For a Short Time – Na krótko
Inga Iwasiów’s novel transports us into the near future, to a provincial city in a country which has withdrawn from the European Union and is trying to swim against the current in resisting globalisation.
Some of the characters from Bambino, the first book in Iwasiów’s trilogy, reappear in this pensive novel: first and foremost amongst them is Sylwia, the Polish Studies professor who suffers from a memory disorder and seeks temporary escape from her work. Going abroad to carry out research for her university as part of an EU project forms a pretext for examining her own life, reviewing her own experiences for indications of the direction she should follow, and weighing up her life in a way that is typical of middle age. Sylwia observes the development of a regional culture in this ex-European country and slowly becomes involved in the lives of a few of the city’s residents, exchanging her hotel room for rented lodgings. A local hairdresser called Ruta also finds herself at a turning point. Just like the Polish professor and the other characters in this novel, she struggles to make a definitive decision: in Ruta’s case the decision is whether to stay in her home city, where she feels she fits in, or to emigrate to America following in the footsteps of her more enterprising husband. In the meantime, she runs a small retro hairdressing salon, an unofficial meeting place and talking shop for both younger and older women, an inconsequential women’s utopia, where they discuss family issues, relationships with men and career choices. To that extent, this university-focused novel (an uncommon genre in Polish literature) also examines social norms and human psychology as it focuses on the characters’ thoughts and experiences. Sylwia tries to cope with a technologically mechanised, soulless approach to life, which requires her to communicate by filling in tables and giving points, and shuts off culture and the arts into a museum zone; Ruta shies away from abandoning her home city and hairdressing salon; her brother dislikes the thought of leaving his library collections behind for the sake of making his way in America. The main characters of For a Short Time are disillusioned and weary of the deluge of information and the relentless rush of new technology: they feel torn between the flexibility and modernity of Europe and attachment to their own locality and life at a pace to which they are accustomed.
Iwasiów’s novel describes attempts to escape the limitations and requirements of rationality, while at the same time warning of what awaits us just ahead. The calm tone of this novel, the sensuality in many of the episodes and the amusing and perceptive observations of day-to-day life work in perfect harmony with this vision.
– Beata Kozak
Excerpt translated by Kasia Beresford:
- Sylwia She took the flat belonging to the hairdresser’s brother for a month, or rather part of the flat, excluding the bedroom which was under lock and key, succumbing to the absurd idea that she would scrupulously fulfil her obligations under the contract. She knew it was silly and she was extending her stay there unnecessarily: she wouldn’t gain anything of interest; she wouldn’t squeeze anything interesting from life there; she wouldn’t get down to writing the book she abandoned three years previously about writers travelling across the globe and the literary consequences of it. It probably wasn’t going to be long before someone else successfully produced an academic treatise of that type about the turn of the century. It struck her that renting part of someone else’s flat without the owner being present was foolhardy. “Perhaps he is lying there in his own bedroom and waiting until I fall asleep,” thought Sylwia in the evening, disarming herself with fear, defenseless on account of her own impulsive decision. Her suitcase lay in the middle of the room, but she was afraid of moving and knew she would be able to rely on a sleeping pill to save her. Indeed, without that the hours of darkness would have been a nightmare. Who knows, maybe she would have gone running back to the hotel? The sofa turned out to be soft. That first night she kept her suitcase close to her feet, as if in a railway sleeping compartment, ready to do an immediate about-turn, to protect her belongings. She placed her toothbrush next to her unpacked toiletry bag in the bathroom. She also laid out the toiletry samples she had taken from the hotel. She had been aware they were of poor quality but took them anyway. She had wanted to have the single-use miniatures in her possession just in case, to avoid buying anything she might later have had to leave behind or lug around with her. The hotel selection ought to last for a few days until she made her up her mind as to whether she should return. She paid for a month up front.
