By Nina Fitzpatrick. (Perhaps -- see below)
New York: Penguin Books, 1995. ISBN# 0-14-024132-9
Comments by Bob Corbett
Faustyna is a psychologist living in Krakow in the 1980s, doing very odd research and watching her country tumble down around her. She details her many failed love affairs, one resulting in a daughter, Julia. Faustyna finals gives up on Poland and immigrates to Ireland.
Along the way we are treated to a humorous, though bittersweet, picture of the politics and daily life struggles in Poland under transition. Fitzpatrick is a keen observer of the politics of revolution and change and the life of struggle for daily survival.
But who is this Nina Fitzpatrick, or is she even anyone?
The inside jacket cover announces: "Nina Fitzpatrick's first book, the story-collection FABLES OF THE IRISH INTELLIGENTSIA, won her -- for a few days at least -- the 1991 IRISH TIMES/ Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for Fiction. When this award was withdrawn after a dispute over citizenship, her name, her nationality, her sex, her number, and her very reality became a matter for fierce debate. THE LOVES OF FAUSTYNA can only intensify and complicate that debate still further."
I was intrigued by this claim, but whatever the status of that book things seem to have settled down and he we had someone who simply had to be Polish, writing about things she experienced, if not in Krakow, then certainly in urban Poland during the period. It's just all too real.
Then comes the epilogue of this novel which is entitled: "Epilogue. In which the Author Owes the Reader an Explanation."
And there we read:
It's raining again. Faustyna would say: I've never seen a country that could absorb so much water. Where does it all go?
(Into the limestone, my dear. Into the cracks and crevices.)
The oystercatchers, in their black and white evening dress, are scurrying among the rocks on the shore. We're in for a week of it.
Another week of rain and Faustyna and I'll go mad.
I've looked over her adventures once more with a sense of misgiving. One or two sound a bit far-fetched. But then, as her tiresome great-grandmother would say: Truth is a luxury. For some of us lies are a necessity.
'And I miss a sense of pattern, a mandala at the centre of so much happenstance. Why Faustyna and where does she lead to?
She consistently refused to talk about the mundane or to dwell on the down-to-earth detail. Only adventure interested her; all the rest was onanism or socialist realism. I could never imagine her flat, for example, though I'm sure that there was a pile of old newspapers under her bed. What kind of make-up did she use in those days? What style of dress?
Are there really such places as Pszczyna and Jastrzebie? Or were they just tongue-twisting fricatives thrown in to bamboozle me in the small hours?
Even Krakow meant different things to us. For me it was a holy city, the seventh chakra of the earth, a centre of secret wisdom. It was the school of Apollonius of Tyre, of Dr Faustus, of John Dee and the Kabalists.
To her all this was banialukas, meaning raimeish. She jeered at my mystical hobby, at the pendulum and dowsing rod and my quest for the sacred geography of the Burren. At the same time she approved of it. At least I was a true Irishman with a spiritual aberration. Not like the other coons. Coons she had picked up from an Australian in Oxford.
I had to drag the bits and pieces of the urbs sacra out of her and she could never be sure if she hadn't mixed it all up. I've no way of knowing. I've never been to Krakow.
And finally the greatest difficulty. At first I tried to write it all down in the third person, a story about a woman called Faustyna: she said, she went and so on. But it wouldn't work like that. She demanded to speak in her own voice without any beating round the bush. She was shameless in her malice and her desire to outshine me. In the end I had to let her have her own way. So as well as being her seventh lover (by my count) I became her midwife too.
Shelley (or maybe it was Keats?) kept rotten apples on his desk to incite him to write when his inspiration flagged. I keep a multichannel Hitachi radio. When I can no longer hear in my head that thick Slavic accent of hers with its recurring snorts as of a bagpipe taking air, I prowl the short wave for Radio Moscow or the English Language Service of Radio Bulgaria. Once I catch the timbre and texture of those wavering Eastern European voices looming out of the static I find Faustyna again, crouched over the turf fire, chain-smoking Marlboros, one hand in the folds of her flannel skirt.
I wonder now: was our meeting an insignificant episode in her life? Or would she account it an adventure and acclaim it with a capital A? Would she one day stretch out on somebody's sofa, blow a few preliminary smoke rings in the air and begin:
After Trondheim, after Oxford, when Julia was with her father in Mombasa, I felt I was drying out like an old baba. As we know, the English don't enjoy women very much. I was becoming invisible again, Me in those horrible interrogation rooms in Krakow. Then I remembered Peter Koltzov seducing me among imaginary hills and holy wells in Ireland, his smile switched off at last. So one day I found myself standing with a rented bicycle at the foot of a hill called something Mama.
Excuse me, but what is this Mama about? I asked the first man I met on the road.
He was younger than me but looked right for the place - the usual Irish freckles, unwashed hair and a face of exalted innocence.
Not Mama, he said, glancing shyly at my bosom. Uacht Mauma: the Cream of the Breast. Honey Hill.
That's enough. She wants to take over again and already she's telling lies.
Uacht Mauma, I said, not looking at her bosom but at the flat tyre on her bike. She confused me right enough. She looked Irish with her pale face and red hair but the abruptness of her question and her hard accent were from another world. And if I had an exalted look on my face it was because, compass in hand, I was following a ley line from Bishop's Quarter to Killmachduagh.
That evening I met her again on a green path huddled over a half-dismembered bicycle.
At last, she remonstrated. You took your time about coming back.
While I worked on the bike she sat on a stone wall, smoked, and fired questions at me. Was the IRA active in this part of the country? What did I think of the British presence? The Anglo-Irish Agreement - would it improve anything? Why was the country in such a mess? I tried to draw her attention to the landscape but she had no interest in a heap of old stones she said. Why do people waste their time building so many walls for Christ's sake?
When she stretched out on the horsehair sofa in my cottage I marvelled at the way someone from God knows where, someone I'd never met before, could so completely take possession of my life. Perhaps I had spent too much time with places rather than people? I had taken refuge in the landscape and was then doubly fascinated by the human world of which she spoke so obsessively. Or maybe it was her foreignness that attracted me? Up till then I had just one Irish woman in my life - my mother - and that was enough for me.
There was something in Faustyna that made me attentive. Not her disquieting green eyes or her youthful face or her Marlene Dietrich legs. It was something that had crystallized in her a long time ago, before even the buttocky cloud and Mr Gorbachev's intervention. What was it?
My mind has been formed in the realms of lower probability, she jested. I'm not at all sure I know what she meant.
She hadn't come to Ireland to detoxify herself a la Peter Koltzov, if indeed he ever existed. Her visit to Clare was incidental to her visit to Galway, where she had applied for a job at the university. She failed to get it. When I probed her for details she said enigmatically: I was interviewed by five males and none of them was a man.
Come on, I said, spell it out for me.
Despondently, chewing the grounds of her Turkish coffee, she spelled it out. Well, if I must know, one of them was uncomfortably tall and another uncomfortably small, with hard bright eyes and a twisted mouth that gulped all the available oxygen. The tall one kept leaving the room, ostentatiously, to take telephone calls from Brussels. Maybe the poor man had a prostate problem? The small one spoke in dazzling paragraphs. He chuckled over his own jokes and paused only to admire his own brilliance. He reminded her of the so-called Minister for Disinformation at home whose brilliance was empowered by unremitting hatred. The other three sat cowed between the tall and the small, making mysterious notes on bits of paper. None of them looked her in the eye when she described her theory of the Patrimonial Pendulum and how it explained everything about Soviet society. They were monks on the inside and social scientists on the outside. Towards the end of the interview one of them asked her if she spoke Irish.
Maybe you should try the Regional College? I suggested.
No, she shot back, once was enough. The interview board was Ireland in miniature. An unappetizing mixture of gracelessness, brilliance and fear of women. Better Krak6w under martial law than Galway under any circumstances.
She stayed a week with me in my cottage, rapidly turning the place into a chaos of books, newspapers and discarded coffee cups. Once or twice, as if stricken by the memory of her femininity, she spent the afternoon in the kitchen mixing honey, oats and lemon and plastering it on her face. Or she covered her head with a towel and held it over a bowl of steaming camomile. Don't pay attention to me, she pleaded. When I'm beautiful again I'll make you Russian pirogis with mushrooms. But she forgot her promise in the fervour of her remembrance of things past.
Long past midnight we would collapse into our Kinvara clinch, a tight meditative embrace, all the sweeter because it came from nowhere and was going nowhere.
She refused to explore the countryside with me or go sightseeing. So I put aside my book on sacred geography and listened to her motley adventures and the Dindshemchas of Krakow.
(The lore of high places.)
When she caught me taking notes surreptitiously she grinned and began to spell out names for me.
Nothing lasts for ever, nothing happens twice, she quoted her great-grandmother one last time on the morning she left. It was pointless to ask her her plans because she would either lie or give me one of her enigmatic replies.
Like: I'm not going anywhere but I won't stay either. I offered her a lift as far as Galway but she said no.
No, she said, I like to cycle on wet days. It's only on my bike I can cry as much as I want.
She looked at me with that insistent ironic gaze I had come to mistrust.
You see, I can pedal away and cry like a beaver and nobody can tell my tears from the rain.
Okay, ostensibly we have a fictional novel in which a fictional narrator turns out to be not really the narrator, but has told her story to the fictional author and the actual author uses this convention.
Fine, if that were all. But then we hark back to the fuss and controversy surrounding Nina Fitzpartick's first book, which had all the same patterns and I begin to smell a rat. Either Fitzpatrick is having lots of fun with us readers, or something deeper is going on here. Wish I knew. If any one reading this knows more about Nina Fitzpatrick I'd like to hear about her.
Special thanks to Bjorn Wisted for this addition:Bjorn Wisted Bjorn.Wisted@mediebedriftene.no
15 Sep 2003
I saw your comments on "The loves of Faustyna" by Nina Fitzpatrick. You wanted to know who she is. Well, she is Nina Witoszek, born in Poland and now a Norwegian citizen. She is a professor at the University of Oslo. She's studied literature in Stockholm (where she got her PhD), Dublin and Oxford. She's been a scholar at universities in Uppsala, Cambridge, Florence, Ireland and Oslo. She's now doing work in sociology. She publishes a new novel, "Daimon", this month simultaniously in Norway and the US.
Bjorn added that she was born in Krakow.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com