Tul’si (Tuesday) Bhambry
DOOR Maciej Miłkowski
01-12-2015

I’ve come full circle: I’m sitting in my flat in Cracow again, reading about Holland. Herbert and art books. Only this time I’m not researching what I’m about to see, but things I’ve seen already. I’m reading Mulisch again (one of my greatest influences), but this time I’m not interested in the precise way he structures his work, his compelling imagination or impressive erudition. This time my only interest is in addresses, place and street names. I’ve been checking on a map to see if I might have been there, if I might have walked that way.

I do miss Holland a bit. Too short, too little. I wish I could have stayed longer, I wish I could have stayed a while. Perhaps even forever… I don’t know if I could actually live in Holland, but I’m sure I could live among the Dutch. There are lots of things about the Dutch that I like. What I like most is that they’ve designed their cities for people, not for tourists, not for cars, not for advertisers, but for people – for themselves. There’s no such thing in this country.
From Holland to Poland. From the homeland of liberalism to a country where the term ‘liberal’ is a serious insult. From a country where you can do pretty much anything to one where you can’t do anything at all. Over there, people do whatever they please, and as a result everything is neat and tidy (you can see the squares and rectangles through the plane window as you land). Here in Poland everything comes under the strict diktat of one of the (more or less nationalistic) right-wing ideologies that take everyone in, including the younger generation (which is the scariest thing of all), and as a result there’s chaos across the board. There’s nothing paradoxical about that – it’s obvious and predictable.

My country is teetering on the edge of a black hole. And so am I, to some extent – but this hole doesn’t scare me – it intrigues me. This trip to Holland came up at just the right moment. A few weeks ago I finished my second book – written in a frenetic burst, a sort of youthful frenzy, incurring intellectual, psychological and physical debts that I’ll be repaying for the next few months. It did me good to go to The Hague, and especially to be forced to write a series of columns under the gun. I was a little apprehensive about that at first, but then I realised that actually I always write like that, except that usually it’s me that has to hold the gun to my own temple.

To go and to return. To let yourself be distracted and then reabsorbed. To slip away from Poland for a few days and then immerse yourself again. Briefly to forget about the third book, unwritten and clamouring to be written. To come back and see a black hole. To gaze at it, to stare at it with rising hope.

I am certain that the next few years – to be endured on the ever-shorter leash of an extremist right-wing government – will result in a significant liberalisation within Polish society. I am certain that my personal black hole will engender another book. After all, what has my writing always come from if not from perceiving holes, chasms, fissures, pits and precipices? Not from the gift of observation, and not from a well-developed imagination – I haven’t got those. Nor from empathy – I haven’t got that either. It’s from holes, nothing but holes. From the hole that was left by a non-existent, imaginary god. From the hole left by the ludicrous and exhausted omniscient narrator. From the hole left by Poland’s murdered Jews. From the hole left by Poland’s extinct intelligentsia. From the hole that will – inevitably – be left by me.

Alle vertalingen van Tul’si (Tuesday) Bhambry
01-12-15

I’ve come full circle: I’m sitting in my flat in Cracow again, reading about Holland. Herbert and art books. Only this time I’m not researching what I’m about to see, but things I’ve seen already. I’m reading Mulisch again (one of my greatest influences), but this time I’m not interested in the precise way he structures his work, his compelling imagination or impressive erudition. This time my only interest is in addresses, place and street names. I’ve been checking on a map to see if I might have been there, if I might have walked that way.

