Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi cartwheels through the childhood exploits of the unnamed daughter of circus performers: Romanian refugees caravanning through Europe with dreams of fame, fortune, and a big house with a swimming pool. Veteranyi’s (almost) memoir and literary debut is told from the point of view of an ungainly young girl who is constantly being shushed by authority. Her mother—who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise—makes a living dangling from her hair, and her father works as clown and amateur filmmaker, shooting home-style documentaries for the narrator to star in as a silent protagonist; her only line is ever “Help.”
Relaying events in the present tense, the first-person narrator carries the reader on her jagged journey through circus camps, crowded hotel rooms, a short stint at a Swiss boarding school, and finally the vaudeville stage—all before hitting puberty. The narrator has no say in the direction of her journey. She hates parading around with the circus, claiming, “The closing parade with fanfare music is almost as awful as when I had my appendix out. All the artistes stand in a row or a circle and wave. That’s so embarrassing.” To make matters worse, every day the narrator worries that her mother will die while performing. “I sleep late in the morning to shorten my fear, because if I get up early the fear will last until her performance begins,” she confesses.
But what can the narrator do to change her situation? Whom can she tell? She is forbidden from having friends—even speaking to someone without permission is “prohibited” because according to her mother other people might be dangerous or steal her family’s circus acts. On the rare occasion that the narrator does voice her opinion, she is either punished or ignored. Throughout the book, the narrator claims she wants to be an actress and make a lot of money. But when she gets an opportunity to perform on stage she laments, “I pictured happiness differently.” This is probably because her visions of being a glamorous actress didn’t involve nipple tassels. She also hadn’t considered that her modest earnings would spark an onslaught of monetary requests from distant aunts and ancient grandparents. What does the narrator really want? “. . . To be like the people out there. There they can all read and they know things; their souls are made of white flour.”
With days in constant motion, the only thing consistent in the narrator’s life are her fantasies about lounging poolside with Sophia Loren and the question she keeps asking about why an unknown child is cooking in the polenta. While the question of the child in the polenta is repeated throughout the book, her explanations evolve from darkly whimsical narratives, “When the grandmother’s outside, the polenta says to the child: I’m so alone, wouldn’t you like to play with me? And the child climbs into the pot,” to alarming capitalized outbursts like, “THE CHILD IS COOKING IN THE POLENTA BECAUSE ITS MOTHER JABBED SCISSORS INTO ITS FACE.”
The growing sense of despair in the narrator’s voice mirrors the increasingly hopeless state of her existence. Even when she has the opportunity to go to school briefly, between taunts from classmates and writing standards on a blackboard in the attic, all she comes out of it having learned is how different she is from everyone else. On the page the text physically appears as disconnected as she is. The first line of each paragraph is not indented; instead the lines that follow are. And paragraphs rarely ever exceed one or two sentences. Within this erratic layout, Veteranyi proliferates her world through a series of surreal reflections: “When the mother cries, there’s a flood in her belly, because the baby cries too.” Some pages consist of a single unexpected declaration like, “MY FATHER IS SHORT LIKE A CHAIR.” The empty space on the page leaves room for the reader to contemplate what has intentionally been left out. Other pages end abruptly on sudden notes of sadness: “If I get used to hell quickly, then maybe we can leave here pretty soon.” Veteranyi has endless ways to illustrate loneliness.
The narrator’s story largely correlates with actual events in Veteranyi’s life. Her writing is at times intentionally inaccessible, indicative of the child narrator whose wounds are too fresh to talk about. In this type of experimental literature, there is a fine line between genius and confusion. A line Vincent Kling, professor of German and contemporary literature at La Salle and seasoned translator, ignites as he fearlessly renders Veteranyi’s starry and sordid German in English. He preserves Veteranyi’s unsettling descriptions and outbursts, with statements like, “Backs grew all over my father’s body,” and “I want to be raped by two men at the same time,” both which serve to heighten the underlying presence of uncertainty and pain.
All in all Polenta displays the awkward beauty of a contortionist. In his afterword, “A Home in Language,” Kling connects the dots between Veteranyi’s life and her work, helping readers to make sense of her often obscure prose. He divulges that Veteranyi was multilingual yet remained illiterate until the age of seventeen. Glimpses like this help illuminate her disjointed style and eccentric use of language. According to Kling, there is little that distinguishes the narrator from Veteranyi. Perhaps the most significance difference is that the narrator gives up without fighting, whereas Veteranyi refused to accept defeat, arguing her way into acting school and defending the style of Polenta to dubious critics.
Polenta marks a personal triumph for the author. This success that makes it all the more heart wrenching to learn that in 2002, just a few years after publishing Polenta, Veteranyi took her own life. Proof, as Kling puts it that “literary expression is not always the reliably curative therapeutic act it is often considered.” Yet it was through the process of opening old wounds that Veterani was able to spin her tumultuous childhood into a single venomous cloud of cotton candy, making a home for herself in Swiss literature.
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