Literary novel
Julia Fiedorczuk
Under the Sun

Fiedorczuk touches the agony of war, destruction, poverty, the concealment of identity, and the loss of sanity

The house was a mess. When she finally got around to tidying up, she’d drop things, break dishes, and then stare out the window so that once or twice Zając swept up the shards of

crockery himself. If she cooked, she’d burn the food or forget to add salt. She’d start on something, but forget what it was a moment later and begin something new, only to drop that quickly too and stare out again. She’d stand for ages at the window stock-still, as though bewitched. In the afternoons, she often fell asleep, and in the evenings, she’d go out and wander the village or the fields – quite aimlessly. These evening escapades worried Zając most – for what’s in the house stays in the family – but hanging about the fields to no purpose – what would people say? He was right, as it turned out, for they soon had plenty to say. That she was mad. That she followed the moon. That she clambered on the burial mound in the woods where the memory of distant times lay gathered and buried in the earth, that she scrabbled in that earth with her bare hands, as though she were looking for something. That she would lie down on the field’s ridge, hitch up her skirt, and wait. Zając felt completely helpless. […] Several times, it occurred to him that he could forbid it, yet he was afraid she might not listen, and that would be worse than anything – hence he did nothing in the end, and even began to pretend that he had accepted his wife’s odd behaviour; thanks to this, the impotence of his anger was less obvious. […]

One evening, she was waiting for him in bed under the quilt completely naked. Her soft, copper hair was spilling across the pillow, her eyes shone with an unearthly glow, and heat radiated at a distance from her parted lips. She pulled him close with her warm white arms and so enthralled him that Zając lost his head completely. He forgot his anger and about meting out a punishment, he tossed all cares aside and for a moment felt young again. She took him into herself as forcefully as though she wanted to absorb him entire, along with his bald patch, his farm and his field. And he submitted like a sacrificial victim, alarmed, but raised for that one moment above the daily travails, to some kind of heaven – low, not far above the earth, tasting of sweat, smelling of a woman’s hair, like the fur of an animal – but heaven all the same. He forgot himself. He forgot everything. He merged with her warmth, the taste and scent of her, her breath.

But when he’d come round, after it all, he felt awkward, as though he’d sinned. For he’d not made love to his wife, but to some strange, wild woman who heeded nothing in her blind pursuit of some quite unhuman passion. It occurred to him that he could go to confession, but how to put such a thing in words? That he’d committed adultery? No, that wasn’t it. It was all a puzzle, and most puzzling of all was the painful pleasure which he’d felt not only then, in the night, but long afterwards. He could not oust those strange feelings from his heart for a long while and in the end, he began to avoid Marianna. He was simply afraid of her. […]

Marianna, meanwhile, sank more and more deeply into her strange state. Her son now prepared the meals. The two grown men ate in silence; she didn’t sit down to table with them, but only slept, and dreamt, almost as though every night she were setting off on some distant journey, from which it grew increasingly difficult to return. Was it night or day? After waking, she’d lie a long time in bed, recollecting who she was – stupid Marianna with three grown children and a husband, Zając. The incontrovertible truths of the day seemed to Marianna less real than what she experienced in sleep; she repeated them to herself each morning like a dull lesson, and once repeated, she’d stretch like a she-cat and climb out of bed in just her nightdress, oblivious to who might see her, dishevelled, surrounded by some sleepy sensual aura.

Excerpt translated by Anna Zaranko

Literary novel
Julia Fiedorczuk
Under the Sun

Fiedorczuk touches the agony of war, destruction, poverty, the concealment of identity, and the loss of sanity

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2020
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie,
Foreign language translations: Fiedorczuk’s poetry books have been published in the USA, Mexico, Serbia, and Sweden

What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.’ (Eccl. 1:3-4). These are disturbing words in the epoch of the Anthropocene, as human beings – lords of the earth, waters, and animals – grow more distant from the commonweal of nature founded on the coexistence not only of what is known and is like them, but also on that which is different alien, yet immanently inscribed into existence on earth, under the Julia Fiedorczuk is well aware of this, and in her remarkable novel she traces the history of this coexistence, her vision spanning the past, namely the vicissitudes of successive generations of families inhabiting the villages of Podlasie, in eastern Poland.

The historical arc drawn by the writer is a long one, extending across the twentieth century, to be precise she touches on the agony of war, destruction, poverty, concealment of identity, and the loss of sanity; it depicts the building of a new fatherland – the grassroots work of Michał/Misha and his wife, Miłka, in a village school; the war in Yugoslavia; and the slow incursion of capitalism into a reality beset by successive divisions.

This is not, however, an entirely realistic work – Fiedorczuk opens a narrative window onto the magical force of the imagination, which always defends itself against a literal or uniform and obligatory vision of the world. Misha is, after all, an artist; he speaks several languages and is learning Esperanto in order ‘to be at home everywhere, here, there, and in-between’.

In Fiedorczuk’s novel, being in-between requires becoming rooted in one’s own landscape – the external one, interwoven with nature, and that completely individual landscape related to emotions, the psyche, and hope. Fiedorczuk conveys just how difficult a task this is through her portrayal of Marianna – a contemporary “holy fool”, who ‘wandered and wandered. As though she were searching for something. She searched, but could never find it’.

The emptiness which dismays Marianna has become, with time, the universal experience of the contemporary human being – perhaps even more acutely so in the 21st century. And yet always ‘the sun rises and the sun sets, and clambers again across the horizon. Rivers flow to the sea, the human being searches for a way’.

Magdalena Brodacka

Translated by Anna Zaranko

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