I do miss Holland a bit. Too short, too little. I wish I could have stayed longer, I wish I could have stayed a while. Perhaps even forever… I don’t know if I could actually live in Holland, but I’m sure I could live among the Dutch. There are lots of things about the Dutch that I like. What I like most is that they’ve designed their cities for people, not for tourists, not for cars, not for advertisers, but for people – for themselves. There’s no such thing in this country.
From Holland to Poland. From the homeland of liberalism to a country where the term ‘liberal’ is a serious insult. From a country where you can do pretty much anything to one where you can’t do anything at all. Over there, people do whatever they please, and as a result everything is neat and tidy (you can see the squares and rectangles through the plane window as you land). Here in Poland everything comes under the strict diktat of one of the (more or less nationalistic) right-wing ideologies that take everyone in, including the younger generation (which is the scariest thing of all), and as a result there’s chaos across the board. There’s nothing paradoxical about that – it’s obvious and predictable.

My country is teetering on the edge of a black hole. And so am I, to some extent – but this hole doesn’t scare me – it intrigues me. This trip to Holland came up at just the right moment. A few weeks ago I finished my second book – written in a frenetic burst, a sort of youthful frenzy, incurring intellectual, psychological and physical debts that I’ll be repaying for the next few months. It did me good to go to The Hague, and especially to be forced to write a series of columns under the gun. I was a little apprehensive about that at first, but then I realised that actually I always write like that, except that usually it’s me that has to hold the gun to my own temple.

To go and to return. To let yourself be distracted and then reabsorbed. To slip away from Poland for a few days and then immerse yourself again. Briefly to forget about the third book, unwritten and clamouring to be written. To come back and see a black hole. To gaze at it, to stare at it with rising hope.

I am certain that the next few years – to be endured on the ever-shorter leash of an extremist right-wing government – will result in a significant liberalisation within Polish society. I am certain that my personal black hole will engender another book. After all, what has my writing always come from if not from perceiving holes, chasms, fissures, pits and precipices? Not from the gift of observation, and not from a well-developed imagination – I haven’t got those. Nor from empathy – I haven’t got that either. It’s from holes, nothing but holes. From the hole that was left by a non-existent, imaginary god. From the hole left by the ludicrous and exhausted omniscient narrator. From the hole left by Poland’s murdered Jews. From the hole left by Poland’s extinct intelligentsia. From the hole that will – inevitably – be left by me.

16-11-15

‘Are you going to the after party?,’ someone asked me.

If you mean the party with DJ Somebody-or-other, then no, I’m not going, though in a deeper sense I suppose you could say I am. I haven’t made my way to the festival’s dance party, but sitting over my laptop in the relative quiet of my hotel room is nothing other than the long-awaited after. ‘Sorry, I can’t, I’ve got to write my column,’ – that’s been my refrain for the past few days, and the fact that tonight I repeated them for the last time also makes me a little sad – maybe more so than the fact that the festival is nearing its end (under the watchful eye of DJ Somebody-or-other) and that early tomorrow morning I must leave The Hague.

At the end of the second day of the festival (and my third day in Holland) my cognitive processing powers are running low. I simply can’t remember another name, another face, another writer, another musician, place, street, painting, or building.

‘I saw you at the concert last night,’ someone says. ‘The … concert’. (I didn’t catch that weird word – the name of a performer or a band perhaps.) ‘It was great, wasn’t it?’

‘Amazing,’ I say, though I’m pretty sure I wasn’t at that particular concert yesterday, but who knows? Maybe I did end up going after all.

The most curious thing is that even though I’m not taking in or retaining anything any more, I still find writing about it rather easy. I’m finding that I don’t feel tired in front of my laptop screen despite this killer of a column-writing marathon over the last few days, but I actually find it relaxing. I feel restored, I buck up. I’m back on my home turf. Writers ought to spend their time doing nothing but writing – that’s the moral of the story.

