The Palimpsests

Aleksandra Lun

Illustration by Naï Zakharia

My name is Czesław Przęśnicki, I’m a miserable Eastern-European immigrant and a failed writer, I haven’t engaged in sexual relations for some time and I’ve been committed to an asylum in Belgium, a country that has had no government for the past year. The reasons I find myself hemmed in by the cold walls of a psychiatric hospital in the north of Europe are as mysterious to me as the failure of my sex life, which for years has had me languishing in apathy and frustration. No one could have predicted that one day I would end up in a Belgian asylum when I was born thirty-five years ago behind the Iron Curtain in the confusing geopolitical space marked by Adolf Hitler’s hyperactivity. To be precise, the state that issues my passport is Poland, country of globe-trotting popes, frigid temperatures, and muscular war heroes among whom, hypocrisy aside, I don’t count myself. I have a submissive nature, a flaccid body, and am thinning on top, and my faint-hearted self falls a long way short of exuding sex appeal for healthful fellow specimens of the male sex, whether under totalitarian regimes or democracy. Before I was committed to the psychiatric hospital of Liège, a city located in francophone Belgium, I lived in Vinson, the capital of Antarctica, where I shared the sad destiny of other miserable Eastern-European immigrants who set foot on that white continent clutching their newly acquired passports. That was how I learnt Antarctic, a language I now speak confidently though with a strong foreign accent, and in which I wrote my first novel, Wampir, a critical and commercial failure.

Despite having published a book, I never wanted to be a writer but rather a veterinarian, and I can only blame the injustice of fate for the fact that I haven’t been able to follow my one true calling. Perhaps that noble profession would have led me down other paths in life and I wouldn’t now find myself confined to an asylum writing a novel, but instead would be engaging in activities more constructive than literature. Yet we writers write for reasons that spring from moral turpitude, to wit: ambition, an inflated ego, anguish, a desire to shine, arrogance, and fear of death. These dramatic circumstances spur our progress on the stories we present to our readers, innocent and generous souls who pay out of their own pockets to bestow on us a few hours of their lives. We tend to disappoint them because, as goes for the entire human race, among which weak and depraved examples of the species predominate, those of us who write badly far outnumber those who write well.

But my dream has always been to be a veterinarian, and throughout my communist childhood no-one could have foretold that one day, instead of working in a clinic packed with unvaccinated dogs, I would be confined to an asylum in Belgium, a country that has had no government for the past year. Back then the days behind the Iron Curtain passed without incident, and as the years went by I devoted myself to fantasising about attaining a passport and lining up to buy toilet paper. Everything got complicated when the Wall fell and citizens of communist countries, until then habituated to the daily hunt for basic necessities, had to face the vast universe of possibilities that was the free market. Bad habits and debauchery came to Poland along with the Western multinationals, and in those new geopolitical circumstances I fell in love with a US citizen named Ernest Hemingway. Ernest, who was in Poland teaching boxing lessons in a school in Kracow, likewise took an interest in my flaccid self and not long after we shacked up. Hemingway and I were very poor and very happy in our Kracowian flat but the following year Hemingway was offered a chance to teach boxing at the University of Vinson, the capital of Antarctica. Given my devotion to sex, I followed Hemingway to the white continent, where, due to the dearth of places in veterinary sciences, I enrolled in Antarctic language and literature. In Vinson we led a quiet life until the day Ernest upped and shot himself, leaving me nothing but a confusing farewell letter in which he talked about a lost generation, the restroom of a Parisian bar, the two world wars, the Spanish Civil War, and a young soldier who tried to escape by bicycle. I spent the months following Ernest’s suicide listening to Bellini’s aria Casta diva as performed by Maria Callas, reading Nietzsche, and for the first time contemplating the concept of eternal return, never suspecting that it would prove untrue with regard to the future prospects of my sex life.

Despite all this I remained in Vinson and some years later graduated with a degree in Antarctic philology, not because I was interested in literature but because I had a student visa and so needed to continue studying to avoid expulsion from the country. Still, I was interested in learning languages because I nurtured the hope that speaking Antarctic and another language would not only help me integrate abroad, but would also make me a polyglot, ergo a happy person. Nothing could be further from the truth, given that for some time I have found myself languishing in sexual abstinence and confined to an asylum in a country that has had no government for the past year. The few pleasant moments I experience in the Liège psychiatric hospital are those I devote to my second novel, which I started writing on some old pages of the Flemish daily De Standaard. I found this Dutch-language newspaper beneath my bed and at first I used it in the absence of another medium but, in time, filled as it was with words in a language I can’t understand, it ended up sedating me more effectively than the medication the attendants provide.

