Janusz Leon Wiśniewski: Love like Opiates

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‘Love is an addictive feeling similar to heroin but, at the same time, it answers the questions about the meaning of life,’ says Janusz Leon Wiśniewski, a writer and scientist. On the 18th anniversary of the publication of his debut novel ‘Loneliness on the Net’, he is releasing the next part of the book. At the Gdynia Film Festival, we are talking about addictions, literary phenomena, and treatment of sadness.

We are meeting in the September capital of the Polish cinema.

I’m glad to be in Gdynia again.

 You are celebrating the 18th anniversary of the publication of your cult book ‘Loneliness on the Net’ [Samotność w sieci]. It’s a big celebration, because this year, the next part of the book is coming out. It’s best to begin with a quote, […] An accidentally encountered grey‑haired old man, a two generations younger girl with braces, who had nothing in common with the old man, know this story, just like Nadia, her son’s girlfriend, brought to her world by accident. It turns out this book is still alive, that the story, partly her story, is constantly reaching new people.’ This is an excerpt from ‘The End of Loneliness’ [Koniec samotności], which refers to the phenomenon of your debut book. How do you look at the phenomenon of ‘Loneliness on the Net’ 18 years after its premiere?

In this novel, I did something no one had done before: I put a book within a book. The phenomenon of my debut novel still surprises me; I sometimes wake up and wonder how it happened. Even when I wasn’t in Poland physically, I heard that the book was read and talked about. I received hundreds of emails about its reception, and after three years, there were 18 thousands of them. It knocked something down, triggered a wave, and that wave, more or less sinusoidally, still exists. The book is still on the shelves in Empik stores even though it shouldn’t, because books are there for three months at most

It’s said that the lifespan of a book lasts a month, provided that the promotional budget is sufficient.

‘Loneliness on the Net’ has been republished in Poland many times, and its next part has been published by Wielka Litera Publishing House. 18 years is quite a number for a book, which started to live its own life and got out of my control. It has been translated into 18 languages, including such exotic ones as Albanian, Chinese, and Vietnamese, Latvian, and Lithuanian. It hasn’t been published only in one country, where I was living for 32 years – in Germany; but it’s my fault, or rather intention not to publish the book there.

Why?

Because I live a double life; most of the time, I’m a scientist.

The optimisation of the transaction algorithms of chemical structures in chemical nomenclature. That’s your specialisation. I don’t know what I’ve just said.

Not transaction but translation. It mostly consists in translating the chemical structure of an organic compound drawn on the computer screen into its name, which allows chemists to draw the heard structure again. I was the first one to develop software which does it automatically. A long time ago.

In your new book, you introduce a new generation of characters – Kuba and Nadia are a perfect couple. In reality, I’ve never met a couple with such a balanced neurotransmitter path. Their love story is cosmically interwoven with their story of existence. Have you modelled the characters of Kuba and Nadia on any stories or people? Or was the book breathing and growing within you for those 18 years, and the story was born naturally?

Maybe I’ll start from the end: that book didn’t grow within me at all. It seemed a complete story from the very beginning; I needed it as a form of therapy to deal with deep sadness I was feeling those days. That’s why I wrote a very sad book, but people love reading such stories.

Mieczysław Kosz once said that ‘only sadness is beautiful.’

Stories are supposed to ‘to lift up the hearts’. We tend to relativise our sadness. When we look at the tragedies of book characters, we feel better; we can always say that other people have it worse. Perhaps thanks to that sadness, the book is so popular in Russia – they additionally pour it all with vodka. The book was a complete story, it served its purpose. All those years, I was surprised with its effect – a person with such a common surname as Wiśniewski, some chemist, wrote a book, which suddenly became popular, was read and changed people’s lives; couples got divorced or got together because of it.

The story started to live its own life.

Three years after the publication of ‘Loneliness on the Net’, the publishing house asked me whether I would like to write a sequel; I refused because there were plenty of other books to be written. In 2005, when the book came out in Russia, the same situation happened again: I was offered to write a sequel. I was like, I turned the Poles down, so I’m turning you down, too. And they gave me this ironic argument, Poles will never know. I didn’t want to write a sequel. Once, in 2017, my partner, who is a Polish teacher in the best high school in Gdańsk, a very well-read woman, brought ‘Loneliness on the Net’ and asked me to sign it for her friend. I began to read the book as if for the first time in my life. Then, I had an idea for the follow‑up. Two decades after the romance of an anonymous woman in 1996 with a perfect man in 1997, a boy is born. In 2017, he’s 20 years old. Nobody knows who his father is. I decided to present this story from his perspective. My partner had brilliant ideas, and I listened to them.