- Tomek “She’s gone nuts,” he thought. “She really is ill. Renting a room, a room in the city? Out of the question!” Here was their perfectly kept flat, which he was now trying to mess up. “Yes,” realizes Tomek, “this is the third week I’ve been exerting myself to dismantle the order which prevails here.” He had even laid off the cleaner for the holiday period. He knocked her neatly folded underwear off the wardrobe shelf in anger. “Get a room in a hotel! You’ve got the money. If you must stay there – although I don’t understand why – at least avoid making yourself worse.” He recalled the times they had rented rooms in the past. She did not like to live in that way, even in Croatia, where the living conditions hadn’t been that bad, for hell’s sake, and a private beach had compensated for the feeling that you were sleeping in your grandparents’ bedroom, lace bedspread and all. She had been disgusted by it and used two pairs of mules – one for the bathroom and one for the rest of the living quarters. She had put up with it for their son’s sake: the small, rocky beach leading straight down to a small bay could have been taken from a film set and little Tomuś spent whole days swimming and diving in safety. In the evenings they sat on the terrace separated from their landlords by a woven screen. She had grumbled about it. Privacy, comfort. A sterile bathroom. Of course he knew that since she had started going on business trips she had got used to hotels that didn’t necessarily have any stars – the impoverished version of international consumerism. But a flat with someone else’s junk? Years ago he used to travel to Poznań on his father’s business. Poznań had a very developed network of private lodgings, probably more so than any other city because of its trade fairs and the shortage of hotel accommodation. New hotels were being built, but the economy expanded even faster and the hoards of men and women travelling on business sought cheaper places to stay. A room in the upmarket residential district: small, dirty, with two lopsided sofa beds, a table, a locked-up wardrobe and chairs that didn’t match. There was also a dresser with china teacups, or maybe not. The landlady would keep an eye on you even when you went to the toilet; she would have been anxious about her teacups and would have made sure not to leave them in an open display case. There was no hot water in the bathroom, but despite that the landlady would prick up her ears to check whether he was making excessive use of it. She would sit on a stool and knit. A weak lightbulb made it impossible to shave at the gloomy break of day, so he would leave the house furious, hungry, unshaven and unwashed. The memory of it overwhelms him now: that particular room in the Garbary district won the mini competition for the most awful accommodation over that place in St. Petersburg. He imagines Sylwia creeping out to get a cup of boiling water, lying on someone else’s grey, rough bedsheet and sitting at a table covered with a washed-out tablecloth. “Darling, there’s no need for you to remain stuck in some filthy dump,” he shouted as he knocked over the teddy, which little Tomuś must have dispatched to the bedroom, treating the soft toy like a spy planted by his grandparents. He realised he was afraid for her. He was afraid of her going off the rails, of her strange ideas, her bizarre journeys. He was afraid of his feeling of liberation. “Are you feeling well?” He soothed his voice, if nothing else. “Yes, fine. Fine. Better – as far as my ability to concentrate goes.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I can remember all the street names, even though the language isn’t easy. Everything’s alright, believe me.” “What street are you living on?” he asks, unintentionally grilling her. “What street?” She searches for a receipt with the address on. “The street is… it’s hard to pronounce. I’ll send you the address.” “Okay, but just say it. I want to hear the name.” “What is this – an interrogation? You want to know, so I’ll send it to you. I definitely won’t get lost, it’s in the city centre, not in the outskirts and the city’s not a metropolis,” said Sylwia resolutely. She was persuading both him and herself because she didn’t expect him to come to the rescue and arrive there shortly. She didn’t need help. “Your wife needs your support,” the volleyball-playing doctor had said, “but no need to overdo it. Her memory is a bit variable; she has trouble concentrating. As if she were twenty years older. It’s not progressive in the same way as dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s a much slower process; it might not develop. Nevertheless she does need support.” “Support with what?” thought Tomek as he looked into the steamed-up mirror after the match: the doctor had played for the opposing team. She didn’t want to talk; she packed her case and announced she was leaving on a business trip, at the drop of a hat. He was beginning to forget what she needed him for. He was beginning to forget why he had wanted her, whatever the cost.