Wretchedness – BOOK REVIEW

In a new series on my blog, I will be writing essays of the texts I am currently studying for my Creative Writing MA course, including my own opinions on the piece as well as a look into the creative devices each writer employs.

I would best describe Andrzej Tichý’s book as that feeling you get when you immediately step off a rollercoaster. When comparing this book to others I have read, for me, it felt like a cross between the brutality of Irvine Welsh, the Modernist stream-of-consciousness of Virginia Woolf and the repetitive, existentialist pondering of Samuel Beckett. This resulted in an exhilarating ride.

Tichý’s novel Wretchedness is an energetic, frenzied exploration of memory, class and the inescapable nature of our various selves. The prose propels the reader forward – there is a breathless, urgent quality to the narrator’s voice who is desperately trying to explain something, but cannot quite find the correct words, yet must urgently press on and explain himself, and before the reader realises it, one single sentence has carried over eight pages: ‘I don’t know, I’m just moving forwards.’

Anthony Cummins describes the tone as having a ‘sink-or-swim quality’ to it, which seems perfectly apt considering Tichý’s narrative centres on poverty, drug abuse, violence, racism and class politics.[1] His characters are survivors, and after a chance encounter with a homeless man one day, the middle-class narrator is thrusted into his own impoverished past and cannot seem to find his way out of this torturous, subversively nostalgic reminder of who he really is.

The prose felt more akin to a monologue or musical symphony, as the narrator’s voice became intertwined with the friends from his youth. The lack of discourse markers or paragraph breaks meant conversations were laid out bare on continuous text, with the first-person “I” becoming a microphone for the narrator to hand over to various characters. This is a similar technique employed when the narrator recalls his memories, which transition randomly and unpredictably between past and present.

Caleb Klaces posits that, “This novel cannot join the dots because it is, ostentatiously, a novel without any middle.”[2] These dichotomies – past/present, I/they – are inseparable for the narrator, who laments, ‘I have a mouth full of ugly memories and ugly words.’ He wants to stop talking, to swallow his words, but he cannot. He is bound to his past, to this former life, and he must express his guilt for eventually getting out.

This guilt seems to culminate at the climactic halfway point of the novel, where after layers of anecdotes, tangents and memories, he finally says, ‘OK, the crux, the central point, what is it? That it could have been us [in poverty]? That it could have been me? Sure, that’s the truth. It doesn’t get more banal than that.’ The narrator has escaped the cycle of poverty, and yet he is forever wedded to his former self: ‘you’ll always be carrying your own corpse within you.’

This is a book filled with allusions, ranging from Swedish slang (which married itself effectively with Nichola Smalley’s nuanced translation of Swedish words into British colloquialisms), Kafka, classical composers, the Illuminati, Metalheadz, Resident Evil and German philosophy. The variety of allusions catapults us into the raucous, hallucinatory world of the narrator and his friends. As the narrative continues, however, memories blend into each other, characters swap names and the narrator changes his story. Tichý seems to be exploring the nature of memories: how they exist and transform over time into exaggerations or fully imagined events.

In the first half of the book, the narrator is brought back to the present at the start of each section (the book itself is only eight long paragraphs) by the recurring discussion of Scelsi with his musician friends, and the ‘wax-plant flowers’. The flowers become a fixed point in time, a safety net to drag him out of his past. But as the voices plough forward, the memory becomes less clear, and the narrator is lost to the past: ‘wax plants? was it really wax-plant flowers I was thinking of’, and eventually, ‘what was that thing about the flowers?’

I found this device particularly effective in illustrating the narrator’s tumbling thoughts, almost resembling a fall into psychosis. Reality is blurred, truth is merely our own perceptions. This resonates greatly with Tichý’s chosen epigraph which states, ‘Contradiction is our wretchedness, and the sense of our wretchedness is the sense of reality.’ The narrator is a contradiction, his story contradicts, and yet this wretchedness is his very existence.

The greatest achievement of this piece is its stark, compassionate yet brutal depiction of the impoverished, mostly immigrant community propelling the stories of this fiction. Tichý makes particularly pointed comments against ‘gutter tourists, on the hunt for the next aesthetic wonder,’ who seem to profit off documenting the lives of the poor for their own gain, which seems to double as a metafictive device to critique the reader and even the author himself for reading and documenting the stories in this book. The narrator at one point expresses his disgust at the newspaper articles concerning their neighbourhood Malmö being referred to as a ‘HUMAN RUBBISH DUMP’.

The narrator seems to seal the fate of himself and his friends when he says, ‘what can you make on a rubbish dump, well, you make nothing and you make chaos.’ Once again, these binaries of ‘nothing’ and ‘chaos’, a contradiction, encompasses the narrator’s young life. By the end of the novel, after a deconstruction of the narrator’s memories, identities and voices, we are surprised by a delightful twist. A twist that, like an Agatha Christie novel, had me desperately clawing back through pages trying to find the clues that led to this point. We have emerged from this spinning rollercoaster ride, dizzy and disorientated, unsure how we have arrived here, but thrilled by the experience.

[1] Cummins, Anthony. “Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý review – a tornado of voices and timelines.” The Guardian, 8 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/08/wretchedness-by-andrzej-tichy-review-a-tornado-of-voices-and-timelines

[2] Klaces, Caleb. “ANDRZEJ TICHÝ’S ‘WRETCHEDNESS’.” The White Review, June 2020, https://www.thewhitereview.org/reviews/andrzej-tichys-wretchedness/

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