Anyway, one of the greatest pluses of this amazing festival is that they brought us young writers here with the idea, among other things, that we would write. That’s rare. Literary festivals usually bring in writers to have them charm the audience, to have them be nice, or look nice (or not nice – there are two schools of thought), or to have them be entertaining (that’s always a must), to put themselves on show, to let people take pictures, or to be on a panel. What’s chiefly expected of writers are circus tricks, at which they’re not always experts. In The Hague we were also (or perhaps primarily) expected to write, which was a brilliant idea. Firstly, because the writers were able to do what they’re supposed to be good at. Secondly, because that’s what should interest the audience the most. So what if he’s good-looking, or if he’s got a sharp jacket (or a bicycle T-shirt: there are two schools of thought), so what if he’s entertaining. Can he write three paragraphs? That’s what counts – and that’s what people were able to check out, in three different languages, at Crossing Border.

The general tendency the world over is the exact opposite. Writers spend more and more time doing everything else except writing. You’ve got to keep an eye out, I tell myself. You don’t want to become a conference writer, a festival star, a representative of Poland in the field of literature. But above all, you can’t write for a living, as in practice that means doing lots of things related to writing. Better to make your living as a lens grinder – if I may apply a touch of local erudition.

But it’s all right to go somewhere from time to time. Perhaps it’s worth experiencing something like tonight. Of course: predictable answers to predictable questions. Of course: the surreal situation of reading something in Polish while the audience follows the captions in English and occasionally gets out of step. But then there’s also the incredible sensation, the amazing feeling that your daydreams and fancies (going back to childhood games on the carpet-beating frame at a housing estate in Łódź) have led you all the way here, they’ve made a writer of you, they’ve put you in this jacket ‒ somehow it has all worked out, flesh has become word, that idiot Skin hasn’t remained stuck on the pages of your short story, but has taken wing, upped and financed your ticket to Holland, so that you’d be able to sing his praises here in three different languages.

14-11-15

I should have written these texts back in Poland, sitting in my quiet library at home. If only I had come up with this idea – ingenious in its simplicity – now (that is to say then) I would be able reach for the volume of Susan Sontag’s essays on my shelf, read the famous text “On Being Translated,” copy this and that from Sontag, throw in an apt quotation, and above all, bring some order into the chaotic thoughts that have been whirling in my mind since yesterday. Unfortunately, here at my hotel in The Hague, where I’m writing these words, I don’t have access to this vital book (the festival organisers have provided the participants – and the ‘chroniclers’ in particular – with just about everything, but not Susan Sontag’s collected essays). Thinking about that essay I can’t remember anything but the title, which is to say I’m absolutely certain that someone smarter than I has already written on this topic, so now I’ll have to deal with it relying on mere improvisation. I should have done it at home… Only at home I hadn’t had a chance yet to watch Charlotte and Tuesday translate my texts.

To be translated… To know that you will be translated. To know it already at the time of writing. When I wrote my old short stories I didn’t entertain the slightest hope of them ever reaching readers beyond the Polish language (and even the ones within the Polish language belonged to the realm of fleeting fantasies). Had I known that, I would have thought very hard about each sentence. How many times have I slapped something down without thinking. Somehow it got through in Polish, but translators are merciless. “Where exactly were those pickled gherkins – under the seats or above?,” asks one on them in an email. To be honest, I hadn’t drawn such a precise map of my short story. Which one of Vermeer’s paintings did you have in mind? Which Polish classic had a Dutch phase? What was it exactly about that penalty shoot-out with van Basten? And in yet another email (where I was copied in), an editor writes to the translator expressing his gratitude for pointing out a reference to Macbeth in Miłkowski’s text. One of these days I should ask her to show me that reference.

Not to be translated… Not to know if you will be translated. To write freely, without restraint. To ask yourself questions just about the nature of existence, and not about the location of the jar of pickled gherkins. Not to think about how it will sound in English, or how it will sound in Dutch… I’m afraid that once you know that the text is going to be translated, two temptations arise. First: to write in a way that makes it easy, to write in a way that will translate well, so that it’ll sound good in English. To write smoothly, without lumps and bumps or sharp edges.

