Two Novellas of Emigration and Exile
Jennifer J. Day
By Danuta Mostwin. Translated by Marta Erdman and Nina Dyke. Introduction by Joanna Rostropowicz Clark. Afterword by Thomas J. Napierkowski. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005. 120 pages. ISBN 0-8214-1607-3. Hardcover.
In Danuta Mostwin’s Testaments we are afforded a literary perspective on the lives of Polish émigrés in mid-twentieth-century America. As the commentators in the volume’s introduction and afterword point out, the voices of the Polish emigration have been underrepresented and slow to emerge in the context of American literature. Danuta Mostwin has been an acclaimed fiction writer since 1958, and this recent translation of two of her novellas has revealed a portrait of Polish American émigré life that will serve to solidify that experience in American literature, as much as it continues a two-hundred-year tradition of Poles thinking about themselves in exile.
The sociological elements noticeable in Mostwin’s characterizations have an impressive basis: after immigrating to the United States in 1951, she earned her doctorate in sociology, going on to write scholarly works in her discipline while continuing to publish novels and stories in Polish. But it is Mostwin’s light yet expert presence in the narrative that ultimately makes the strongest impression on the reader. In this volume she demonstrates a penetrating writerly gaze that benefits from her scholarly skills of analysis, but ultimately transcends social portraiture in its suggestion of psychological and philosophical questions relevant to every individual.
The novellas in this volume, “The Last Will of Blaise Twardowski” and “Jocasta,” are presented as “testaments.” Indeed, as they thematically treat episodes in the lives of Poles who struggle to understand and maintain their identity in emigration, they forcefully engage the notion of testament in various literal and metaphorical ways. Testaments have to do not only with what is left behind of the self upon death, but with conviction or evidence that that self exists. What is it that constitutes the self? Especially in light of the historical upheavals that have affected the families and fates of Mostwin’s émigré protagonists, hard evidence of one’s own identity can be difficult to come by, while convictions may turn out to be one thing in the “old country” but something completely different in new settings and social configurations. Mostwin builds this problem into the structure of her stories: each begins from a present tense narrative that introduces the main character as having already died. From this vantage point we join the narrator in a detective’s search for the identity that leads up to that death, a search that is made difficult by the characters themselves. Like the characters who must “become acquainted with [their] own duality” (“Jocasta” 80), the reader is constantly aware of two different dimensions as s/he reads: the narrative present from which death and postdeath circumstances have been clear from the beginning, and the narrative past that forms the succeeding body of each story.
In “The Last Will of Blaise Twardowski,” a third-person narrator relates the life and death of Błažej Twardowski, who had immigrated to America in the early twentieth century. A lifelong pennypincher who has denied himself any material comfort, at seventy-eight Twardowski seems content if lonely in his settled life as a denizen of the Polish community on Broad Street. After spending most of his life in America, he remembers the “old country” with little fondness, with the notable exception of a childhood friend and mentor who taught him to read and write. But suddenly he receives from his niece in Poland, who asks him for money to help settle a legal dispute involving a plot of land that Twardowski still nominally owns there. At this point “he felt as if someone were tearing out his vitals, slicing his belly open, and murdering him. He was fighting for his very life-for land” (“Twardowski” 21). Although he has become an irremovable part of the daily landscape of Broad Street, Twardowski still viscerally identifies himself with the Polish soil of his past. His decision to help his niece starts an onslaught of letters from poor relatives in Poland that Twardowski greatly enjoys receiving. Yet, as quickly becomes clear through the good offices of a Mr. Wieniawski, the travel/courier agent who reads Twardowski his letters and helps him to arrange money transfers, the letter writers are lying to him in order to get him to send money. The story gains depth through the developing relationship between Twardowski and his relatives, ingeniously and subtly sketched through the insertion of the actual letters. Yet it also grows through the simultaneous development of the relationship between Twardowski and Wieniawski, a later-generation émigré who himself has conflicting feelings about his own identity, caught between two realities, “straddl[ing] the line dividing two worlds” (“Twardowski” 13). In fact, through the backdrop of the Broad Street Polish community, Mostwin gives us numerous character sketches that illustrate various ways of being Polish in America. As Twardowski realizes his death is approaching, the vital question for him, the one that becomes the most bound up with his beliefs and with his own self-conception, becomes that of his last will. To whom should he leave his considerable fortune, amassed at a life’s expense of self-denial? Twardowski’s negotiation of what he calls the “third world, a world of the sick and the suffering” (56-57) becomes bearable only inasmuch as he can find an “outstretched, friendly hand” (46) that is proof of his own existence. Yet Mostwin’s portrayal of this in-between space, resonant on so many levels in both stories in this volume, does not allow for easy assignments of blame or clear demonstrations of hero and villain. Mostwin is more concerned with exploring the implications of the “outstretched, friendly hand” in the character of Wieniawski, and the “testaments” of identity that such an act reveals as well as obscures.
