Literary novel
Andrzej Muszyński
Without. The Ballad of Joanna and Władek from a Jurassic Valley

A husband, a wife and the stigma of infertility

Of course at first I was upset, but it happens to everyone, doesn’t it? Oh God, an ordinary matrimonial quarrel, a bad day. On top of that, in the third month I felt that void inside that’s a forewarning of someone’s presence. Two days later we were drinking tea in the kitchen. I told Władek I must go to the doctor. He thought I was exaggerating, but all right. When the doctor starts poking around inside you like in a car engine and announces that there’s no heartbeat, the world doesn’t stop. The nurses continue to walk down the corridor. The hands on the clock don’t snap in two. The water in the kettle still boils. In the name of solidarity, the world really ought to stop for a minute, like the Poles do on the first of August to commemorate the Warsaw Uprising. Władek asked if it could have happened because of stress. The gynaecologist replied that it was unlikely; selection is coded into the structure of nature. I asked Władek to wait for me in the corridor.

As they were taking me to the ward, I saw Władek standing in the middle of the corridor with his back to me, leaning slightly, as if resisting the current of a mountain river with the last of his strength. He didn’t hear me. Peace and quiet, just wait. Three days, four nights perhaps. I can’t remember a single one of Władek’s visits, though he spent all those hours with me. The only thing I can remember is the grey-blue light that cut into the room at night and froze like a block of ice, with the vague shape of nurses peeping from behind it. I pressed the red button when I felt the moment had come. I asked what I was to do with it now, and she replied that that was what the waste bin was for. Three or four centimetres, a sea horse, a tiny head like a cherry. I lay there for a long time, staring in that direction. I felt as if any moment now it would scramble its way out of there, and there’d be a tiny person standing on the floor, who’d wave at me and say: ‘Hey, Mum, to hell with them! We’ll be all right. Shall we go?’

I went home; for a week Władek didn’t say a word.

Usually I got up earlier and woke him for breakfast, which on Saturdays we ate together. If he hadn’t slept enough, he’d chew each mouthful in silence and apply ice lumps to the puffy bags under his eyes, which dripped onto the tablecloth. ‘Do you have to slice the bread so thickly? Does everything have to be done the peasant way?’ he’d ask. And then he’d shut himself in his room. Sometimes I really did need his help, so I’d shout: ‘Władek, come here a minute!’ If he didn’t answer for some time, I knew that up there, in his cage, a fight without rules was going on, which Władek would lose, because soon I’d hear the delirious clatter of footsteps on the stairs, I’d see his torn underpants, and his face, not yet rinsed clean of the night, from which words as tough as nuts would fall: ‘If you’re going to call me, try to explain what it’s about at once, or I don’t know if there’s any point in coming down!’ In the afternoon he’d lie for hours at a time on the couch in front of the TV, smoking. Sometimes he shared the thought with me that he couldn’t bear to look at my father any more. I’d sit opposite, wanting to tell him something. I believed that the appropriately tuned words could heal.

Excerpt translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Literary novel
Andrzej Muszyński
Without. The Ballad of Joanna and Władek from a Jurassic Valley

A husband, a wife and the stigma of infertility

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2020
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie

Literature never seems to run out of stories about the excessive wonder of ordinary events or about life in a metaphysical void. So far, Andrzej Muszyński’s fiction and reportage has talked about surpluses and declines in one of the most interesting, literary voices. This time that voice is describing a form of non-existence, suspended in a valley outside Krakow, where a husband and wife aged forty are trying to survive an everyday situation in which their life as a married couple has lost its meaning. The reason for this loss – infertility – is irreparable, and nor is it softened by the passage of time, because Joanna and Władek live within a closed, rural society, heavily influenced by a cultural tradition that regards childlessness as a lack of fulfilment in family life. Yet Muszyński is far from demonising provincial stereotypes, and in this novel the stigma of infertility is not just a feature of the conservative countryside. It’s a stigma that’s expressed in set phrases, in the language of proverbs, but also in official, clerical style. Thus it goes beyond a simple division into the superstitious, traditional world of popular religious beliefs and the progressive, open-minded world of the big city – the void experienced by Joanna and Władek in either place is their defining hallmark. But it makes its deepest impression at the level that forms the basic material of the novel, which is the personal psychological life of the two central characters. Each of them expresses their pain differently, and finds different ways to soothe it; in their turn, these differences lead to emotional asymmetries, because joint suffering does nothing to ennoble or to unite those who are going through it.

As befits a ballad, the novel takes up a number of literary aesthetics, and offers plenty of incidental themes, including the clash of social strata and the post-transformation setbacks apparent in supposedly classless Poland; there are some peculiar religious rituals and some bitterly cutting humour. But what isn’t in the novel is just as important: this is a story written without pathos, and without glorifying pain, which is something that literature does to excess.

Katarzyna Trzeciak

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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