Beneath the surface of everyday life
Our world was small but seemed enormous. The daily local EKD train ferried us from the distant outskirts through fields and past low wooden buildings to the town centre. We were running away from our homes, from our parents’ complaining, from school obligations, and from the quietness and relentless order of our district – unchanged for generations – where people called the man who emptied the septic tank ‘goldman’, and whe- re that nickname was passed like a relay baton from the older boys to the younger. We were running from voices announcing, “Any old iron” or “Pots to mend”, and our eyes no longer wanted to look constantly at that same old view from the window. And we thought we could really run away. Sometimes, without shoes or clothes, or shut up at home by my mother, I would close my eyes and all sorts of amazing worlds would appear. The intensifying rattle of wheels on tracks aroused my imagination to take action. Family con- nections prevailed on our route. We knew the guards, they knew us and occasionally they also let us travel without tickets. We passed Wiktoryn, Rapp’s bakery, the roadside cross and the clay pits of Szczęśliwice. And thus, after twenty minutes, we reached the town centre.
The town centre consisted of a few surviving tenement houses sticking up amongst ruins and piles of brick. Trams and horse-drawn carriages, the old hotel deco- rated with Art Nouveau reliefs, open markets and stal- ls, where commercial life teemed, shops, workshops, and small restaurants. Here in the town centre it seemed to us that we had reached the nucleus of the great big world. And after alighting from our blue and yellow train we tirelessly trod those streets, endlessly hoping for something, endlessly expecting something. Night was the best time. It veiled everything in thickening darkness, there were few streetlights at that time, and every gateway, every pile of rubble grew enormous, enhancing that portentous mood of mystery. Cries, whispers, and wheezes drifted from the ruins, and we – trembling in excitement – imagined dramas full of danger and pathos. The Prince of the Night stopped us on a night like that.
“My stable is in danger,” he announced, outraged. Zbyszek Młotek and I were at his beck and call. The Prince of Night had a hawklike nose, a grey mop of hair, and wore richly patterned cravats. He peppered his speech with foreign words and was familiar with the connexions obtaining in many of Europe’s prisons. His appearance was that of a many-coloured bird. The young militiamen who had come straight from the countryside to keep order in the town stared at him mutely. One batty old woman who used to frequent the Cinderella bar was unendingly astonished by him: ”Where could such a flower have sprung up from?” So he was different. And that was actually enough for us. (…)
Zbyszek Młotek’s ribs were fused together and he cla- imed he could take any punch. While I had nothing. A skinny, snot-nosed kid with unruly, sticking-out hair, who wasn’t much good at fighting either. And I so wan- ted something to happen! (…) Zbyszek Młotek and I unanimously agreed that our former lives had been flat and dull.
Which is why when the Prince of Night appeared on the scene, everything immediately whirled around like a merry-go-round.
Excerpt translated by David French
Beneath the surface of everyday life
The prose writer Marek Nowakowski, who died in 2014, is today a classic of Polish literature, and his stories are literary paintings that encompass his country’s reality from the late 1950s to very recent times. It is enough to recall that Marek Nowakowski is the author of about 500 stories published in more than 60 books. This huge legacy is the result of a bold response to everyday life and a persistent, day-by-day recording of images that fascinate, frighten and, above all, inspire readers of this prose to reach deep beneath the surface of seemingly everyday life, discovering its hidden and encrypted meanings.
The book contains the best stories of Marek Nowakowski arranged in chronological order, starting with his feted debut Square from 1957. We also find here classic prose, such as Benek the Florist, Where is the Road to Walne?, and Wedding Again! as well as some great stories from the acclaimed Report on Martial Law, translated into many languages and widely commented on in the world literary press in its time. The dark 1980s are symbolised by Death and Two Days with an Angel. It was during this period that the writer was arrested and accused of ”slandering the regime”. After 1989, Marek Nowakowski assiduously described the beginnings of Polish capitalism, as evidenced, for example, in the stories Edek Gets the Upper Hand and Czarna and Mała from the selection. It is impossible to raise here all the elements that can be found in this anthology of more than a thousand pages. But one thing has to be said: it is the tip of the iceberg, after having become acquainted with it, one can delve into this unique work and find such pages to which one will often come back.
Wojciech Chmielewski, translated by Katarzyna Popowicz
She climbed her first peaks in a headscarf at a time when women in the mountains were treated by climbers as an additional backpack. It was with her that female alpinism began! She gained recognition in a spectacular way. The path was considered a crossing for madmen. Especially since the tragic accident in 1929, preserved … Continue reading “Halina”
First, Marysia, a student of an exclusive private school in Warsaw’s Mokotów district, dies under the wheels of a train. Her teacher, Elżbieta, tries to find out what really happened. She starts a private investigation only soon to perish herself. But her body disappears, and the only people who have seen anything are Gniewomir, a … Continue reading “Wound”
A young girl, Regina Wieczorek, was found dead on the beach. She was nineteen years old and had no enemies. Fortunately, the culprit was quickly found. At least, that’s what the militia think. Meanwhile, one day in November, Jan Kowalski appears at the police station. He claims to have killed not only Regina but also … Continue reading “Penance”
The year is 1922. A dangerous time of breakthrough. In the Eastern Borderlands of the Republic of Poland, Bolshevik gangs sow terror, leaving behind the corpses of men and disgraced women. A ruthless secret intelligence race takes place between the Lviv-Warsaw-Free City of Gdańsk line. Lviv investigator Edward Popielski, called Łysy (“Hairless”), receives an offer … Continue reading “A Girl with Four Fingers”
This question is closely related to the next one, namely: if any goal exists, does life lead us to that goal in an orderly manner? In other words, is everything that happens to us just a set of chaotic events that, combined together, do not form a whole? To understand how the concept of providence … Continue reading “Order and Love”
The work of Józef Łobodowski (1909-1988) – a remarkable poet, prose writer, and translator, who spent most of his life in exile – is slowly being revived in Poland. Łobodowski’s brilliant three- volume novel, composed on an epic scale, concerns the fate of families and orphans unmoored by the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war and … Continue reading “Ukrainian Trilogy: Thickets, The Settlement, The Way Back”