In terms of narration or the psychological structure?

Some structural concepts – to place a book within a book and put the author in it. Now, nobody can’t say that Wiśniewski wrote a sequel, like Rambo 8 and 9, it’s a completely different book.

Kuba and Nadia are madly in love but they can also function in the contemporary world, they are perfectly fine. Jakub deals with computer programming.

That was my intention: to make him a computer scientist in order to compare his world to the coarse world of his mother from two decades ago.

When you were writing your first book, your characters communicated via the archaic ICQ. Today, there are thousands of ways to keep in touch, but the dilemmas, in love and morality, turn out to be the same. The structural axis of ‘The End of Loneliness’ is your previous book, which somehow connects the characters and creates their constellations.

It forces them to make an incredibly important life choice. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Jakub ignores it at the beginning.

Even though his lover proposes it.

The character of the book read by Nadia is Jakub’s mother. And later – his father. The story centres around that plot. You’re right; I’ve idealised the young, but I know couples that are so madly in love, have such conversations, but also smoke pot, can be lascivious, and at the same time, are very sensitive, tolerant, open-minded, opposing to the current situation in Poland, and so prone to romanticism. Nadia, who does everything on the Internet, writes traditional letters to Kuba because she wants something to be left of them: not beats and bites, but physical objects that can be touched, kept under a pillow or in a box in the attic. Paradoxically, in the computerised world, the greatest excitement is running to the letterbox. The novel might be contemporary, but the love is traditional because that’s what everyone dreams about – it’s the most important reason to get up every day. That’s the message of my book.

20 years after the publication of ‘Loneliness on the Net’ – how do you see love?

It’s the fundamental reason for existence. It’s not necessarily about holding hands but learning to be someone else. My book isn’t only about the love between a woman and a man; I’m writing about its different kinds. For Jakub, observing the relationship between his mother and father evokes incredible feelings and reflection. Love is an addictive feeling similar to heroin but, at the same time, it answers the questions about the meaning of life.

We’re meeting during the Gdynia Film Festival; your debut novel has been made into a film – are you expecting ‘The End of Loneliness’ to be made into a film, too?

I didn’t expect the first book to be made into a film. Ten days after its premiere, I was contacted by Witold Adamek, a late director and film producer, who asked me whether I would give him the film rights, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had a lecture in a science café; only later did I realise that he wanted to make a book of a complete novice into a film. It took him five years. He received a major subsidy from the then TVP1; therefore, the film was made in two formats: for the cinema and as a two-episode miniseries. The film came out in 2006. Then, I appeared at the Gdynia Film Festival in a different role than today. Beautiful music, Scandinavian jazz, a brilliant cast, full of chemistry – but the film didn’t provide what people expected; it didn’t give them the emotions they’d found in the book. Three years later, the Theatre in Saint Petersburg staged the book. I know it’s absolute kitsch, but I was crying during the performance. It’s been ten years since the premiere, and the play is still on two or three times a month. We’re talking before the official premiere of the book, and the film adaptation requires loads of money. But if someone wants to make an adaptation of ‘The End of Loneliness’, I’ll be very happy.

We’re meeting in Gdynia, which is a very important place for the Polish cinema, two weeks before the book premiere, then maybe it’s a sign?

I love cinema for its amazing form. It makes me sad to think that someone has spent a year or two on making a film, and we consume it in two hours. It’s different with books; we can go back to them. My books are very descriptive, because I pay great attention to the places where the action is set. I photograph them, visit the cities like Dresden – where ‘Bikini’ is set. I count steps, measure the time of going from one place to another with a stopwatch.

Reporter’s work.

It’s important. Perhaps because I’m from the scientific world, where if something is a fact, then it must be true. I’d feel bad if I wrote that the hero was walking for 20 minutes, while it would be physically impossible, because he’d have to move with the speed of light. We’re close to my Gdańsk, where I’ve been living for a year after 32 years in Frankfurt. I could drive a Vespa here. I live 200 metres from the sea, I’m living a happy life.

The Polish cinema is in great condition – what a combination of mitigating circumstances, a tango of neurotransmitters.

When I see Polish films in cinemas in Frankfurt, which didn’t happen before, it means that the Polish cinema is on the crest of a wave. Everyone knows films by Holland, Wajda, Zanussi, Pawlikowski.

We’re happy about it and we hope it’ll last. Wielka Litera Publishing House is inviting all fans of Janusz Leon Wiśniewski to bookstores from 2 October. Viva film, viva science, viva literature.

And viva academia!

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