Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"Languages that are not our mother tongues are like cats"

Slavic languages, with the freedom proffered by their declensions, presented an added difficulty for the writer faced with a blank page, for if an Antarctic writer was met with innumerable possibilities, then a Polish writer came up against infinity.
The Palimpsests, by Aleksandra Lun, is funny and clever. It's also pretentious as fuck, but charmingly so.

Read for yourself how it starts.

I'd almost forgotten having ordered this book. There it was, sitting on my desk when I arrived at work one morning. A slim, brown envelope. When the contents were revealed to me, I was disappointed. I set it to the back corner of my desk and eyed it suspiciously. I'd been anticipating a tome, not this pamphlet. I'd planned on losing myself in the palimpsests, not skimming across them. I'd hoped for a book I could burrow inside for the length of Christmas vacation. But this would last me only a couple hours. Now I was burdened with not only determining which hours would best be suited to the endeavour, but also finding other reading to fill the days.

And so I opened it as the train pulled out of the station.
"You're a writer," the psychiatrist was making a note in her notebook, "you have to belong to a culture. All writers belong to one."
Who does a language belong to, anyway? What gives some people more than others a right to a language?

Our protagonist, Czesław Przęśnicki, finds himself in a Belgian lunatic asylum undergoing Bartlebian therapy with the aim to stop him from writing in a language that is not his mother tongue. He writes in Antarctican, which he studied when he travelled to that continent with his lover, Ernest Hemingway. He is working on his second novel, scribbling it across the pages of a Flemish newspaper, while obsessing about his unsatisfactory sex life. His roommate is a Polish priest upset over his canary that was killed by sparrows in the same spot Hitler used as a pretext for invading Poland. And the asylum is peopled with several notable writers.

(What language do the birds speak, and the dogs?)

There are several running gags about Belgium not having had a government for the past year, Karol Wojtyła trotting the globe in a white dress (the Polish pope being referred to always by his birth name, a very Polish thing to do, lest we forget he was Polish), Eastern European communism in general and the privileged shop assistants who had unlimited access to toilet paper, and Hitler receiving radiofrequencies from the past.
"What gives you the idea that you can invent whatever you feel like and write it in any language you fancy?"

"A writer, doctor," Kosiński shrugged his shoulders, "is issued a special license, a poetic one, and that license is good for own life too."

The doctor made a note in her notebook.

"If I wrote in my mother tongue," continued Kosiński, "what I wrote would become personal. I write in my stepmother tongue, so that it may be universal."
Lun is clever to have her protagonist write in Antarctican — it avoids being political, which it easily could be. I wondered for a while if there was a statement being made in the fact that the characters were all male, with the exception of the woman psychiatrist. That is, until Karen Blixen turned up with her straight-shooting talk. And then Ágota Kristóf. So no, the gender imbalance is just the world, not a commentary.

There is a parade of mother-tongue-forsaking writers barging in on Czesław's sessions: Vladimir Nabokov, Jerzy Kosiński, Samuel Beckett, Emil Cioran, Joseph Conrad, Karen Blixen, Eugene Ionesco (why do we even call him a Romanian writer?), Ágota Kristóf. Most of them remark on the pretentiousness of the plot of the novel he's working on. Witold Gombrowicz also makes an appearance, despite having written in Polish. And Simenon also plays a role in our protagonist's story.

Beckett: "You and your kind have never been foreigners, that's your bad luck," he lowered his voice, "and you don't know that the mother tongue is always burdened with automatism and that, to simplify things, exiling oneself from the language is necessary."

Cioran: "For a writer, to change language is to write a love letter with a dictionary."

Writerly references abound, and I'm sure plenty more zipped past me. Czesław also reminisces about the many writers with whom he never got close: Melville, Zweig, Bruno Schulz, Witkiewicz, and others.

The Palimpsests is lively and madcap. It's a thoughtful frolic through the philosophy of language, the absurdities of our world, and the joys of our reading life.

I read this book in English translation. It was written in Spanish (by a woman born in Poland but living in Belgium, and working as a translator of multiple languages), but I'd venture to say it's a very Polish book.



1 comment:

mistah charley, sb, ma, phd, jsps said...

speaking of popes, i often refer to ratzinger by his real name, not call to mind his ethnicity, but his long time role as head of the inquisition

here in my eighth decade, i have, for now, made my peace with organized religion - - i assert that i am a believing unitarian, a practicing catholic, a doctor of philosophy, jsps


practicing defined as 'saying the words and going through the motions' with good will towards my fellow parishioners who are doing the same thing



may your days be merry and bright*

and may the CREATIVE FORCES OF THE UNIVERSE stand beside us, and guide us, through the Night with the Light from Above**

*irving berlin
**adapted from irving berlin