This was because for years I thought, in line with the social propaganda I absorbed from a tender age, that speaking foreign languages was a cultural treasure, a privilege, and a sign of good fortune. I had read several quotations on the subject by admired intellectuals such as Goethe, who said a man is worth as many men as foreign languages he possesses, and he who does not know a foreign language knows nothing of his own. Today I know that, other than writing literary works, Johann Wolfgang studied the intermaxillary bone, but he was not the only one who bombarded me with irrefutable arguments in favour of learning foreign languages. Education ministries and universities also assured unsuspecting citizens that speaking languages was a guarantee of both professional success and a satisfying personal life. I myself believed for years in those tall tales and realised too late that speaking foreign languages leads to madness and that those who speak languages end up unhinged. Suffice it to consider the fate of multilingual Karol Wojtyła, who spent years travelling the world draped in a white dress and living in the most touristy spot in Rome. While the worst that can happen to one who doesn’t speak languages is being served the wrong dish in a restaurant abroad, the alternative can mean ending up in the Vatican or being shut away in an asylum. At this stage of my miserable life I know that speaking languages only leads to bitterness and for this reason I am writing my second novel on some old pages of the Flemish daily De Standaard, Dutch being a language I don’t know and one that therefore inspires in me tranquillity and peace of mind.

I had to stop writing because my roommate, Father Kalinowski, finished his evening prayer, slipped off his cassock, blessed me and switched off the light. Before being committed to the Liège psychiatric hospital, the priest lived in an apartment block located in a mining town in the south of Poland and, aside from celebrating mass, took care of a vegetable patch on the outskirts, where his five chickens pecked out an existence. Father Kalinowski is in the asylum due to a mysterious collapse he doesn’t wish to talk about, and he spends his days praying, training on the stationary bicycle in our room, and listening to the radio, which he tunes to the Polish episcopacy station. Our cohabitation is difficult due to both the insomnia that torments the priest at night and his frequent prayers for the salvation of my soul, which he tends to carry out in the middle of our modest living space. Today he has fallen fast asleep and I have lain awake a long time, listening to his quiet breathing and fantasising about leaving the Liège psychiatric hospital one day, engaging in sexual relations again, and devoting myself to comforting domestic animals in a small clinic on the outskirts of Vinson.


I was dreaming about a man in a white dress who descended the steps of a plane again and again to kiss all sorts of airport tarmac when I was woken by the shrieks of Father Kalinowski, who, terrified, was babbling something about a dead bird. The attendants promptly arrived; they straightjacketed him and carted him off to the asylum manager’s office. The doctor is a renowned psychiatrist and sees patients in a cold office fitted with a chimney, which often reverberates with moans in unidentifiable languages that echo from the neighbouring treatment room. I also undergo therapy with her and the goal of our sessions is to reconstruct my life story, which, instead of steering me towards operating on dogs with cataracts, led me to write a book in a foreign language. My novel, Wampir, which marked the beginning of my failed literary career in Antarctic, narrated the story of a vampire who worked as a technician at a ski resort. One afternoon he was locked in a defective cable car suspended in the Swiss Alps; the rescue effort took several days and the vampire passed the time reading a book that someone had left behind. When they freed him from the cable car, my protagonist lost his mind and sank his fangs into the necks of the search-and-rescue team, howling that he had become a vampiric reader.

Despite this interesting plot, my novel Wampir went unnoticed by the general public and only attracted the attention of native Antarctic writers, who attended the presentation of my book at a Vinson bookshop and gave me a beating. The shouts the illustrious men of letters uttered when they hurled me to the floor indicated they were outraged because, in spite of my strong foreign accent, I had written my book in their mother tongue. The sage intellectuals inflicted me with kicks, pricked me with their fountain pens, and said they were fed up with illegal writers who came to Antarctica to steal their jobs. I tried to explain that a given language didn’t belong to its native speakers alone and that we miserable immigrants could also write, but they kept striking me with their walking sticks and ended up hurling me into a vacant lot.

Today I think that if I had come to any constructive conclusions about the native Antarctic writers’ assault I might not now find myself in a Belgian asylum in the care of a psychiatrist specialised in Bartlebian therapy. The name of the treatment I undergo in the Liège psychiatric hospital comes from Bartleby, the character created by US writer Herman Melville, whom I met after Hemingway’s suicide. We never did grow close because each time I proposed we talk about us or engage in wild sex, he responded that he would prefer not to. He ended up boarding a whaling ship, travelling to a Pacific island, and spending a month among cannibals, according to what he told me in a confusing farewell letter in which he also spoke of a white whale. As with Hemingway’s suicide, Melville’s disappearance plunged me into desperation and I spent months crooning the aria Casta diva and reading Schopenhauer, growing increasingly convinced that life, and above all sex life, was a stretch of gloomy longing and a torment.

