Historical fiction
Włodzimierz Bolecki
Chack. The Gamblers

A talented and depraved wins (and easily squanders) a fortune at cards, while mingling in the most privileged circles

So who was he, back when he was? ‒ They called him the king of the cardsharps, the Polish Casanova, the noble king of rascals, whose name was ‘on everyone’s lips as sure as salt is in the dish.’ Nobody ever let an occasion for mentioning him slip by, whether diarists, people who knew him, or people who’d only heard tell of him. He was a legend in his own lifetime, enjoying the cultish aura of the exotic, in which there was both tender delight and repulsion. Sharpster and troublemaker, agent and traitor, a master of the word, the aphorism, the joke; elegant in all senses of the word ‒ he became lord of the collective imagination of his age, in spite of the fact of his being little known. But that’s another matter entirely.  From these contradictory descriptions of his character and assessments of his activities there breaks through a yearning after nobility and the beautiful ‒ entangled, who knows why? with villainy, cynicism, ruthlessness and brutality. (…)

He was known in the manors of magnates and at royal courts, in the staff headquarters of great armies and in the hush-hush departments of the secret police. He knocked about the most repugnant dives and lowdown locales, but above all he frequented the residences of aristocrats, and the alcoves of the richest and most beautiful women in Europe. Tender-hearted and affectionate, he could still, without so much as winking an eye, stab a friend in the back, sell out a lover, betray his fatherland.

Travelling about the great theatre of eighteenth century history, he squandered his parents’ fortune without even asking May I. He was everywhere: in Russia and Asia, in the Polish Crownlands and in Lithuania, in Turkey and the Balkans, in Italy, in Prussia, in France. He was even planning an expedition to America. Supposedly, he made some threats about founding a colony in Madagascar, but that information comes from an unverified source.  He was a roisterer such as had never before been seen. At the very least, that’s how his legend described him in his own lifetime.

He was an ardent tribune of revolutionary slogans: words such as ‘republic’ and ‘liberty’ ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’, ‘independence’ and ‘Poland’ were ever on his lips. He was both a frequent prisoner of the police in different European lands and the head of the same (in Naples) as well as its most secret, frequently used, agent. He was a brave soldier and a passionate lover (of Mammon, power and women, as well as the Fatherland, when it so suited him and as the occasion presented itself); he was known and admired by all. Here of course I’m exaggerating again. But let that be. So, how can it be then, that he has been forgotten? That, although he once existed, he no longer really does? That, even if he does, it’s like he’d never really been? And that’s it exactly ‒ it wasn’t completely like that at all… But enough of this game already. It’s time for some facts, documents, and a handful of assumptions.

Let’s begin. (…)

He passed by a few pairs entwined in embraces, while others slipped past him, on their way into various chambers. Just as he was about to move on himself, he was halted by a strapping man, who, with a jovial smile, took his hand in his own and shook it without saying a word. When he did speak, it was with a delicate Russian accent.

‘What a pleasure, my dear Captain. My brother sends you his sincere regards.’

‘Your brother? With whom have I the honour of speaking?’

‘My name is Schwartz… It truly is a great pleasure, truly… an immense joy, Captain…’

‘The feeling is mutual,’ said Chack, still surprised. ‘Have you been in Warsaw long, sir?’

‘Many years, Captain… Aha… I almost forgot…’ He reached into the pocket of his frock coat and extracted therefrom a small box embroidered in colourful cloth and tied with a ribbon. ‘This is from my brother… He’d like to say that there will be other such.’

Intrigued, Chack undid the ribbon, slid his nail under the tiny lid and delicately pried it open. A small gold coin was inside the little jewel case. Bewildered, Chack raised his eyes, but the man he’d been speaking with was no longer there. For a few moments it seemed to him as if he could still hear his footfalls on the stairs, growing more and more distant, but then everything was stifled by the loud music that suddenly struck up in the depths of the corridor. He slipped the little casket into his pocket, tidied his wig, and then, after a look about him, entered the large salon after first making way for one or two couples.

In a corner of the chamber a boy was reading aloud from a brochure. A crowd of listeners was thickly gathered around him.

‘I believe in the venal corruption of the senate and the representatives. I believe in their communion with foreign ministers bargaining to satisfy their greed. I believe in the resurrection of violence and anarchy. I believe in the forgiveness of perjury and treason. But I also believe in the coming, someday, of a better government for Poland. Amen.’

