Towards the Sun is the continuation of the narrative in Iwasiów’s novel Bambino, which was very well received by critics and readers alike. However this book can be read in isolation as it is not necessary to be familiar with the preceding novel in order to enjoy it. Towards the sun is set in present-day Szczecin, but includes flashbacks that take us back to events that took place in the 80’s and 90’s.
The story begins with Magda’s arrival in Szczecin. Magda has come to say her farewells to her only relative, her aunt, who is seriously ill and dying. About twenty years previously Magda had moved abroad, first to Berlin and later to London. She became an IT specialist in a large company and travelled widely, expanding her horizons, finally settling near Amsterdam. The unplanned visit to Szczecin and, even more so, the company of Tomek, her childhood friend, stir up a string of memories and encourage the main character to re-evaluate her own life. Other characters appearing in the narrative include Tomek’s wife, Sylwia, who works at Szczecin University, her boss Małgorzata, a professor, and Małgorzata’s PhD student, Marek. Małgorzata is having an affair with Marek, a man twenty-five years her junior. Marek’s father is also a significant character in the story: he was once an activist in the local branch of the Solidarity movement. In Towards the Sun, short episodes from the past lives of the characters mentioned above alternate with events happening in the present, complementing each other. There are many different themes that make up the fabric of this novel: the topics of social norms and environmental influences are intertwined with psychological themes and erotica; the waking world and the unconscious world of sleep merge. Although the novel is kept within the bounds of realism, the author frequently moves away from the literal and the concrete. Iwasiów wishes to understand the motivations and aspirations of her characters, but above all she wants to convey the collective experiences of particular groups, primarily those that shaped the generation of Poles born in the early sixties.
Excerpt translated by Kasia Beresdorf
It’s good that you’re here, my child,” Ula had managed to say in the time they had together, and it still resounded in the empty ward now that she was no longer there; she was being wheeled along to the operating theatre. They hadn’t immediately re-made the abandoned bed – the hospital attendants would come to do that in a moment, armed with an array of buckets, mops and chemical substances – so Magda smoothed the bed as if on automatic pilot. She met the gaze of the woman from the bed by the window, probing and unfriendly, she thought, and then she changed her mind. The hospital attendants, two tired-looking women of indeterminate age, wheeled in a trolley with greyish sets of linen on top and blue sheets of plastic underneath, and another trolley containing cleaning materials. They first set about making the bed opposite. The patient from the bed by the window asked for a wet towel: her voice was full of pain, and the words barely escaped her parched lips. Magda walked up to the wash basin and looked at her own reflection in the mirror. In the mirror she saw that the woman’s gaze was vacant, incapable of assessing what was going on, unengaged. At most she registered that something had changed in the room, somebody had been wheeled away, somebody had come in, someone would go out, something would be brought in, they would tell her to swallow it, they would disconnect or connect something, stick it in, wake her up, ask her how she felt, as if they couldn’t see themselves, as if they didn’t have a stack of test results, printouts from the insides of battered bodies, results from monitoring people’s entrails. Besides this there were the unimaginable rushes of pain, the spasms of unforeseen recollections, apathy. She looked around and said, “Goodbye” and stopped awhile in the doorway. The sick lady did not reply, maybe she was dozing. There was a deathly silence and in the background you could hear the clink of metallic objects and smell boiled potatoes, cabbage, antiseptic and urine or something else. How would you know what else as a person from the outside? You would need to stay here for a longer spell: after a few days she would manage to distinguish the rhythms, tastes and smells. As she had just dropped in for a short time, she was a passer-by and could barely take in the accumulation of alien sensations; inwardly she withdrew from the flood of unfamiliar stimuli. In the midst of the noise there was an enclave of deathly silence, a crevice of dying time; almost no-one is qualified for this, except perhaps occasionally someone at the end of the line, visiting a person from the next generation to depart, someone qualified by force of habit with a proficiency that is the domain of the sage. The hospital attendants were already on the next ward, they were covering the empty beds with plastic sheets – “just like goods for sale put out on display, as if in some super hygiene-conscious store” thought Magda, as she also looked at the glassed-off nurses’ staff room, which was spacious and bright with walls that were painted willow green. She wondered what smell prevailed there. The smell of women? Or chocolate? Or coffee? Milk puddings? Blood? Or fatigue?