The second temptation is the exact opposite. To write in a difficult way. Let those translators break their inexperienced milk teeth on the porous shell of my multi-lane sentences. Let them sit and think about where those gherkins are. Let them be my only real and ultimate readers, deep and painful like root canal treatment. For the translator is the only person who will hear out the whole thought in my song. (Watch out, translators: that’s a crypto-quote from Mickiewicz.)

The translators themselves are much better at dealing with this enormous responsibility. If need be, they just skip it. I’ve always wondered why that Polish Nazi who by popular decree represents me at the European Parliament doesn’t ruffle any feathers there. Now I know: it’s thanks to his translators. For example, he “incites racial hatred” (I think that’s the phrase in the legal code). Meanwhile, the translator says, without batting an eyelid: “This matter has to be reconsidered carefully”. And that’s it. Easy. The passive voice. Applause.

So I realize that here I can write basically anything at all. In Charlotte’s and Tuesday’s versions I’m bound to come across as a self-controlled, smart, well-balanced and seasoned humanist.

13-11-15

All day I’ve mostly been speaking English. Not for the first time in my life, mind, so it’s not such a big deal. This trip isn’t about novelty anyway, but about repetition. It starts at some point past the security gates at Krakow airport. You take off your belt and shoes (in case you’ve an axe in there), everyone’s gruff and unfriendly, and mostly in uniform – and so far you still feel quite at home. But two steps further on you find yourself in the ‘duty free’ zone. Here you have no ‘duties,’ no obligations. This is the beginning of a few days of adventure, the leitmotif of which is to speak in English to everyone. First up, asking for some fruit juice on board the aeroplane, in English. And it’s always quite amazing to find that they actually understand what I’m saying; somewhere beyond the pages of my grammar books English really does exist.

Whenever I switch to English I instantly undergo a profound personality change: I become funny, which doesn’t happen to me in Polish. It seems I’ve just about mastered the trick that’s known as English humour. It basically involves two techniques. First: use a deadly serious tone of voice to talk about completely absurd things. Second: use an absurd tone to talk about deadly serious things. It works remarkably well at the dinner table.

Unfortunately, limiting yourself to standard phrases, to using glib (English) clichés and throwing in light jokes is also guaranteed to lead to disaster if you’re actually trying to say something more profound, genuine and original. Something about yourself, for example. Or about your writing.

And it’s today’s disaster I’m trying to make up for in this column, which incidentally composed itself in my mind almost entirely as I stood facing Vermeer’s paintings in the museum here in The Hague. Because unfortunately, the thing about me (which only switches off for a while when I speak in English) is that I never stop thinking and talking about myself, even if I sometimes cover it up a bit with the façade of some other topic. And so, as I stood in front of those Vermeers, I was mainly thinking about myself. On the surface I was searching for a key to his works, but in actual fact, I was mainly looking for a key to mine. I never stopped to wonder what’s so great and original about Vermeer’s extraordinary (and universally treasured) paintings. Why do I like them so much? I wondered, why am I not in the least bit interested in the other masterworks here, what is it about these paintings that speaks to me personally, that convinces me, that I agree with? What exactly does Vermeer’s method involve? And what is it in/about that/his method that appeals to me so much?

I think the reason is that Vermeer doesn’t just paint a milkmaid or a woman reading a letter (others painted them, too, and some did it more skilfully, no doubt). Vermeer also paints the light – though that, too, is nothing new, others also painted the light, some more skilfully, no doubt. All right, but besides the milkmaid and the light, Vermeer also paints the window through which the light is falling. The window – it’s there in almost every major painting by Vermeer (though in two of the Vermeers at the Mauritshuis there’s no window). For these paintings not only show a real-life situation but also a certain narrative situation. These are – to some extent – paintings about looking, about lighting, about painting. These are paintings that don’t conceal the window (and every painter’s studio must have one), but expose it. And I thought to myself that this is exactly what I’ve always endeavoured to do in my short stories. To show not just the milkmaid, but also the window. Not to hide the seams. To show the lips from which the story flows; to show the ear into which it falls. To describe not so much the real-life situation, as the narrative situation.

