‘An Advertisement for Toothpaste’ by Ryszard Kapuścinski, translated by William J Brand

Not exactly fiction, but probably not exactly non-fiction either in a way I find interesting, this episode opens:

The sax wailed piercingly and Marian Jesion shouted: “Let’s go, boys.” On the forest road through the limitless  darkness Jesion’s grandmother sighed a tremulous whisper: “Oh God.” Those three voices, raised simultaneously but so clearly out of step, weigh like a stone on the village of Pratki in Elk country.

It’s so theatrical! The narrator, some kind of hovering projection of Kapuścinski himself, is in this Polish village observing/learning about the village dance, in which fifteen dressed up girls stand on one side of the hall, and four boys on the other. The narration shimmers between the dance itself and reports to the narrator later: “After that number, the girls tell me, the boys started pushing and shoving each other.” In just a few pages, different elements are woven together. There are details of the dance:

The girls stood on the blue side and the boys on the red side. They were divided by the multicoloured expanse of the village hall with the bandstand pinned in the middle like a brooch […] The boys looked pensively in the direction of the girls, evaluating the quality of their high heels, nylon dresses, and Czech jewellery, as they mulled over all-too-predictable plans to be implemented later.

But there is also more of Marian Jesion’s grandmother, and of the poor dental hygiene of the village:

Pratki bachelors buy themselves motorcycles and the girls acquire, for a pretty penny, fashionable organdie slips, which is why nobody can afford a tube of Odonto toothpaste (produced y Lechia, Poznań) for three zloty and five grosz.

Lurching in and out of the piece, maybe like the young men steering around the chosen four young women in the dance, are hope, youth, violence, commerce, and… bad teeth. It’s a great piece of writing.

First published in Polish in Polityka. Collected in Nobody Leaves, Penguin 2017, also as a Penguin Modern, 2018

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