‘Amen, amen,’ Chack replied with sarcasm, remaining there a while, observing those present, after which he went back out into the corridor, had a discreet look around, and then ascended the staircase to the next floor. The Swiss Guard at the door bowed to him and let him pass, whispering something into his ear.

Translated by Charles S. Kraszewski

Historical fiction
Włodzimierz Bolecki
Chack. The Gamblers

A talented and depraved wins (and easily squanders) a fortune at cards, while mingling in the most privileged circles

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

Up until the twentieth century, when history fell off the rails, there had never been a more dynamic three decades in the history of Poland than the years between 1785 and 1815. During this period, the Partitions occurred, the Constitution was ratified, independence was lost, followed by the emigration and nomadic diaspora, or fading away, of the Polish élite, the conditional re-establishment of independence, Napoléon’s Moscow campaign, and the subsequent fall and rebirth of the nation. This novel, by a literary historian, speaks of those times through the prism of the alleged, fleshed-out biography of an unusual hero, who carefully hides his tracks.

The history of those three stormy decades might be condensed into a narrative concerning the fate of an ambitious military officer or a poet. After all, the years 1785–1815 were lacking in neither. Yet instead of them, for his medium to evoke the truth of the period, Włodzimierz Bolecki chose a figure who, while historical, figures only as a footnote to that history, a character on the absolute margin of the era: the talented but depraved cardsharp Ignacy Chodźkiewicz (who also possessed a good half-dozen other aliases). Winning (and easily squandering) fortunes at the card tables, Chodźkiewicz frequented the most privileged social milieux.

It was in the interest of Bolecki’s hero to cover his tracks. He figures in the memoirs of those contemporaries who mention him as a very equivocal character. In his reconstruction of the life of Chodź- or Chaćkiewicz, one comes across large lacunae ‒ some of them years-long ‒ which Bolecki fills up with invention or persiflage, having his gambler ‘know everyone, be present everywhere’, thus making of him one of the witnesses to the times he describes.

However, this novel makes no pretensions to simple, realistic historical narrative. It is rather a portrayal of how one might ‘twist’ the truth to oneself; how the mind can shut itself up in imaginations of the world, which have nothing in common with reality. The patriots struggling for the continued existence of the Republic believe strongly in their own delusions and strength. On the other hand, the adherents of the Targowica Confederation ‒ a political formation which, to this day, is a synonym for treason in Poland ‒ no less strongly believed that the Empress Catherine II the Great was the defender of noble freedoms and liberty in the face of something that they saw as a ‘dynastic conspiracy’ and a ‘Jacobite frenzy’ at the same time.  And the eponymous hero, Chodźkiewicz, or Chack, believes in his own immortality.

Wojciech Stanisławski, translated by Charles S. Kraszewski

Selected samples

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Andrzej Bobkowski
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Andrzej Nowak
Wiesław Myśliwski
Jarosław Jakubowski
Anna Piwkowska
Roman Honet
Miłosz Biedrzycki
Wojciech Chmielewski
Aleksandra Majdzińska
Tomasz Różycki
Maciej Hen
Jakub Nowak
Elżbieta Cherezińska
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米科瓦伊·帕辛斯基(Mikołaj Pasiński)、瑪格熱妲·赫爾巴(Gosia Herba)
歐菈·沃丹斯卡-波欽斯卡(Ola Woldańska-Płocińska)
瑪麗安娜·奧克雷亞克(Marianna Oklejak)
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巴托米耶·伊格納邱克(Bartłomiej Ignaciuk), 阿嘉塔·洛特-伊格納邱克(Agata Loth-Ignaciuk)
文字和插圖:皮歐特·卡爾斯基(Piotr Karski)
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羅珊娜·延澤耶夫斯卡-弗魯貝爾 (Roksana Jędrzejewska-Wróbel)
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Olga Tokarczuk
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Henryk Sienkiewicz
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Bronisław Wildstein
Zbigniew Herbert / Wisława Szymborska
Karol Wojtyła
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Anna Świrszczyńska / Melchior Wańkowicz
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Wiesław Helak
Góra Tabor
Adriana Szymańska
Paweł Rzewuski
Mariusz Staniszewski
Radek Rak
Urszula Honek
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Antonina Grzegorzewska
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Józef Mackiewicz
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Maciej Płaza
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Zbigniew Stawrowski
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Wojciech Chmielarz
Robert Małecki
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Anna Piwkowska
Dominika Słowik
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Barbara Banaś
Rafał Mikołajczyk
Jerzy Szymik
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Julia Fiedorczuk
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Jacek Dukaj
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