The house in Oliwa already looks different now. And when Granny dies—which will be soon, and I can write that with a tranquil mind, firstly because we’ve long since come to terms with the idea, and secondly she’s never going to read this anyway because she doesn’t read any more—the whole place will change out of all recognition. Things will be inherited, and will have to find other shelves and cupboards for them-selves in other homes. The edition of Stendhal with Julek’s dedication, which for the last thirty years has stood spine to spine with Flaubert’s Three Tales, will stand between other books. And what will happen to the glassware collection, to the three or four hundred vases, goblets, jugs and vials, red, sapphire, lime green, with bubbles and without, opalescent, cracked or frosted?
As she sits there like an old Chinese empress, oblivious to power or duty, muffled in rugs and baggy knitted waistcoats, so very thin, small and light, it’s hard to connect her with our memory, where there’s no room for the nose wiping, the nappies and the constant silence. Except that she’s smiling—so we can comfort ourselves that in her own way she’s happy, but that’s like talking about the feelings of a sea anemone or a coral reef.
So this is how my story ends. But where does it begin?
In Lisów perhaps? In small, shabby Lisów, the place that smelled of fallen apples, and that was such a disappointment when I made a journey to the promised land, to Canaan, whose geography I knew to the last detail purely from her accounts—I knew the location of the garden gate, which the horse used to open with his head, I knew where the drawing room was, and where Aunt Róża’s bedroom was; I knew where the busts of Napoleon and Lenin stood, and the large table, on the corner of which the thieves had piled the silver; and finally I knew where the desk had been, off which my ninety-year-old great-great-grandmother Wanda had shooed the German officer. But what did I find? The grandest remaining part of the manor house was the chimney, with the remnants of some stone walls around it. They drew a vague rectangle on the ground, half a metre high in places, and a whole metre in others, but this shape was definitely far smaller than the old manor had been, because the field margin had been redrawn through the middle of several rooms, and where the grand piano had once stood, potatoes or buckwheat were now growing.
No, maybe my story starts in the town house on such-and-such Prospect, a fairly good address in Kiev and home to three families—the Bienieckis, the Karnaukhovs and the Korytkos—where the Fates wove a tangled web around their apartments?
Or perhaps in that strange space that I cannot begin to imagine, because I’m not a young-Polish-rebel-writer-trav-elling-east, in that strange space called ‘the Ukraine’, where plants grew that were different from ours, and people lived who were different from ours, speaking in deep but melodious voices, those peasants going about in coarse linen shirts, who chased my great-great-grandfather Leonard’s automobile with wooden stakes and pitchforks?
I don’t know where to start this story, because I’ve started it so many times before; not just now, but ten years ago, when with the bombast typical of a fourteen-year-old author I thought up the title Polish Ghazals, because a ghazal is a ‘poem like a string of pearls’, thus splendidly suited to the stand-alone-yet-connected themes of Granny’s narrative; and finally so many other times, when I haven’t written a thing, but have simply related it to my friends, cousins, lovers and passengers on the express train that runs from Gdańsk to Warsaw and back again.
Because the truth lies somewhere else. In actual fact the story begins, as usual, in pieces, now here, now there, in all sorts of different places and bodies, most of which ceased to exist long ago, but until now its steward and guardian has always been Granny. A granny of solid, reliable stuff who, following some minor repairs and some more serious renovation a couple of years ago, still preserved so much sparkle and wit that when friends came to see me from faraway countries I always took them to visit her, because, of all the antiquities to be seen in my northern Polish city, she was the most fascinating.
Among Granny’s charms—in the days when she still spoke—were the beginnings of her stories. In fact, it was (and is) always one and the same story, convoluted and blackened out of recognition under various layers of varnish and soot, starting in multiple places and generally never ending, at best interrupted by the end of the visit or by nightfall. Let us add that at Granny’s house in Oliwa nightfall, meaning the end of the conversation and the start of the going-to-bed ritual, occurs at around midnight at the earliest, and is not always definitive, because any great story has a tendency to grow rhizomes, to billow and expand at the peripheries and at the least expected moments, and so it does the job of reining us in, rather than vice versa.
The beginning usually coils, like a cross between the tendril of a plant and an animal’s prehensile tail; it wraps itself around an object, a person, a smell or an anecdote, and then goes mad, putting out shoots and proliferating into whole thickets of words and punchlines; unrestrained, it multiplies at random, makes the tea go cold, overcooks the pasta, and startles things that matter out of the memory. There we have it.
It might be something like this: ‘When I paid a visit to Count Krasiński and his wife and I knocked the araucaria off the guéridon . . . ’ or else: ‘When Grandpapa Leonard was facing the tsarist firing squad . . . ’ or maybe: ‘When a thief stole all the cabbages from the orphan’s field at Lisów . . . ’—in short, you never know where a listener might be found, peeping into the world through a suddenly exposed lens. That is, a chance listener; as for us, we already know the whole story—chopped into separate chapters, but we always know—in minute detail.
‘One time, just imagine, Grandmama Wanda—and she was over ninety by then—quite simply vanished from Lisów at around noon. It was the middle of the war, there were Germans everywhere. We seek her here, we seek her there, there’s no gig and no coachman. We run about, we start to fret… why are you making those faces?’
‘We know the story.’
‘You do?’ asks Granny in disbelief, but she’s not in the least put out, not a jot. ‘So how does it end?’
