Literary novel
Szczepan Twardoch
The Kingdom

The reality Twardoch has created is a vortex of dark urges, a world full of violence and cruelty

In cold, in darkness, in unceasing terror. In cold, in darkness, in unceasing terror – I, a night animal.

Through the dark days I’m curled up in my burrow, grey as the walls of the hollows concealing me, in dark night I go out for my prey, scrape what’s left of the meat from the skeleton of the dead city, gnaw at its frozen carcass. I flit between concrete rocks, down canyons of streets, I dash lightly across piles of rubble, not leaving a trace, nearly invisible, noiseless and grey, I have a stinger in my pocket, I hunt, and then I return and like a mother I feed the one I loved, I curl up in my burrow, I merge with the walls, with the rags, I curl up beside him, I warm him with what’s left of the heat I still have in my body, I warm him like a mother.

My whole life I’ve loved a bad man.

I warm him and feed him, then I go out again, and he stays, in the dark.

I remember back now and I remember back then, in cold, darkness, terror, how he sat at my place, he sits, a few years earlier, in another world, still in my broth- el on the corner of Pius XI and Koszykowa Streets, after not in fact going to Palestine in 1937, he and that wife of his. After coming back. After the plane turned around.

So he sat at my place, I remember, he sits naked, he sat on the bed, he rested his elbow on his knee, his head on his hands. At first he said nothing. Then he drank. He drinks. Then he cried. Then he bashed his fist into the wall until he broke the bones in his right hand, bloodied the wall, but kept bashing away, too drunk to feel the pain of bones broken not for the first time nor the last, since everything hurt except his body, I don’t know whether to call it the heart, the soul, after all humans don’t have souls, and the heart is only a muscle, but there’s something inside, something that’s not the body but is human, or belongs to a human, or a human belongs to what’s inside, and that’s what was hurting him, and to drown out that pain he broke his metacarpus bashing the wall, I called a doctor, the doctor came, examined his hand, he had to go to the hospital, the doctor x-rayed it, set it, put it in a cast, did everything necessary and before long Jakub went back and went on drinking, with his hand in a cast, and then lost consciousness and lay in bed, naked and unconscious of anything.

I love a bad man, I thought then, looking at his body, at his navy-blue tattoos and muscle thickly overgrown with fat, I loved.

Was this how Mrs. Goebbels thought about her hus-band, for instance, that she loved a bad man? And did she love him? What is love if you love someone so bad?I’m a bad person too, but he doesn’t love me. That’s our set-up, two bad people, me bad, him bad, I love him, but he doesn’t love anyone, he doesn’t even love himself, so maybe that makes me somehow better, that in all my immorality, the whole filth of this non-soul of mine, I still love him, so maybe I’m not completely bad, maybe something human has remained inside me, but not in him anymore, because he doesn’t love anybody. He used to love himself, he loved all those little toys of his, the little pistols, switchblades, and suits, he loved the little expensive leather shoes and the automobiles he decked himself out in, because he wanted to be something more than yet another little Warsaw Jew, a Jewish nobody, shit, human manure, and he didn’t have a not-heart and not-soul inside him to give for some idea, like his brother had given himself for Pales-tine and wanted to die for it, and he died not for Pal-estine, but for nothing, and also because of Jakub, somaybe for Jakub, maybe it was for him he gave his life?

Excerpt translated by Sean Gaspar Bye

Literary novel
Szczepan Twardoch
The Kingdom

The reality Twardoch has created is a vortex of dark urges, a world full of violence and cruelty

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2018
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie, j.dabrowska@wydawnictwoliterackie.pl

The    Kingdom    is    a    narrative    and    thematic    continuation  of  2016’s  The  King.  Twardoch’s  previous  novel  took  place  in  pre-war  Warsaw,  and  its  main  character  was  the  titular  king  of  that  period’s  criminal  underworld,  the  Jewish  boxer  and  killer  Jakub  Szapiro.  The  plot  of  The  Kingdom  picks  up  where  these  pre-war  gangsters’  first  episode  left  off, that is, in August 1937. In the new novel, we learn Szapiro  has  in  fact  abandoned  his  desire  to  depart  for  Palestine,  remained  in  Warsaw,  and  shared  the  cruel  fate  of  the  Jewish  community  under  the  Nazi  occupation. The Kingdom covers events from 1937 to 1945.

Unlike his wife and two sons, Szapiro has managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto. He’s gone into hiding, remaining  under  the  care  of  his  former  lover,  Ryfka  Kij. Jakub is a shadow of his former self – he exists in numbness and apathy, and in fact doesn’t speak. The author therefore has bequeathed the role of one of his two narrators to Ryfka herself. The second storyteller is  one  of  Jakub’s  sons,  Dawid,  who  has  managed  to  escape  from  a  transport  of  Jews  headed  for  a  death  camp.  The  story  is  developed  as  the  interwoven  accounts of these two characters.

We  must  be  aware  that  Twardoch’s  work  is  not  a  typical  historical  novel  on  the  condition  of  Polish  Jews during the Holocaust. Of course, the author has included  a  large  amount  of  historical  information,  and  has  fairly  faithfully  reconstructed  the  period’s  atmospheres    and    situations.    Hovewer,    he    is    fundamentally  interested  in  the  human  condition  in  its  broader  dimension.  Twardoch  presents  himself  as a radical pessimist attached to a nihilistic view of the  world.  The  reality  he  has  created  –  both  in  The King and The Kingdom – is a vortex of dark urges, a world full of violence and cruelty. The conditions of the  occupation  only  reinforce  that  black  vision,  but  do not in the least determine it.

Dariusz Nowacki, translated by Sean Gaspar Bye

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2018
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie, j.dabrowska@wydawnictwoliterackie.pl

Selected samples

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