In “Jocasta,” the second novella in the volume, many of the same issues of identity are investigated in a somewhat darker key and with a different narrative approach. The narrative alternates between a first-person acquaintance of Henryka Szatkowska, the main protagonist, and third-person “flashbacks” that are presumably retold by the first-person narrator. The novella starts with the narrator’s dream of Henryka who, we are told, has already died. This enigmatic and rather unsettling dream sets the tone for an ongoing inquiry into who exactly Henryka was through an account of her life since arriving in America at the age of sixty-nine in 1954. Here Mostwin highlights the troubled relationship between Henryka and her son Jan, who lives with his German wife and their son. Henryka is a strong, sometimes aggressive woman who consistently reminds the narrator of “a bird of prey”: “She was a big, powerfully built woman with somewhat heavy hips, tall, straight as a ramrod, meticulously and elegantly dressed” (71). The story unfolds as a drama of personal relationships: the decidedly antagonistic one between Henryka and her German daughter-in-law, the uneasy one between Henryka and her son, and even the developing bond between Henryka and the narrator, based on the fact that “we all lived simultaneously in two worlds, not one, and that this split us irrevocably in half” (80). In fact, this in-betweenness forms the crux of the psychological study in “Jocasta”; it manifests itself in Henryka’s initial devastating sense of “loss of her own self” (81) and in her dreams of an approaching chasm. The narrator skillfully contrasts this inner turmoil with Henryka’s impressive physical stature and her determination to survive by pure force of will: “I don’t believe in destiny, I don’t believe in premonitions. It’s all old wives’ tales and nothing else. Every problem can be turned around by the will. One has to will life” (82). Yet the efficacy of her staunch resolution to face up to life’s vicissitudes is called into question when her son winds up in the state mental hospital as the result of a car accident. As he sobs, “I want to go home!” she underscores her own lack of grounded identity by responding, “There is no home. Please, you must understand. There is no home left.” It is as if in this very instinct to fight by looking reality in the face, Henryka-Jocasta recedes further from winning the “battle of our lives” referred to in the fragment from Oedipus Rex that concludes the story. In her portrayal of Henryka, Mostwin employs a particularly successful structural device that relates her protagonist to the spaces she inhabits. Our narrator associates her successive encounters with Henryka with the four apartments she occupies in emigration. Each apartment is distinct in layout, furnishings, and general atmosphere, and in each space we are presented with a study of how Henryka asserts herself in a new environment. Mostwin displays this thoughtful tendency to explore questions of identity through spatial placement in “Twardowski” as well, where she charts the relationship between her title character and Broad Street vis-a-vis a remembered or dreamed “old country” landscape.
In both novellas Mostwin develops an objective narrative voice that, while delving into personal memories and emotional reactions, holds itself at a remove from the protagonists. She provides no easy solutions for the reader, but instead invites us to participate in an understanding of Twardowski, Henryka, and their relationship with others, with no guarantee that an understanding is, in fact, available. One might wonder why, in a volume that gives so much attention to dual identities, Twardowski’s and Henryka’s preemigration lives are painted in only the broadest of dream-strokes. Yet it is just this murkiness that illustrates best the strange middle ground they occupy, and makes their choices of personal testament in an unfamiliar place that much more important and vivid. While treating large psychological and philosophical questions of memory, identity, home, and self, Danuta Mostwin has also succeeded in capturing the individual and unique circumstances and details that turn potentially determinative forces into grounds for artistic speculation. ∆
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