‘She’d gone to the hairdresser’s…’
‘All right, you do know it,’ says Granny, briefly downcast, but quick as blinking she regains her composure. ‘But no harm’s done. One day, just imagine, Grandmama, and she was ninety by then… well, so she came home—with a permanent wave. “I am over ninety years old,” she said, “and it would be silly to die without ever having had a permanent wave.” ’
Margot is walking about my room with cup in hand, looking for something new. Whenever I visit her, I do the same. ‘Where did you get this?’ I ask. ‘And what is this?’ Her world is beautiful and harmonious, which means that every bit of it is equally fascinating. Margot is called Małgorzata, or Margherita, or Pearl, and she really is as pearly as a pearl. Now she’s approaching the cupboard and picking up a photograph.
‘Did you buy this at the flea market?’
‘No, it’s from home. I begged it off Granny because there were two like it.’
I have hardly any photographs from her childhood. I don’t know what Grandmama Wanda, Grandpapa Leonard, Uncle Maciej, Aunt Ewa, Aunt Sasha, Milewski or Apollo-with-the-braces looked like, I don’t even know what Lisów was like. During their offensive the Russians—the Soviets, says Granny, they were the Russians before the revolution, and then there was the Soviet rabble—lit the fire with the photographs that lay in a large wooden chest in the hall. They burned the photo-graph of Romusia, standing over the five-dozen eggs she had to drink raw each day, egg after egg, which even so did nothing to stop her galloping consumption; they burned the photograph of Grandpapa Leonard in a white pinstriped suit, leaning against the shining body of the first automobile in the Ukraine; they burned the photographs of her father in his invariable hat on his invariably bald head; they burned the photographs of her mother in flowing dresses; they burned the postcards from faraway cities with fancy-sounding names and the sepia repro-ductions of sculptures and paintings from the spacious rooms in distant museums.
There are no faces. There are no hands. There are no door frames, tables, prints, piles of magazines or books with gilded edges. Just a couple, literally just two, sepia shots*… at least we have these. My great-grandmother, straight as a ramrod, wasp-waisted, leaning on a black umbrella; in the background the light is sifted through the leaves of foreign trees, plane trees perhaps, and in the corner there’s a white caption: ‘Abbazia’.
Good Lord… Abbazia…
‘Mama was so beautifully proportioned,’ I hear Granny’s voice behind me. ‘So beautiful… she looks tall, but she was tiny—she came up to here on me, to my shoulder, when I was young, now she’d probably have come up to my cheek, one gets so much shorter . . . but anyway, look, she had the proportions of a tall woman, and she was tiny around the waist too. She always moved at a run, a dainty little trot; I can’t remember her ever walking normally. When she was ill she’d shuffle her feet slowly, just like on the last day, the day she died, sitting in this armchair… but walk in an ordinary way? Oh no. She always ran.’
When the world was still very young, laced with gilt and stucco in the cities, and heavy with the smell of cow pats and fruit lying in the grass in the countryside, people were smaller. Maybe they had no reason to climb, and stood on tiptoes less often than today, maybe they ate without following the wise rules of healthy nutrition, and grew in a different direction, or maybe they simply weren’t bothered about being taller, because they could find everything they needed close to the ground.
Grandpapa Leonard was a fraction over one-and-a-half metres tall, with raven-black hair—until he changed into a white raven—a swarthy complexion and sky-blue eyes.
‘According to Wandeczka,’ he wrote in the diary that Granny and Julek found in the drawer of his inlaid desk after he died, ‘I am not plain Mr Brokl, but a count, de Broglie in a distorted form, because I have such southern looks. But as far as I know we came here from Germany out of dire poverty on dogcarts and settled here. We’ve been Brokls for generations, at most Brockls . . . ’
On that cold January day the Soviets burned all the photo-graphs of Granny’s grandfather, so the fragile structure of soft tissues covering his skeleton formally ceased to exist for future generations. I have often tried to imagine this good-natured, well-mannered old gent (who seems to have been an old gent his entire life, because that was how his granddaughter remembered him), a lover and collector of art, a bibliophile and erudite, a chemist by profession and a landowner by fate, though neither one of them went very well for him.
‘After High Mass on Sundays,’ said hunched old Mr Tarapatka when I made my trip to Canaan, ‘the old gentleman used to buy a bag of sweets, and we children would run after him all the way to the manor, because he handed them all out . . . the old gentleman was your granny’s grandpa, the Squire.’
The Squire wasn’t born a country squire at all, but a townie, and a penniless one at that. His was probably the first generation in the family to speak Polish, and I can’t state for certain that he wasn’t born in Germany. But as he acquired Polish, he also acquired the trappings of the Polish nobility—some Slavonic blood began to throb in his veins, and with the daring typical of an eighteen-year-old he decided to fight in the January Uprising of 1863,* and then was sent to Siberia as a true Polish patriot.
In ill-recorded circumstances Grandpapa Leonard Brokl took a degree in chemistry, came back from Siberia, settled in Kiev, gained thorough knowledge of the most arcane mysteries of the sugar industry, attained the title of professor and married Grandmama Wanda, who was a very wise, but none too intellectual woman, then he fathered four children and became a millionaire.
At this point it would be an error to mistake the penniless Leonard Brokl for a carefully disguised financial shark. Grand-papa Leonard knew nothing at all about percentage points, dividends and currency rates; he lived the life of a drunken child in the fog. But as chance would have it, someone advised him to buy a large packet of shares in a particular firm. By the same or another stroke of luck, in just a few days the shares gained greatly in value, because the empire happened to be going through an economic boom at the time. Evidently finding this pastime amusing, Grandfather mobilised his savings and bought up a few more packets of shares. And as they went up in value again, within a month he became one of the wealthiest men in Kiev.
This is how all such stories should end.
But unfortunately, they usually continue.
Excerpted from Lala by Jacek Dehnel, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, published by Oneworld Publications. Copyright © Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal 2006. English Translation copyright © Antonia Lloyd-Jones 2018. Used with permission.