My mother’s lipstick (and her high heels).

By Robert Nederkoorn (Amsterdam)


My mother never wore lipstick, I think, at least not that I remember. Does that mean that I cannot identify with a young boy growing up and looking at women, wondering what the lipstick, make-up and hairdos are all about? The great mystery of growing up. Of course I can. Only I was not in love with Meryl Streep, but perhaps more fascinated by a different woman: one even further removed from real life than a movie-star.

I suppose a lot of us make up images of the person they would like to be, as well as of those they would want as a friend or partner.

It is from ‘The French lieutenant’s woman’ a film featuring Meryl Streep, in which she plays the role of a Victorian woman as well as the role of the actress who plays this role, that Bartek has taken his dream-girl, whom he is willing to exchange in good time for a real person of flesh and blood, when the time comes. There are other dreams, of other girls, that fail to materialize, although he does attempt to get close to Mariola, the girl that every man in town would want to be with. And he dreams of Joanna, whom he has never even seen, who lives far away and may never come Dolina Róż.

‘My mother’s lipstick’ is a book, not about love; it is about growing up, about life in a small town, where nothing ever happens, and yet the world of Bartek, the main character, falls apart there and -as is the case always- also takes shape there.

When reading about this book, I had the impression that the critics might have read a different version of it. Undoubtedly it is about a young boy growing up, about initiation   and discovering the powerful mysteries of sexual identity. But it did not remind me much of ‘The catcher in the Rye’, Salinger’s great novel. This book reminded me more of the novels of the Icelandic Nobel prize winner Halldór Laxness. It has a similar mild magic realism to it as we find in ‘Paradise reclaimed’ and to a lesser extent in ‘Salka Valka’ and, although the setting is of course completely different: a small town in the north-east of Poland and its amalgam of people of different origin, as compared to the life in a village on the south coast of Iceland.

In both novels i.e. in ‘Salka Valka’ and in ‘My mother’s lipstick’ we read about the struggle of the individual coming of age and coming to terms with their surroundings where poverty prevails. The mystery of sex pervades the story of ‘My mother’s lipstick’: Bartek’s first experience is a rough disappointment, a somewhat cruel initiation into adulthood, an act of revenge by the girl that was deflowered, perhaps even raped a long time ago by Bartek’s father.

Bartek is fascinated by the sexual power women have over men. Lipstick is the magical means by which this power is exerted. Bartek struggles with his sexual identity, likes to put make-up on his face, to experience the touch and texture of his mother’s underwear.
Likes to dance a wild dance, when he is alone and having put make up on his face and having taken off all his clothes. He wishes to be like a movie star but is taken for a pervert when found out. He dreams of a life like that of his grandfather -the Frenchman-, a man both respected and despised by everyone, who left his wife and children and wandered out into the wide, wide world.

Then there is the social inequality with the poor cobbler and the people hammering away in his workshop, the girls working in shops where there is nothing to be had, as opposed to the local big shot of the communist party and his son, who have access to all the luxuries of the West. The long lines outside the butcher’s shop when word goes round that a fresh supply of meat has arrived, serve as an illustration of the frugal life in communist Poland, while at the same time it gives rise to dreams of the boundless wealth of the West.

The story is set in Dolina Ròż, the town of Bartoszyce in the northeast of Poland. At one time it bore the pleasant name of Rosenthal or Rose Valley. The name of the place is in contrast with the bleak winter atmosphere in the story: it is constantly cold and snowing.

Bartek the main character is a young boy named after the legendary Bartel, from whom the town also takes its name. His grandmother Olcia who had three daughters with the ‘Frenchman’ the personification of adventure and life outside the town from which there seems to be no escape. He is a man of the world, who comes and goes as he pleases.  Then there is Bartek’s paternal grandfather Monte Cassino who had his legs amputated in the war. He works in the cobbler’s shop of Mr. Lupicki. Bartek spends most of his time out in the street or in the cobbler’s shop. His father Krzysiek (one of the three in-laws) is a drunk, his mother a respected teacher. Yet some men, particularly men from West Germany, often mistake his mother and her sisters, for prostitutes, because they enjoy being at local bar wearing their high heels and lipstick.


