jerzy kosinski’s steps: homage to isaac babel (plus maupassant, kafka & céline)

"The remaining packages containing various articles of underwear were delivered by the store in the late afternoon. By then the girl was slightly giddy from the wine we had drunk at lunch, and now, as if trying to impress me with her newly acquired worldliness she must have learned from film and glamour magazines, she stood before me, her hands on her hips, her tongue moistening her lips, and her unsteady gaze seeking out my own.”

 

Winner of the 1969 National Book Award, Jerzy Kosinski’s second novel, Steps (1968), seems to be now almost overshadowed by the rumours and scandals that developed around Kosinski’s life in the 1970s and ’80s, and which culminated in his suicide in 1991 at age 58.

David Foster Wallace described Steps as "a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever.” The narrative is composed of a series of vignettes set in Poland during and after World War II, and later in an unnamed Western country, presumably the United States. The solipsistic, wayfaring narrator resembles at times the boy of Kosinski’s first novel, The Painted Bird (1965), and at other times that same boy grown to dessicated adulthood. The protagonist makes his way through espoides of alienation and brutality so profound that the only certainty and reference point is his own self—all other selves encountered in the 148-page book seem mere instruments for his satisfaction or vehicles of terror and dread.

 

Cover Image


Steps

by Jerzy Kosinski

To my father, a mild man


For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration
; and for him without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?

The Bhagavadgita

 

I WAS TRAVELING farther south. The villages were small and poor; each time I stopped in one, a crowd gathered around my car and the children followed my every move.

I decided to spend a couple of days in a bare whitewashed village to rest and have my clothes washed and mended. The woman who undertook the job for me explained that she could get it done promptly and efficiebtly because she employed a helper—a youg orphan girl who had to support herself. She pointed to a girl staring at us from a window.

When i returned to collect my laundry the next day, I met the girl in the front room. She only occasionally lifted up her eyes to me. Whenever our eyes met, she would attempt to conceal her interest in me by bending her head lower and lower over her sewing.

While I was transferring some of my documents to the pocket of my freshly pressed jacket, I noticed the curiosity with which she glanced at the plastic credit cards I had placed momentarily on the table. I asked her if she knew what they were; she replied that she had never seen anything like them before. I told her that with any one of these cards one could buy furniture, bed linen, kitchenware, food, clothing, stockings, shoes, handbags, perfumes, or almost anything else one wanted without paying any money.

Nonchalantly I continued explaining to her that I could also use my cards in the most expensive stores in the nearby town, that just to show them would be enough to have food served to me in any restaurant, that I could stay in the best hotels, and that I could do all this for myself as well as for anyone else I chose. I added that because I liked her and thought she looked nice, and because I sensed that she was being mistreated by her employer, I would like to take her away with me. If she wished, she could stay with me as long as she liked.

Still without looking at me she asked, as if wanting to be reassured, whether she would need to have any money. Again I told her that neither she nor I would need any money provided we had the cards with us and wanted to use them. I promised her that the two of us would travel to different cities and even countries; she wouldn’t have to work or do anything other than take care of herself, I would buy her anything she’d want, she could wear beautiful clothes and look lovely for me and change her hair styles or even the color of her hair as often as she wished. For this to come about, I said, all she had to do was to leave her house late that night without a word to anyone and meet me at the road sigb on the outskirts of the village. Upon reaching the big town, I assured her, a letter would be sent to her employer explaining that like so many girls before her, she had left home in order to find a job in the big city. Finally I told her I would be waiting for her that night, and I very much hoped she would come.

The credit cards lay on the table. She got up and stared at them with reverence in which disbelief mingled; she stretched her right hand forward as if to touch them, but quickly withdrew it. I picked up a card and handed it to her. She held it gingerly between her fingers like a sacramental wafer, raising it to the light to inspect the numbers and letters printed on it.

That evening I parked my car in some bushes several yards from the road sign. Before it grew completely dark, many carts passed on their way from the market to the village, but no one noticed me.

Suddenly the girl appeared from behind me, short of breath and frightened, clutching a bundleof her belongings. I opened the car door, and without a word, beckoned her into the rear seat. I started the engine promptly, and only after we had left the village did I slow down and tell her that she was now free and that her days of poverty were over. She sat very quietly for a while and then, uncertain, asked me if I still had my cards. I removed them from my pocket and handed them to her. A few minutes later I could no longer see her head in the rear-view mirror: she had fallen asleep.

We arrived in the city late the next morning. She awoke and glued her face to the window, watching the traffic. Suddenly she touched my arm, pointing to the large department store we were passing. She would like to find out, she said, whether it was true that my cards exercised more power than money did. I parked the car.

Inside the store she clung to my arm, and I felt the palm of her hand damp from excitement. She had never been in the city before, she confessed, nor even in a small town, and she couldn’t believe so many people could gather in one place and yet leave so many things still to be bought. She pointed at dresses she liked, and she agreed to my few suggestions of the things that would be most becoming for her. Assisted by two shopgirls who looked at my companion with obvious envy, we selected several pairs of shoes, gloves, stockings, some underwear, a number of dresses and handbags, and a coat.

No she was even more frightened. When I asked her whether she was afraid that my cards could not pay for all that we had chosen, she tried to deny her fear at first, then finally admitted it. Why, she asked me, would so many people in her village labor all their lives toearn enough money to pay for all we had bought, when I, who was not a famous soccer player or movie star, not even a prelate, seemed to have no need of any money at all to acquire everything I wanted.

When all our purchases were packed, I handed the cashier one of the cards; she thanked me politely, disappeared for a moment, and then came back and returned the card with the bill of sale. My friend stood behind me, eager to grab the box but still afraid to do so.

We left the store. When we got into the car, the girl opened the package and looked over her things, touching them, sniffing them, touching them again, closing and opening the box. As I drove off, she began to try on the shoes and gloves. We pulled up in front of a small hotel and went inside. Disregarding the hotel clerk’s knowing glance, I requested a suite of adjoining rooms. My luggage was carried upstairs, but the girl insisted on carrying the box herself, as though fearing it might be taken from her.

In the suite, she went to her room to change and returned dressed in a new gown. She paraded in front of me, moving awkwardly in her new high-heeled shoes, looking at herself in the mirror, returning to her room again and again to try the other outfits.

The remaining packages containing various articles of underwear were delivered by the store in the late afternoon. By then the girl was slightly giddy from the wine we had drunk at lunch, and now, as if trying to impress me with her newly acquired worldliness she must have learned from film and glamour magazines, she stood before me, her hands on her hips, her tongue moistening her lips, and her unsteady gaze seeking out my own.

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