Apartment

The rhetoric of estate agents is reminiscent of the rhetoric of politicians: a lot of words referring to a given situation in the most generalized way. The sincerity of both agents and politicians is limited by a large number of extraneous factors beyond their control. And both former and the latter are bent on achieving a specific goal. I was reminded of estate agents when watching the first round of the presidential election in France. The candidates said more or less the same thing, declining in a thousand different ways the magic word: CHANGE. When looking for an apartment a few years ago, we received a lesson in politics. The estate agents interpreted our two conditions–a top floor and not next to a children’s playground–like true statesmen, offering us, without batting an eyelid, a ground floor apartment whose windows opened onto a nursery school. Because, “admittedly, it was not exactly what we thought we were looking for, but…” The record for diplomatic skill was broken by a female agent who tried to flog us the musty attic of a dreadful tenement in Żoliborz. When we arrived to view it, we felt as if we’d stepped into the set of Polański’s The Tenant. Hostile stares followed us everywhere: of obese women in once-white lacy bras, sunbathing by a manhole in a courtyard piled high with rubbish, and potbellied men in sweaty t-shirts full of holes, cans of beer in their hands, leaning over the railings of balconies that threatened to collapse. Everything was atrocious, but worst of all was the stairwell stinking of mold. “The stairwell is awfully damp,” I said, for the sake of saying something. The agent must have often watched politicians’ press conferences. “That’s only what it looks like,” she explained.

Truth

In the Gothic church of Saint Catherine in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, recently reopened following restoration, my attention is drawn to a series of plaques strategically placed in the nave and cloisters. Anxious to learn more of the building’s history and treasures, I approach one of them and read: “Invite. WC. Tea, coffee, sweets. XVth basement.” Other plaques repeat the same information. Intrigued by the intensity of the advertising, I move towards the fifteenth-century crypt. On the way I pass a gigantic statue of Saint Rita (not Catherine)–the patron saint of unhappy marriages, who humbly bore the humiliations inflicted by her cruel husband and, after his death, spent forty years watering a dry stick thrust in the ground. I glance at the only icon in Poland of Our Lady of the Anchor. In the cloisters, I look at the frescoes. At last, I reach the crypt. I am the only consumer of a glass of instant coffee and a Prince Polo bar. As I savor them, recalling the tastes of the People’s Republic, the female parishioner running the café brings me a small printed guide to the church. I read about the miracles attributed to Saint Rita and extraordinary events in the mystic life of Saint Catherine; about the dry stick that blossomed one night into a white flower; about the terrible stench emanating from the rotting wound on Rita’s forehead surrounding a thorn sent from Heaven, transformed after her death into the scent of roses; about her miraculously preserved remains. I have not finished drinking my coffee when the woman decides to urge me to purchase the book: “There are no mistakes in it,” she asserts. “Only genuine facts. And you know what nonsense they manage to write nowadays!”

The Whale

A gallery of naïve art in the Kraków district of Kazimierz had a whale. The whale was a meter-long wooden sculpture painted blue. Hanging outside above the entrance, fastened to the wall by a heavy chain, it caught the eye of potential clients. One night it vanished. Only Jonah remained safe inside the shop, wisely removed from the monster’s mouth before it was reinvented as a signboard. Exactly two weeks went by before the gallery owner received a letter from the kidnappers. They did not demand a ransom. They merely assured him that the whale was in good hands.

Dentist

In the art museum in Dijon, T. and I examine the tombs of the dukes of Burgundy. We admire the artists’ skill in portraying in stone the folds of robes, the softness of cushions, the contours of the habits of mourning monks. I point out the mouth of a lion keeping watch at the feet of the wife of Philip the Bold, reminiscent of a shark’s jaws. A moment later objective chance, in which the Surrealists believed with such ardent devotion, reveals itself. It appears in the guise of a museum security guard. Overcoming his shyness, this modest man asks in what language we are admiring the treasures he guards. Discovering it’s Polish, he goes into raptures, opens his mouth wide and shows us a gap in his teeth. He wants information about the cost of having an implant in Kraków. He inquires about the address of a dentist.

Fortune-teller

Maybe because of the oneiric aura of its arcades, Lyon became about a hundred years ago the capital of French spiritualism. Since I was passing through, I decided to test how well the tradition was holding up. I went to see a fortune-teller recommended by a writer living in Paris, who confided to me she was not the only one to regularly phone the Lyonnais sorceress (her busy lifestyle prevented her from making frequent visits). While others wanted advice regarding their life choices, she sought help of a literary nature–if only how to finish a novel, or about whether to make the main hero spotlessly honest, or whether to allow him a few minor weaknesses and thereby risk her readers’ irritation. The fortune-teller never made a mistake, displaying the qualities of a good literary agent. Judging by the popular success of the Parisian writer, she was indeed well-informed about the tastes of the public at large. My visit, however, did not work out well. Perhaps because I did not come with a precise question, or because of the eternal skepticism that always complicates my life. It was awakened already in the hallway, and before the end of the session had turned to dislike. For someone of her age, the fortune-teller was aggressively made-up: raven-black eyebrows; sky-blue eyelids, and beneath them a crafty stare; peroxide hairdo, red nails, tight-fitting gold lamé jacket. They all made her look like a saleswoman from a cheap bazaar. She emanated falsehood and avarice. Her apartment was furnished in bourgeois taste, covered in lace tablecloths and full of photographs of the mistress at various stages of her life. As a young woman, she hadn’t looked any nicer. The atmosphere of the room where the fortune-telling took place had something especially unpleasant about it. All this, however, was beside the point, for who said a fortune-teller shouldn’t look like a trader or her apartment like a poorer version of an haute-bourgeois drawing room? The real difficulties began when we sat down at the scratched table, its dirty surface barely masked by the lace napkins. Instead of telling my fortune, the fortune-teller tried to question me about the worries to which she owed my visit. I was silent as the grave. I saw her mounting impatience and congratulated myself in the spirit of good communist training: in case of anything untoward, say as little as possible and stick to generalities. Time went by, the cuckoo clock kept ticking, my skepticism turned to dislike, and the fortune-teller’s questions became more insidious. Certainly, she was asking herself why I’d come. The recommendation of the Parisian writer ruled out a cynical visit based only on curiosity. Suddenly, the telephone rang: it was my acquaintance, stuck in a literary impasse and asking for help in disentangling the problem of a love triangle in her latest novel. The fortune-teller imparted her advice, suggesting the married couple return to one another and the lover get the punishment she deserves. The enthusiasm of her interlocutor–convinced such an epilogue would gain the approval of readers–intensified at the news I had interrupted my journey and made it to the magic address. Having arranged for a longer séance by telephone the following day, the fortune-teller sat down beside me and halfheartedly shuffled a greasy pack of cards. Again she questioned me and again I imagined her as an investigating officer, prepared to use any information against me and my secret organization bent on undermining the system. I held my own resourcefully and betrayed not a hint of the secret. Probably in order to gain time, the fortune-teller got up, took a dented tin box from the lace-covered sideboard, opened it, and shoved it under my nose. It stank of dust and something stale and sickly. Inside were lumps of grey cotton-wool and dried-up fruit drops without wrappers. I thought the experience had to be complete, and stuffed a sweet into my mouth. We sat a while longer over the weary pack of cards until the sorceress–evidently realizing that she would get nowhere and foretell nothing–changed the subject. She began to rage against the Arabs living in Lyon. About how it was before they came, and how it is now. How she hates them and what France should do about it. She ceased playing a game; genuine red blotches appeared on her cheeks smeared in rouge. She was like a vampire aroused by a new victim. She knew I was a foreigner, and felt it her mission to pass on her truth, which I would then broadcast in my remote country still free of her problems. I was not surprised. All the elements visible earlier now came together to form a single, coherent image. The session drew to an unexpectedly swift end. I no longer meet up with the Parisian writer. I am convinced her novels continue to sell splendidly.

Tattoo

A long time ago at a party, one of the guests removed his shirt and displayed a scene from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal tattooed on his back: the game of chess with death. Many years went by and tattoos became fashionable. Following a lecture on Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a student said she had something to show me. She drew up her blouse and unveiled Beardsley’s illustration of the Judean princess kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, faithfully transferred onto her back. I inquired about the technique, the time necessary to achieve such an effect, and the pain accompanying the operation. I received detailed explanations. Moreover, it transpired that the student herself was a tattoo artist, thanks to which she could afford her college fees. For years, the same clients had been coming to her: old and young, men and women. Hardly does she finish one tattoo when they want the next. They have two things in common: loneliness and the desire to open their hearts–even to someone who admittedly inflicts pain but is close by and listens.

Pastor

From the bathroom window of our 1847 home in Newport, where we have been living for the past year, at any time of day or night we notice the same thing: the bald head of a large man sitting motionless before a gigantic television in the next-door house. The screen is so vast that despite the two intervening gardens we can watch without difficulty the programs selected by the viewer–pornographic films alternating with reports of election campaigns. After a time we start to get worried: the guy never changes position, never scratches his bald patch, never picks his nose, never goes to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, never reaches to the bar for a glass of crème de menthe, famous for its aphrodisiac qualities. The object of our fascination resides on the second floor. Now and then, we can see a woman busying herself in the kitchen on the ground floor. His wife (or widow?), who–having carried out the perfect murder–had placed his mummified remains on a disused sofa in the attic, programming the television in accordance with the dead man’s tastes, which were all too familiar? Was her motive for the crime jealousy of the youthful bodies writhing about on the screen in paroxysms of pleasure? Are we observing the sequel to Hitchcock’s Psycho? And what’s going on in the never-illuminated first floor? Is Sweeney Todd’s laboratory concealed there? Or perhaps the pseudo-widow is a modern Bluebeard made up as a woman (another parallel with Psycho)? Perhaps the body upstairs is only the tip of the iceberg? Our imagination runs wild. We lurk in the dark bathroom and inwardly bless the Protestant custom of leaving windows uncovered, devised out of concern about voyeurs. Should we now inform the police? Before we do, we decide to question the neighbors. What we discover in principle ought not to surprise us. And yet the news that the hero of the fantastic scenarios dreamt up by us is only a retired pastor making up for the things he’d missed out on earlier in life, kills our desire to follow any further the trials and tribulations of beautiful slave-women abducted by pirates.

Bios

Agniesza Taborska

Agniesza Taborska (b. 1961) is reimagining the surreal for the postmodern era. A lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design since 1989, her main areas of interest are the image of women in fin de siècle Western art and literature, French Surrealism, the significance of women in the movement, and the impact Surrealism has on contemporary art. Her literary collaborations with American collage artist Selena Kimball are contemporary experiments in Surrealism. The Dreaming Life of Leonora de la Cruz (tr. Danusia Stok, Midmarch Arts Press, 2007) and their next book, The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks (tr. Ursula Phillips) join image and text in parallel narratives. She has produced RISD annual Cabarets (1992-1997). She has taught at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art, Pont-Aven, France (1996-2004). She has curated exhibitions of Surrealist art in France and Poland and written scripts for documentary films related to Surrealism. She is the author of 11 books published in Poland, the United States, France, Germany, Japan, and Korea. Her works of fiction have received literary prizes in Germany and have been adapted for stage and brought to screen in the form of award-winning animated films at international film festivals. Excerpts from her book The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks have been published in The Saint Ann’s Review. Her other books include Conspirators of ImaginationSurrealism (a collection of essays published in Poland), and The Whale, or Objective Chance (a collection of short stories published in Poland).

Ursula Phillips

Ursula Phillips lives and works in London, and is a scholar and translator of literature by Polish women authors. She has recently published translations of Maria (Czartoryska) Wirtemberska's Malwina, or the Heart's Intuition (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), the first widely recognized novel by a Polish woman, and Narycza Żmichowska's The Heathern (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012). With Polish scholar Grażyna Borkowska, she has published Alienated Women: A Study on Polish Women's Fiction 1845-1918 (Central European University Press, 2001), and with Borkowska and Małgorzata Czermińska, Pisarki polskie od średniowiecza do współczesności: przewodnik (Polish Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present: A Guidebook, słowo/obraz terytoria, 2000).

Wieloryb, czyli przypadek obiektywny. Copyright (c) Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2010. English translation copyright (c) Ursula Phillips, 2012.