Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichy, translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

When I read novels like this one, I feel so foolish. “Just get a job!” I think. “Quit making stupid decisions!” And then I realize I’ve had parents who stayed together, made a home for my brother and I, and taught us the way we should go. But, the troubled narrator in the novel, Cody, reminds us of this:

You’re an adult but you see yourself as a damaged child. You see yourself as a victim and therefore feel that your right to this hatred, indiscriminate and to be honest pretty vaguely defined is unshakeable. You live fully on the shadow of your parents’ failures, their losses, their blind struggle. You’ve got kids to take care of yourself but you go to pieces, breaking down the moment you start thinking about your own childhood…Your self-image leads to a critical situation in which the most important elements are a paralyzing fatalism combined with an all-eclipsing defeatism.

p. 113

Cody is a cellist, walking down the road with a composer and a drummer, but not listening well to their conversation. Instead, he is reviewing his life, the horrors that he has chosen and endured. In reading Wretchedness, I see so clearly that living a successful life isn’t as easy as “trying hard”. Where do you go when you don’t belong anywhere? When you can’t escape the pull of alcohol and drugs, such that poor choices are all you can make because you’re caught in a vortex of poverty, shame, and despair?

The drugs, the crime, the death. Doing time, filthy mattresses and sofas, the hostels, the psych wards, the memorial gardens. The whole shebang. That life and that death. It’s true. But what does it mean? What do you think it means? Sure. Yeah. You’re right. It’s not some straightforward survivor guilt, if that’s what you were thinking. What I feel is only partly sympathy, empathy, understanding. I also want to smash their faces in. They disgust me.

p. 82

It’s music that gives him the greatest relief, I think. Even if the music described in this book is a heavy, dark, almost oppressive thing. The narrator goes for rap, as well as the work of Giacinto Scelsi and Arvo Part.

Then Christoph Maria Moosmann entered. I turned round, looked up at the organ and could just make him out as he sat down at the manual. He began to play Part’s Annum per Annum and everything seemed to close in, filling with weight and levity, and the room expanded and contracted as though it were breathing, and I breathed with it, and a few seconds after the first chord’s powerful vibrations I breathed out, before holding, lungs empty, for the rest of the minute the chord sounded. Then it ebbed away, and I drew breath, deeply and noisily, much too noisily in the quiet church, as though I’d been underwater and was now struggling up to the surface, up to the oxygen, just as the pause, the silence,was at its most intense, and when those first weak, light, playfully searching notes began to sound I couldn’t help once again thinking about Soot and about that last night, what I’d done, about what I was, about Kiki and Rawna, about that bus, on that roundabout, that circular motion and centrifugal force that pushed me out towards everything with such satanic power.

p. 94-5

There is no simple, straightforward answer for those who haven’t found a place in this world. Certainly they are excluded, yet in many ways, they exclude themselves. Sometimes, the vortex is just too strong to escape.

Thanks to And Other Stories for a copy of Wretchedness to read and review here.

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