“My mother’s lipstick”, novel,
weissbooks.w, Frankfurt am Main 2010

Translated by Robert Nederkoorn (Amsterdam)

Passage 1: 

His grandmother had got angry with Bartek, when she noticed he was staring at her legs and knickers as she lay down on the couch. He then wondered why she should be so angry, as he would not be interested in the legs of an old woman. At the same time he realized she might be aware that he likes to peek through the keyhole to observe people ‘as if they were animals in the wild’. She has found me out, he thinks. And he remembers how once he went to the house of his uncle and aunt after his father had beaten the hell out of him. He had a key to their house as he sometimes slept there, when his uncle was out playing the violin at a wedding. Being bored and angry, he put on his aunt’s most beautiful evening dress that fitted him perfectly although he was only13 years old, put her make-up on his face to make himself look like a movie star. Then suddenly he hears the double-bolted door being unlocked. Fearing his father has come after him, he hides in a corner of the living room, where his uncle’s drums and organ are standing. “ The cobbler’s child ducked behind a couch, legs pulled up under him and chin flat on the carpet. To his great relief, he soon realized that it was not his father, but his uncle and aunt that had come back home, albeit without their two little boys. But just as he was about to come out of his hiding place he heard a soft groaning, and panting and smacking of lips, a sound not completely unfamiliar to him. The married couple were doing it on the floor: without any further ado they had come straight to business and for the fist time in his life Bartek saw, what he had never seen in the local cinema Zryw, although he had seen every single film his friend Marcin had recommended.

He witnessed how aunt Agatha’s lipstick penetrated uncle Insurance and robbed him of his wits. Since this accidental encounter with the Unkown and Incomprehensible on the carpet of aunt Agatha’s house, he had developed a liking for it: indeed he would find himself a hiding place from which he could spy on young couples. In summer on the unmarried couples in the park, in winter on his aunts and their husbands, the blond in laws. At one time he had even managed to catch Mariola in the act with a foreigner, in the “Totenkammer” the small storeroom of her father’s cobbler’s shop.

Unfortunately Bartek had to come out of his hiding: his bladder urged him to. And he came out from behind the couch at the most intimate moment of their lovemaking, just as uncle Insurance, who had grown quite small, started telling his wife in a squeaky voice that he could see the Great Bear again in broad daylight- that indeed he was the Great Bear, the best drummer and organist and insurance agent in the sky of Dolina Róż.

It was the squeaking of this great bear Bartek would never ever forget.

You dirty swine, shouted uncle Insurance as he pulled up his trousers. You dirty little pervert, I swear I’ll kill you! This kid is sick – Krzysiek is right. But Bartek had many lives and so he managed to survive the thrashing he got from uncle Insurance, and once more he had to get away. Bartek had lived the life of a voyeur and Meryl had never blamed him for this passion of his. She was to leave him later, but for a very different reason.

Passage 2:

And then, when the time had come Bartek and his father shaved Monte Cassino, who lay still, and they shaved him with his own razor, which he used to sharpen once a week in the cobbler’s shop. They shaved him and he remained silent, did not close his eyes even once, he looked at them as they shaved him and knew that they were shaving him for Death, as he knew that Death longed for and loved his clean-shaven face. And after they had shaved Monte Cassino’s face they washed him; they washed the stumps of his legs, washed his hands and his chest, they washed his arms and turned him on his belly, they turned the parcel that was soon to be sent to Death, and they washed Monte Cassino’s back and neck. Bartek’s father reassured him again and again that he would come to the hospital every morning, of every goddamn single day. He said I will wash and shave you and Bartek will wash and shave you.

Grandpa Monte Cassino died in the night, Wednesday night. Shortly after his death the emergency generators of Saint John’s hospital had to be turned on, as there was a power failure. These occurred especially when temperatures dropped very low, and thereby accidentally saving the government a lot of fuel. The violet light in the two operation rooms on the second floor, this Olympic flame of Death, however was never to be extinguished. And when Bartek and his father came to the hospital in the morning to shave and wash the old man, his bed had already been made, the earthly post-parcel had been sent on its way into the realm of Death, and the power cut had been dealt with.


Paderborn, May 7th 2011
© Robert Nederkoorn (Amsterdam) 2011