She walked through the empty corridor. Perhaps she should go to the operating theatre zone on the ground floor; actually it was below ground floor level where the recovery room was also situated. She would prefer not to go in there. She remembered visiting Uncle Roman – she had come especially, unnecessarily, like this time, because
Tomek did not expect any support – there were women and men with their chests bared, equipment, lights on all day round, mistreated people and on both sides of the beds, the indifferent staff averting their eyes. It ought to have changed, but she knew it was just the same, in the same place: the corridor had been redecorated,
the paint covering up bygone layers of suffering; behind the doors with a bell were the patients in intensive care, so that the life in them couldn’t simply escape; bodily functions were monitored at all costs, even, were it necessary, at the cost of finishing someone off by shining lights in their eyes twenty-four hours a day, by confronting them with the deaths of those around them. After all people do die in hospital, we shouldn’t expect too much. Nothing can defeat death. What would happen if they put Ula there… she had light-proof curtains, changed every twenty years for even more light-proof ones, she had always had an aversion to light. She had not had roller-blinds fitted, she liked patterned material. The light came in too early through the tall hospital windows, even at this time of year, in the summer it would have been worse, it would have been awful. The patient on the left hand side had said something about the nurses keeping magnets in the staff room, that the nurses had magnets for the blinds, otherwise people would steal everything. What magnets? What was she talking about? And would the flimsy blinds, even assuming that they were attached with magnets, shield her eyes from the pain attacking them? Why did people steal? What did they do with the toilet roll holders they unscrewed? At the moment the coloured leaves still maintaining their hold on the trees formed a sort of filter; the sun was low in the sky, washed out, and it peered into those huge windows for barely a couple of hours a day. There was no protection, those who were not separated from the light by internal screens, which heralded their final passing away, could at most turn away towards the wall, as long as a drip did not prevent them from doing so. “Maybe they feel different inside,” Magda thought to console herself, “maybe only I am so afraid,” as I look from the sidelines at things they do not see here. Maybe they are on the inside, gently cushioned by their own bodies, a cushion of bodily tissues anaesthetised by drugs. Let’s hope so. Let’s hope so. Ula and Aunty Anna had liked to repeat themselves when wishing her good luck, they implored fate and shook their heads in time with the words: “Let’s hope that it goes well for you, my child”, which accompanied her every step, a new job, moving home, a new relationship. Later Ula was left on her own, without company, without friends. She continued to repeat these sentences starting with “Let’s hope” over the telephone and must have been shaking her head.
Maybe they would just take her back to the ward, she had to find out and wait. The nurse spoke to her in an unexpectedly warm-hearted way, as if she had known her for ages: “Your granny is still in the operating theatre. Why don’t you come back later, in the afternoon? There’s no point in waiting now.” She thought about how it happened differently in films, someone always came out to see the family, had a matter-of-fact discussion, patted them on the back. It was good that the nurse, at least, was patient with her, her words seemed personal, almost just like in a film, actually. It was only right to appreciate this, at that salary level no-one should expect
too much and anyway, how many times in your life could you lower your voice to a warm alto in that way in order to reassure confused traitors? Those daughters who didn’t visit their mothers on a daily basis, brothers who lived thousands of kilometres away, unprepared colleagues from work, who easily moved to the other side where death rang hollow, inquisitive neighbours wanting to find something to gossip about. How many months or years did it take until you got the urge to tell them how it really was? What was it like to pretend that the bloke who brought his mother a koala bear teddy from the airport was all right, an OK bloke deserving of sympathy? The corridor in this part of the hospital had also been recently redecorated, thank goodness: it didn’t have those strange associations
with prison, with war – the associations of someone who reads Foucault, of course. The beige coloured wall turned into an area with small tables and a coffee machine, where people in dressing gowns and track suits sat alongside others who were elegantly dressed. Why did people put on their Sunday best to visit hospital? Why a shirt or a white blouse? For whom was this Sunday best, this polite front, this masquerade?