While many of us try to escape the place from whence we came (particularly those of an artistic temperament), there is often no avoiding how much the milieu that formed the core of our being remains within us. For cinema critic and short story writer Ewa Mazierska, that milieu is undeniably Włocławek. Or at least Poland as a general framework for the narratives that comprise her latest work from Adelaide Books, Neighbours & Tourists. Divided into two parts, the first takes us on a safari of local village flavors told from a first person perspective that is simultaneously whimsical and bittersweet, ranging from tales of lingering post-war Polish crudity (“Disinheritance”) to the burdens of having a negativity monger in the family (“The Hunter of Negativity”).
Our narrator–either some version of Mazierska (as is the unavoidable fact with all authors) or of someone she perhaps knew–often mentions that though she long ago fled for England, she still returns to the old country out of respect. Seeing the changes from this perspective of being away for a time and returning often makes them more palpable and profound to her, a reality apparent in “The Widow & Her Daughter,” detailing that remaining cardinal sin in a Polish village: being an unmarried woman of a certain age. In this case, one who uses the facade of “religious pilgrimages” as a means to see male peep shows as often as she can. Of course, no one in the village ever tells her mother the truth about this after she dies during a vision of ecstasy at one of these “revues,” the narrator describing, “It turned out that she had a heart attack when attending a peep show in the East of Poland, looking at young male strippers from Ukraine, performing for private clients. She was sixty-five… I couldn’t help but smile when a neighbour told me, realising that in our village we have our own versions of the main literary types, including a female version of Professor Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s novella, dying in a moment of voyeuristic ecstasy.” Incidentally, Aschenbach’s obsession was over a Polish boy, based on one Mann himself saw in Venice and couldn’t stop thinking about (much to his wife’s eye-rolling dismay, one imagines).
As for the widow left behind by her daughter, everyone in the village assumes she will sell the house and surrender to an elderly person’s “home.” Of this, our narrator ruminates, “…it caused me sorrow to think about all the houses and farms in our village which were passing to strangers.” This notion of losing an original purity that the ravages of time pervert is consistent throughout the thread of the Neighbours section of the book. Yet, even so, there is a rough-hewnness to Poland that no amount of “new blood” can seem to mitigate. At one point in “Disinheritance,” this is alluded to with the lines, “In Poland…ropes, axes and naked hands are still the principal ways of finishing life prematurely. I found this thought comforting–if I was to be murdered, better to be killed with an axe, than be tortured beforehand and displayed later. Better to die the serf’s than the artist’s death.” For art is the luxury of both a wealthy person and a wealthy country. And in death, we all become of the same class anyway.
Speaking of luxuries, with the transition into the Tourists portion, Mazierska regales us with the stories of traveling protagonists and their complicated, class-driven interactions with those in foreign countries (“Carlos and Us,” “The Jewellers of Goa” and “The Scarves of Candolim” being the most shining examples). The two interconnected stories of “Homo Sacer and Her Lover” and “What Is Love” also provide melancholic insight into the almost always unavoidable deterioration of romantic relationships, whether as a result of the day-to-day malaise that eventually takes hold of it, or the revelation that a tryst is only exciting because of its literal and figurative place in a foreign land. The tellingness of “Heaven for Prostitutes” additionally establishes Mazierska’s knack for describing how a great many tourists relish “getting close” to the natives but only to a certain extent and perhaps solely for the value of having the “story” to tell later.
In this case, a business trip to Lisbon results in our narrator encountering two aging prostitutes who she ends up buying drinks for in a bar. Although she is riveted by their accounts of woe, the next day, when she sees them again on the street, she deliberately avoids making contact once more, for, “They could spoil the image of them I had constructed in my mind, and change an encounter I would recall with fondness to one I wish I had walked away from. It occurred to me that these travel meetings only work once. It was a sad thought, adding to the lingering pain of the flimsiness of life, which accompanied me since I hit middle age. But there was no time to ponder it, as there were already new flimsy things to take care of and my shoes were hurting me, even though they were comfy the previous day.” This concluding irony about her shoes relates back to the style of flamboyant tennis shoes the prostitutes were wearing after so many years spent being forced to don heels by their oppressive pimp. Indeed, Mazierska brings all of her stories to this kind of ironical end. For what is a depiction of life without accounting for the universe’s twisted sense of humor? Regardless of what country you’re in.
Mazierska’s book is available to purchase here.