The Krakow Diaries

75 days in Krakow. On a literary grant from the German Kulturstiftung der Länder. In the Guesthouse of the 16th century Villa Decius, with 10 other writers from Poland, Germany, Belarussia, Ukraine and Georgia. Beautiful city. Nice Krakovians. Fun nightlife. Beautiful women. And in the guesthouse: Meetings of the minds. Too much vodka. Good friends. One of the great pleasures of my life.

And the Winner Is: Coolest Writer: Danuta Borchardt

Though all these people are clearly cool writers, the prize for Coolest Writer definitely has to go to Danuta. There is no doubt about that.

It's not because she translated the coolest Polish writer ever into English: Witold Gombrowicz is sometimes referred to as the Polish James Joyce (the Poles, I believe, refer to him just by him name, and refer to James Joyce as the Polish Gombrowicz). Danuta won a prize for her translation of his classic "Ferdydurke" and is going on to translate his other two classics, "Cosmos" and "Pornographia."

Nor is it because she is dedicated to her art of translation. It took her something like seven years to translate Ferdydurke, especially because she had to invent so much of the English to go with invented Polish. Professionally, she is a psychologist (retired),and gets paid a pittance for translating – clearly this is a labor of love.

Nor is it because she has had such an interesting life. I won't reveal how old she is, but she was born in Poland and remembers fleeing the Nazis. Then came England for a while, and now she lives in (near, actually) Boston.

Nor is it because she also writes short stories on the side, two of which I am presenting here:

An Onion

Gray stockings were her favorite. They went well with all her dresses and set off their color to advantage. Red, blue, navy, coral, green. No matter which dress she wore, she knew all would be well, but especially well if the color of her dress was indigo. This carried her with gusto everywhere. But where was everywhere?
Everywhere was inner sanctum, everywhere was outer sanctum. It was the green underleaves of precaution, it was the overleaf of jeopardy. Everywhere was everytime, and everytime was everywhere. It would be in the heel of her stocking, once a hole appeared in it. Then the bald onion of her heel would take over and everywhere would be just that. The hole would take over the whole.
The onion was bitter and strong, and even policemen would cry at the sight of it. Especially one policeman, though he had even less than all the others the capacity to cry. But the sight of an onion in Amanda’s gray stocking, in the inner and outer sanctum, under and over the leaf of everywhere, was more than he could bear. He relinquished the badge of valor that he had won conditionally and reservedly, upon approval, and followed her to the end of her tether. That was somewhere he had never been before. It was at the end of a green lane where preputias were blooming, and where the scent of heretofore was bitter and sweet and obviated the scent of the onion of Amanda’s heel. Here joy rested with sadness and blended with the indigo blue of her dress.

Our Rudolph

The big sister was like a huge rambling house, a mushroom, a fungus, a toad sitting above the three little ones. She was watching over them through her windows, winking at them with her lights. Her drooping breasts were like the sagging balconies of a genteel, old house. The three little sisters were perky enough, though low to the ground. They were looking up at her and she was looking down and, at first, there was nothing oppressive about it, nothing at all. But gradually, little by little and in barely perceptible smudges, grubs and grime encroached on their minds, the way fungus spreads and engulfs. Through leaves eaten by vermin, through gaps in the everlasting sky, mortification and horror seeped into the soul-marrow of the three little ones.
It all began at the one indelible moment when the crest of the bounding sky fell to the pit of eternal abyss. When the abbots and prelates met their congregation as one eye to another and cast the great We over the little thou. When the big sister sat in the pew with her little sisters and held them by their not yet fully developed, puny wrists. The wrists squirmed and wriggled, but the vice tightened.
Outside the church the sun was shining. A breeze, now gentle, now brisk and rough, was sweeping leaves over the steps to the entrance. A man was about to enter the church when he was grabbed from behind, his arms held tight behind his back, and pushed into an incredibly beautiful car, white and shiny, golden trim all around. He was shoved into the back seat and driven off. The abbots and prelates were to catch up with the kidnappers later, such was the arrangement.
The man’s name was Rudolph. He was to have joined his sisters in the church just at the moment when the abbots and prelates were to meet the congregations as one eye meets another. However, he was delayed by a new and unexpected turn in the road, which took him through hollycobbles and hillycocks, pireas and putreas where the devilscums lived. Finally, when he arrived at the church, it was great, he thought, to have arrived there at all. He was to deliver his little sisters from their big sister and from the abbots and prelates. But the devilscums had signaled to each other in the field of the pireas, and the next rudolph that passed by was to be their victim.
The prelates had finished their sermon, the abbots had placed the last dot after We. All decked in their incredibly beautiful vestments, satin-white and embroidered in gold, they were about to leave the church. They were heading for the back door, better known as the vestry, when the three little sisters shouted:
“Where is our Rudolph?!” they shouted.
Their wrists half-worn through by their wiggling and squirming, they wanted to know where their Rudolph was. Their big sister, her breasts hanging like baboons on a sagging branch said oh shut up and behave, or I’ll knock your blocks off. Their wrists worn thin, they were white with fear and wanted to know where their Rudolph was.
“Ah, la-di-da!” sang the abbots and prelates running out through the vestry, for they were in a hurry to join the devilscums, as had been arranged. They hopped into the equally beautiful golden-trimmed white cars and drove off with a whiz. Through hollycobbles and hillycocks and beyond the field of pireas they reached the wide open country of putres and decayas, where the devilscums lived. There on the ground, stretched into a square like a painter’s canvas, lay our Rudolph. They were serving Ginseng tea that he was hardly able to drink because his head was flat on the ground. They placed a piece of yummy bread in his hand that he was not able to eat because his arms were held stretched out. And so they tempted and teased him till he confessed: yes, those were his little sisters, yes, he was going to rescue them from the grip of their big sister, and yes, he was going to prevent them from coming eye to eye with those scoundrels — the abbots and prelates. And why, pray, was he going to do all that? Because, pray, he scoffed back at them, because he was going to save them from oppression and humiliation, from frustration, degradation and mortification, and from the la-di-da and from the I’ll knock your blocks off in answer to their little questions. At which point the devilscums shoved a painter’s stretcher down his throat and another up his ass, and that was the end of our Rudolph.
The big sister is like a huge house rambling above her three little sisters. She is watching over them through her windows, winking at them with her lights. All is genteel again, and there is nothing oppressive about it, nothing at all.


Nor is it because Danuta has remained young.

There is nothing dusty, cobwebby, conservative, easily shocked or in anyway …old about her. This is the kind of person I want to be when I get older. But it's not because of that, either.

No, she wins the grand prize because of the tattoo.

Look at it. You remember your mother telling you never to get a tattoo because it will embarrass you later in life and you won’t be able to take it off? This tattoo – I think they call it "tribal" - is in a very modern style. It is not a folly of her youth:

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