For many people the idea that we invent ourselves is, at the very least, an uncomfortable truth, while for others it is nothing less than blasphemy, a dirty secret to be warded off by waving crosses and national flags. We are where we come from, they say, formed by the way our parents raised us and the culture we grew up in. That this can be subverted, that it might not even be true, breaks through the most firmly held beliefs of selfhood.
From the outset of A. M. Bakalar’s impressive debut novel Madame Mephisto the reader is given only spare hints of what kind of book they are reading. There is a funeral, but we don’t know whose. There is a monologue, or confession, or rant – to what we gather is a captive listener, though again we are left in the dark as to the circumstances.
The concept of life as an experiment we perform on ourselves is hard to entertain if you pass from cradle to grave in the same place. But for immigrants like Magda, the story’s narrator who has left her native Poland for cosmopolitan London, sometimes a geographical escape is not enough. Magda rails passionately and convincingly against the bulwarks of her Catholic, conservative and often intolerant homeland. She is a liberated woman whose take on and personal experience of issues such as Poland’s near absolute ban on abortion makes compelling reading.
Yet this advocate of just causes just happens to be a big time drug dealer, with marijuana growth, distribution and sales operations stretching from bleak, industrial eastern Poland to London High Society. Magda is determined to hide her criminal operations from the authorities through an often humiliating cover existence in the corporate world. It is the seemingly easier task of hiding her real source of income from her family back home that brings the strains of her double life to the fore.
Madame Mephisto touches on the worlds of international crime, corporate culture, globalization and immigration and deftly manages to explore what has and hasn’t changed in Polish social mores since the end of communism through a vivid portrait of Magda’s family. In a way, all these topics, including Magda’s elaborate (if not totally convincing) drug operations, are also just a cover for her attempt to recreate herself.
Just as it gradually becomes possible to begin guessing the circumstances of Magda’s confession, it also becomes clear that she is not telling her life’s story but, in a way, recreating it as she tells it.
Early on in her narration she bluntly rejects the idea that she had been able to reinvent herself: “No matter how much I wanted to escape from my birthplace, and find solace in inventing my new immigrant identity I was forced to admit to myself that the essence of my being was formed where I came from.”
All experiments require a control. It is the constant element used as a basis of comparison. This role is played by Magda’s twin sister Alicja, though constancy is much easier to maintain in a laboratory than in real life (or at least in a novel depicting real life). It is against the foil of her seemingly successful, dutiful sister – the person she loves most in the world – that Magda increases the force of her attempts to break from her former self like a mad scientist turning the electrical charge to full power:
“My inclination towards emotional destruction – or should I say experimentation with human nature – took a new turn. If I was to see whether the ‘she’ inside me could eradicate any form of belonging I would have to go further than extracting myself geographically. I would have to go back to face my family on their own ground. My true adversary was waiting for me in Poland.”
This sounds like the setup for a gunfight but Bakalar stages her confrontations in more incongruous scenes, such as a hideously tense and at times touching Christmas dinner. In the end, the mystery of who has died and who has heard Magda’s story is revealed. As to whether Magda’s experiment succeeds or not – or even whether such an experiment is possible – is for the reader of this gripping story to decide.
Photos – 1) Madame Mephisto cover, 2) Oregano from my kitchen, photo by DEA 3) Camden Town High Street, photo by Misterzee/wikimedia