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Lost in Translation: Exclusive extract from Sylwia Chutnik’s Cwaniary

29th May 2015

Lost in Translation: Exclusive extract from Sylwia Chutnik's Cwaniary
Image: znani sławni ludzie
With a translation by Marta Dziurosz, this extract is from the novel "Cwaniary" ("Hustlerettes") by Polish feminist and activist, Sylwia Chutnik. The hard-hitting novel follows three young women dealing with the hardships they experience by violently meting out their own sort of justice. The following fragment is one of the more meditative, calm pieces that are interspersed with the three's frequently brutal and slightly grotesque adventures.

Illegal widows, unfinished widows. No rings on their swollen fingers. Too young to be blue. Because the young have to sow their wild oats. They have to have children, travel to faraway lands and laugh, laugh at loud parties.

At such a time death is out of place, it excludes, because it doesn’t go with the duty of happiness that’s part of youth. Beyond forty, once we pass the time of hope and we’re past our prime, nobody listens to us – they fire us instead. Oh, one can lose a husband then. Not earlier. Otherwise old women will follow us around and whisper: “That’s, God, so young, how awful!”. And friends will murmur: “Yeah, yeah, but still, you’re doing quite well, you’re so brave in all this, if I were you”. But neither of them would want to be her, if she was, she would bite her wrists in a scream of despair stretching from the feet to the top of her head. She would howl in despair over the kitchen table where his plate still lay with the crumbs of a sandwich he ate hurriedly.

The girls had established a life different than the one they got. Is it possible to lodge a complaint against a badly rendered service of life story? What to do with those crumbs?

Does any handbook for mourners advise what to do with sandwich crumbs?

Young widows, too young for death, someone else’s and their own. You can see them of a morning at the cemeteries, when they walk in black tights and never look around. They sweep life aside, spend it the way you spend loose change. You can see them buying wine in the evenings and inviting their friends around. Drop by, please, I can’t be alone. At first the friends come, but later they increasingly don’t have the time. Their texts just say: “Darling, sorry, I can’t tonight”. They don’t add that they can’t because they’re going to the cinema with their boyfriends; they don’t want to annoy. They don’t want to flaunt their domestic stability, because how can you tell someone everything’s okay if they’ve lived through a hurricane that’s fucked up their whole life. Now try to clean that up, try to tidy that away!

The girls had established a life different than the one they got. Is it possible to lodge a complaint against a badly rendered service of life story? We, young widows, would like to return our relationships, because they broke suddenly. Maybe those threads were too weak, maybe the strings ripped, the bolts rusted up?

Broken promises, holiday plans, Sunday shopping, an out-of-date cinema ticket. A hand of cards waiting to be shuffled.

And that argument again: but he wasn’t your husband, so you don’t have to mourn like wives. Nobody will lead you to the pyre, so that you can burn along with your beloved, nobody expects anything from you. You can hook up with new men, because that’s the only way you can go on living. You can drink alcohol at parties, because your youth needs to be watered. Nobody will begrudge you your new way of life, because how is this girl supposed to just sit there and bewail?

But the Clan of Widows burns on that pyre every day, burns down to coal and is reborn. Every morning, nestled into the pillow that still smells of their dead boyfriend’s aftershave, they burn anew.

Black Widows, black birds with circles under their eyes neatly masked with concealer. So that nobody takes pity, so that everyone leaves off asking questions, being sorry and bringing back memories which exist only due to sudden flashes of parallel worlds, where stories unravel against logic. Against the linear space-time, which can no longer be applied. So we spend a moment with the dead and don’t want to stop, although we’re perfectly aware that it won’t last. Discovering those worlds comes as a huge relief to all mourners. Of course not everyone can discover them, some would probably want to, but others would get unnecessarily upset. Like, what, what reality is this, have I gone crazy, I’m going nuts, gosh! Then therapy and the lady sits on a chair and tells you “you must allow yourself to cry”. But go on then, cry at work, suddenly, at the computer. Or in a queue to the checkout. People will think you’re crazy. Will start asking questions or turn away.

No, the parallel worlds are definitely for the strongest. Only for those who can bear the weight of knowledge and responsibility for their own feelings. Who can feel no shame about those feelings and be unruffled by possible new states, which aren’t – after all – results of mental illness, but just salvation from the darkness of despair. They are a great gift to us. After discovering that we can meet the dearest person again, we feel like we’ve won a prize, like we’ve been singled out. Afterwards we go to the cemetery with joy, with relief. We can say: “Hi, hello, let me tell you how I’ve been” to the gravestone. Soon the usual lighting of candles becomes a visit after Sunday lunch. Then you can get up at night, in the dark flat, and look the dead person in the face. You can feel no fear, just smile and not go crazy from it. Not be ashamed at all.

What’s up?, a friend asks.

Oh, nothing.


Cwaniary Sylwia Chutnik’s “Hustlerettes” is a punchy tale about a gang of gritty young women who sublimate grief, pain and a feeling of injustice into violence. Every one of them rages against something, whether it’s the gentrification of their beloved city, Warsaw (where the book is set), serious illness or the untimely death of her fiancé. Chutnik blends black humour and touching humanity with her heroines’ refusal to go down without a fight and a dash of magical realism. Although it remains unpublished in English, Cwaniary once featured as a Polish reading group title for publisher, & Other Stories

Sylwia Chutnik (born 1979) is a Polish novelist, activist, city guide, and laureate of the “Polityka Passport” prize for Literature (2008).Her debut novel Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet (Pocket Atlas of Women) was published in 2008. Her second novel Dzidzia (Diddums) came out in 2010. She is the author of a feminist guide to Warsaw, The Warsaw of Women, and a non-fiction book about motherhood, Mum is Always RightShe also chairs the MaMa Foundation, which aims to improve the situation of mothers in Poland.

Marta Dziurosz is an English <> Polish literary translator and interpreter and member of the Translators Association. Among her translation work are sixteen books and, most recently, many pieces on the Free Word Centre’s Weather Stations website. She also works at Pan Macmillan. Her website is martadziurosz.com and she tweets @MartaDziurosz.