Witold Walczykiewicz is a Polish divorcee who is “in his seventies and vigorous,” and Beatrice is a married Spanish woman who, in her “mid-forties, practices a certain distance.” He falls in love with her and she feels sorry for him and out of pity grants his wish. “It happened, it was his fault,” he says. JM Coetzee (Cape Town, 1940) trans The Polisha story as simple as it is meditative, on which, without so much romance or fuss, the protagonist of Misfortuneone of the greatest novels of the Nobel Prize, now based in Australia, called “the problem of sex”.
In case of The Polish, it all started at a post-concert dinner hosted by Beatriz at Sala Mompou, in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Witold, a famous pianist, has just played the twenty-four preludes on Frederic Chopin in front of the woman, it will soon become a personal symbol of “peace” and “joy”. However, the Pole may have made a name for himself thanks to Chopin, “but the Chopin that Beatrice knows is more intimate and subtle than what this translator offers.”
Contrary to the little connection that the music that is supposed to move her provokes in her, the dialogue at the table, rehearsed between other hosts in uncertain English, which serves as a neutral bridge between the Poles and the Spanish, also evokes nothing immediate or surprising. “Of course, the man has no idea what’s going on inside her. To him, she’s part of the burden he has to bear for the sake of his acting career: one of those pesky rich women who won’t leave him alone until they’ve extracted an ounce of flesh.”
In fact, that’s not even what Beatrice wants from Witold. Then, on the brink of boredom, she asks him a few questions about happiness. If, as the Pole says, this is not the most important feeling, what is? A banal conversation ensues, after which they say goodbye with a touch of hands that leaves her with a “corpse” feeling to say the least. Are these the conditions from which a relationship sprouts? And if such a miracle happens, what is the connection?
“What love most certainly is not, suggests Coetzee in his usual parsimonious style, is absurd theoretical material suitable for public relations or the sad marketing of user manuals dictated by gurus.”
For those familiar with Coetzee’s work, the premise of the older man seeking to curry favor with a younger woman is a constant. But both in Misfortune as in diary of a bad yearwhere this type of relationship arises within the logic of a dark power of a colonial nature or as a mere intellectual fascination, what is involved is not (simply) to unfold carnal fantasies, but to explore what mechanisms, more ethereal and – little obvious, they are capable of provoking the meeting.
Witold and Beatrice may feel that love “is a state of mind, a state of being, a phenomenon, a fashion, which shifts as we watch it in the past, in the distant realms of history.” But is this feeling of attachment and rejection something you could call love? What love most certainly is not, suggests Coetzee in his usual parsimonious style, is the absurd theoretical material timed for public relations or the sad commercialization of user manuals dictated by gurus. Things when it comes to cataloging reasons are more indeterminate and less mercantile. In the middle, anything is possible: “The Pole’s idol, Chopin, was a sickly man who depended on a woman to take care of him. Maybe that’s what the Pole really wants: a nurse to care for him in his final years.
Whatever it is, it flares up again as soon as he emails her and invites her to meet again with the excuse that he can’t forget her. “I don’t have time for pretty lies,” she replies. And the narrator adds, “They are not mere lies, for which he has no time, but every detour, wordplay, veiled meaning.” Hence, there is no seduction, declaration, or expectation. It doesn’t take long for Coetzee to move Witold and Beatrice into the territory of the greatest of misunderstandings: sex. “Well, you’ve got me,” she tells him after a “strange and not a little frightening experience” in bed. “My heart is full,” he says. love? Desire? disgust? Pity? Witold and Beatrice will never see each other again. But they will be written and read again.
Also in summer, the third installment of his excellent fictionalized autobiography, What Coetzee Thinks About Sex, is presented as a force with the virtue of bursting into any confused orbit of feelings and ideologies. “Writing letters to a woman does not show that you love her,” explains one of the women who met the writer in summer. “This man was not in love with me, but with some idea he had created of me, some fantasy of a Latin American lover he had conceived in his mind.” The Pole, for his part, returns to this question, but with a slightly metaphysical twist inspired by Divine comedy: “For a lover, the desired body is the soul.”
From there, The Polish he abandons the circumstances of Witold and Beatrice to focus on the languages that can represent the desire for a soul. Poetry? music? Cards? Maybe memory? Maybe forget? Everyone tries in their own way, through their fantasies and guilt. But even this, Coetzee points out with a belligerent look, does not guarantee that the lovers or the lovers, pursuing their longing, shine as poets, translators or correspondents. The unknown continues throughout life and can accompany us even after death.
By JM Coetzee
Translation: M. Dimópulos
137 pages, $2,500