“In my short stories I’ve always done my best to show the window through which the narrative falls as well.” But although I know each of these words taken individually, I would be at a loss to express the whole idea in English.

06-10-15

My ideal traveller is Immanuel Kant. Travelling – whatever the destination – is utterly and completely pointless. There’s nothing to see and there’s nothing to learn abroad. Firstly, it’s more or less the same everywhere. I’m telling you, wherever you go, the way things work there is going to be much the same as back home. Secondly, even if they did have something to show there that you’ve never seen before, you’ll never manage to see it all anyway; and even if you do, you’ll never remember it – it’ll all get mixed up in your head and merge together. It’s pointless. But then it’s always quite useful to confront the pointless. Maybe that’s the whole point of travelling.

I’m afraid that contrary to popular belief, travel does not broaden the mind. Well, all right, it does, but only for those who’ve read up properly in advance. The only paintings you’ll see in a museum are the ones you’ve already seen in your guidebook. If you go unprepared you won’t be able to tell a Vermeer from the instructions in case of fire. And so for the last few weeks I’ve been making intense preparations for the trip to Holland. I’ve been looking through art books, dipping into Spinoza, reading a book called Giants of Dutch Culture, as well as Herbert and Huizinga. I’ve been refreshing my memory of Mulisch, Wolkers and Nooteboom. Who knows, maybe they’re going to test us?

For in fact I’ve decided to go and see Vermeer up close after all, considering I’ve been given the opportunity. (The slightly awkward thing about this narrative situation is that the Dutch are flying me in for a few days to have me write about the Netherlands for the benefit of Dutch readers – unfortunately that’s how things stand.) That’s why I’ve been looking up Vermeer in advance; later on, having already done my homework, I’ll be able to write that I’ve just seen a Vermeer and found it very moving. I need to be suitably moved here at home with my books, and then somehow try to stay in that state until I actually visit the Mauritshuis in The Hague, or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. On the whole, of all those who will be present at the festival I’ll be reporting from, it’s actually Vermeer and Spinoza who interest me the most. And that’s the truth of it. “Don’t tell them that,” says my wife.

“And I don’t think they’re going to test you on the giants of Dutch culture,” she says. “They’re more likely to be interested in Polish culture. Especially contemporary Polish culture.” More’s the pity, I think to myself. I’m not particularly well versed in Polish culture, especially the contemporary kind. “Or so-called Polish-Dutch cultural connections.” Surely there are some?

Yes, there is one Zagajewski poem about Dutch painters, one by Szymborska on Vermeer (I’ve still got time to learn it by heart), and then one of our Romantics actually had a Dutch phase, but unfortunately I can’t quite remember which one it was. Will that do? (“It’s a bit bland,” says my wife.)

All right, in that case I’ll tell you how Marco van Basten brought down communism. Want to know? Here’s what happened: I was eight years old, and I was watching the UEFA Cup final at my grandparents’ flat. Football, the lads, the champions. The Netherlands was playing against the Soviet Union (I’m afraid grandpa was rooting for the USSR – but that’s another story). It was 1988, and you could say the Soviet Union had its best years behind it, though it was still doing pretty well. But then Gullit scored the first goal with a header (he always scored with headers), and then van Basten hammered in one of the most incredible goals in football history. It took Dasayev, the Soviet keeper, ages to get up from his knees and fetch the ball from the back of the net. And the Soviet Union never got up from its knees again – one year later we had free elections in Poland.

“I had no idea you were into football,” says my wife. Because I’m not. Not any more. I stopped being interested in 1992, during another UEFA Cup match. Marco van Basten failed to score in the penalty shoot-out. That was when I understood that the universe is indifferent to human concerns, there is no god, and physical reality is ruled by chaos. It’s pointless. I guess football is like travelling in this way: the only point of it is that it allows us to confront the pointless.