The objective of Bartlebian therapy is linguistic reintegration, and its basic tenets were established by a psychiatrist from the Swiss hospital of Herisau, Doctor Pasavento, who in his essay “Bartleby and Co.” spoke for the first time about writers who stopped writing. His research, published in a French scientific journal, led to the development of treatment protocols for those inflicted with foreign-writer syndrome. The therapy is divided into two parts and consists of, firstly, analysing the events that drove the patient into an asylum and, secondly, making him forget the foreign language he adopted to write his books. To this end, the immigrant writer is subjected to psychoanalysis and linguistic isolation, during which he maintains sole contact with his mother tongue or a language other than the one that afflicts him. As my case demonstrates, Bartlebian therapy is an effective treatment, as after many months of confinement in the Liège psychiatric hospital I am already forgetting Antarctic, the language in which I wrote my first novel, Wampir.

I was not able to keep writing because Father Kalinowski returned from his therapy session and alerted the attendants, alleging that I was getting overexcited while pawing some old pages of De Standaard and muttering in a diabolical language. The attendants straightjacketed me and carted me off to the doctor’s office, where the doctor regarded me with her impassive eyes and said that health-sector resources in Belgium, a country that had had no government for the past year, were limited. Then she paused at some shrieks in an unknown language that carried from the treatment room and added that the hospital had agreed to take me in on the condition that I demonstrated a cooperative attitude and didn’t jeopardise the communal living arrangements. I said nothing and the doctor asked what I was writing on the old pages of a Dutch-language daily and if I was doing so in my mother tongue, Polish, for that would be an indication of improvement to the state of my mental health.

I looked towards the chimney and answered that I was writing my second novel, which I had decided to title Kaskader, and that I could not fight the creative impulse in a place as linked to lunacy and literature as an asylum. The doctor jotted down something in her notebook and asked if I had not had quite enough, what with the failure of my first novel, and if I thought that a second book would make my literary career take off in the direction of success. I sipped a little of the water that the doctor keeps for patients on her oak table and answered that I had no intention of taking off in the direction of anywhere because my novel was doomed to failure. Kaskader was to be my final book and a failed project par excellence because I was writing it in Antarctic, a language that in the Liège psychiatric hospital is headed, on a Bartlebian flight, for the depths of oblivion.

The doctor responded that she could not understand why we citizens of post-communist countries had such complexes that we not only talked about our personal problems using pretentious metaphors but also abhorred our mother tongues. I replied that we certainly had complexes, as getting around in outmoded clothing and sporting moustaches for more than forty years would affect anyone, but at any rate we Polish persevere with our mother tongue. I reminded the doctor of the case of the most polyglot resident of the Vatican, Karol Wojtyła, who for years strived to promulgate the language that Father Kalinowski probably speaks during his deep psychoanalytic sessions.

From the treatment room came a pained moan and the doctor regarded me with her impassive eyes, looked over her notes and asked if my second novel was also about a vampire. I answered that Kaskader was the story of a Polish stunt double who by day leaps into the void, substituting lead actors during action-film shootings, and by night writes a novel in an astronomical observatory. The doctor jotted down something in her notebook, got up and called one of the attendants, who gave me an injection and accompanied me to my room.

The medication depleted me but even so I intended to keep writing, and when Father Kalinowski tuned the radio to the live broadcast of a mass being celebrated in the Varsovia cathedral, my nerves betrayed me a little. I hurled the radio to the floor and the priest blessed me and proposed we pray together so God would give us back the good sense we had lost before being committed to the asylum. I recalled a few of Luis Cernuda’s verses, I thought about how we foreign writers roam from one language to the next like dogs with cataracts, I jumped onto the table and shouted, “There are no longer compassionate gods who give us back what we lost, but only a blind fate crookedly tracing, with drunken steps, the stupid course of our life!”

Then I slipped off my nightshirt and, when Father Kalinowski looked away and crossed himself, I got down from the table and into bed, a desolate place that serves as a daily reminder of the sad existence of my flaccid self. I lay there until nightfall and, when the priest switched off the radio and the light, I closed my eyes, hoping to fall fast asleep into an erotic dream about an alluring veterinarian.

translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer