A story about the fundamental unknowability of the world and of other people
If I had known that you’d be gone so soon, son, I would have loved you differently.
But what does that mean: differently? Better, more wisely, more intensely? More patiently? When you were born, I was certain that I would love you always and above all else. And I tried very hard, but then other things would turn out to be more important. So many times you would walk away disappointed. So many times I would fob you off with “a bit later”, “tomorrow”, “another time” or “go play on your own”. Did I look you in the eye in those moments? Did I see your sorrow? Or maybe I was too busy for that too? I could have done so many things better, I could have held back so many words, controlled so many gestures. Why was I not capable of doing that? After all, son, you were the most important.
Things weren’t bad between us, were they? I never hit you, I listened to you, and I talked with you, though maybe not enough. But we have no shortage of beautiful memories. I remember us walking through meadows in bloom; it’s summer and the grasshoppers are chirping. There are sandwiches in my knapsack and raspberry juice in a heavy glass bottle. We’re walking along a narrow path, and I’m telling you about animals and trees, I’m summarising the adventures of Tom Sawyer and stories from the Bible. I’m telling you about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Esau. When I think back to those stories now, what I have in front of my eyes is not the desert where they took place but the meadow and you, walking a few steps in front of me in your sandals, your head bent down. I see you crouching down to pick up a stone, a stick, a tarnished coin. And I’m telling you about the bowl of lentil pottage, about Jacob wrestling with the angel, about Joseph’s brothers. I had known those stories for as long as I can remember and felt I could tell them well. I don’t know if you were listening or if you were absorbed in searching for treasures. You used to bring so many of them home. Blown fuses, bottle tops, a knife with a rotten handle. You would pick up this or that and ask if you could bring it home, if Mum wouldn’t be upset, and I would always say it was fine.
How am I supposed to remember you now? Those who didn’t know you for as long surely have an easier time of it. They can quickly think back to your first meeting. So can I. Because of course I remember picking you both up from the maternity ward; I remember the pale blue of the blankets, the smell of the corridor. And you: fragile, defenceless, all bundled up. This is the scene I would like to recall when somebody mentions your name. It would be wonderful if that is what I could remember first.
But another image keeps coming back. For years I have tried to obliterate it, to efface it like a prison tattoo, but in vain. I never asked you about that day, I didn’t have the courage; in general, I asked too few questions and proceeded straight to the answers. I considered myself a wise father who knows everything about his child. And when I did ask about something, it was meaningless. I asked you how things were at school and at the playground, about food and about your classes. Of course these were serious matters – they were the fabric
of your daily life – but my questions were not serious. Because I knew the answers in advance and only expected confirmation. They were questions just for the sake of asking questions, to keep the conversation going, faking contact. You didn’t like them, and I would bristle at your perfunctory answers. But how were you supposed to answer? Give me a detailed account of every lesson and break at school, repeat every word and describe your friends’ every reaction?
I didn’t want answers; I knew that everything was fine at school, everything was fine at the playground, everything was fine everywhere. “School is school,” you would say, and I would take that for impertinence. But that’s exactly how I had answered my own father. Or rather, that’s how I would have answered him if he had asked. He didn’t ask; he’d wait until I got back from school and say, “You’re home? Go bring in some wood.” That was all. So in order not to be like my father, I asked, and I was exactly like him. Uninterested.
Excerpt translated by Eliza Marciniak
A story about the fundamental unknowability of the world and of other people
Wit Szostak has experimented with literary form many times, and he does so again in his new novel, Others’ Words. The author’s way of telling the story of one Benedykt Ryś, once an exceptionally talented philosophy student who abandoned his promising academic career to live life on his own terms, is truly devious. Ryś himself is absent from the book: he has died in a car accident, and the novel consists of the reminiscences of those close to him: his lover and partner, with whom he jointly created a restaurant; his father, who reproaches himself for his coldness; his former professor; fellow students; a close female friend; and, finally, a man whom Ryś knew when they were children. Thus the protagonist is described by others: we see him through the prism of “others’ words”, which are usually full of praise and regret that his life has been left unfinished. Yet this affectionate perspective is ultimately negated. To not give everything away I can only add that Szostak’s book is a story about the fundamental unknowability of the world and of other people, and also about the fact that our knowledge is always mediated by others’ accounts, which might be untruthful or incomplete. Do we live one life or perhaps several different lives? And is a coherent story about any given person possible at all?
Szostak has created a multi-vocal novel: every narrator has his or her own style. Particularly moving (perhaps because they are closest to the author’s own life) are the confessions of the father and the story told by the professor – accounts of two men who have been at times harsh with Benedykt and at times loving, but who above all are surprised by his premature demise and their own transience.
It is worth paying attention to Wit Szostak’s work and the resolute way in which for many years he has been building his literary universe – and seeing our times through the eyes of an artistically talented philosopher, lecturer, gourmet and wanderer.
Translated by Eliza Marciniak
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