Sunday, July 26, 2020

Into the second sky

The dirt floor was warm and damp. The space inside the pigsty glowed brightly, then crumbled into little pieces, like a mosaic. Swallows greeted me with a piercing "tweet-tweet" from their nest up in the rafters. I felt a tingling around my shoulder blades. Suddenly, I became as light as a scrap of foil. I rose up and sat on the pane of the little window which had been left slightly ajar. I flew out into the yard and circled over the orchard for a while. The sky, like the lid of my jar, was pierced with stars. Through them, a different kind of lining was showing. From up high, I could the whole village, with the brownish-green forest to the north and the white circles of the dolomite quarry to the east. I had almost broken through the lid, into the second sky, when suddenly — smack, smack — someone smacked me on my feverish cheeks.
Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg, is the story of someone who wants to leave even though she doesn't know it, yet ultimately she finds it impossible to leave.

Her small-town Poland does not belong to this world. The village of Hektary in particular seems to exist outside of time. (In this way it reminds of Tokarczuk's Primeval.)

Only when Wiola mentions that her father is humming Elvis tunes do I place the story in the twentieth century. Finally she relates an anecdote from 1981. Soon the village is awaiting the Popemobile. It's a time when Communism and Catholicism are equally strong but opposing forces. Outside the village, the Solidarity movement takes hold, and martial law is imposed. Wiola's adolescence is of little concern to anyone. Yet she comes of age all the same.

The whole place is wanting, for everything from jobs to pretty dresses, but through a naive girl's eyes, there is still magic. Even the paint set Wiola wins in a church raffle is missing a tube, but the names of the colours are like distant planets (it turns out they are past their expiry date).

Wiola's paintings are taken by the authorities to be deeply metaphorical. This is the thing about Eastern European Communism, everything is deeply metaphorical.

There seems to be no great joy in this place. But it's not that it's filled with melancholy either. It feels to me, and maybe to Wiola, like a puzzle to solve, a labyrinth of ritual and tradition, politics and religion, expectations and desires, to navigate and escape.

The sequel, Accommodations, is already in my stack.

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Excerpts