Literary novel
Szczepan Twardoch

Full-blooded novel with a generous helping of 20th-century history of Silesia

I raise my face toward the late-autumn, post-war sky. I am twenty-seven and I feel ancient. I’ve been through a great deal. I am twenty-seven years old, five foot nine, I am thin, my uniform hangs on me

like a sack pulled in at the waist. I am clean shaven, though I haven’t been to the barber in a long time; my salt-and-pepper hair is ruffled and old blood still makes it clump into unpleasant tufts, and I have lice, too. I try to put on my officer’s cap, it barely fits over the bandage on my head, so I remove the bandage and feel the back of my head growing damp; a little blood continues to seep from my still-unhealed wound, making my hair stick together even more. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.

On the corner of Wrangelstrasse stands an old, moustachioed veteran, with no right arm and no insignia on his grey uniform. At the front, the regiment numbers sewn on to epaulettes have long since been covered by grey sheaths, but this man has completely unstitched his epaulettes, along with the stripes on his collar. On his cap, instead of the imperial black, white, and red cockade, he has pinned on a red ribbon, as if someone had shot him through his forehead. Like me, he has no coat – I can see he must be as cold as  I am, and I am very cold. I approach and greet him, but he only snaps something in response, though he can see perfectly well I’m in an officer’s uniform. I should be surprised, but I’m not. Hanging from his one remaining forearm is a ring of the cheapest sausages, which contain practically no pig’s meat, but which still look mouth-watering; I’d gladly buy a few, I’m hungry, but I remember that I literally haven’t got a pfennig in my pocket. Nothing. I remember how back in 1917, when I was on my final leave in Berlin and when the scar left by the continental blockade on our economy was both terrible and visible to the common people, even in those days traders would set out street stalls with sausages. I remember one young man in particular who stood not far from the hotel I was staying in, on Friedrichstrasse. He was as strongly built as a militia grenadier, he wore a bowler hat, a monocle, and a little waxed and black-dyed moustache curled straight up, with a white apron over his dark clothes and a tin pot marked “Wurst” hanging around his neck and resting on his belly, and from this pot he sold steamed sausages, less fatty than before the war and much more expensive, but he sold them, and I could afford them and I bought one every time I went past; I’d stand next to him and eat, much happier at being able to buy a frank than at the frank itself, which tasted awful.

Now I can’t even afford the cold, ersatz franks this one- armed veteran is selling, I can’t afford anything.

I haven’t been this poor since I started earning money tutoring during my last year of prep school. I learned well the value of money, every mark, every pfennig, I know how hard my papa and little brothers worked for their pay. And I always wanted more. More money, more of what I could buy with it. I didn’t want to save every pfennig, conserve matches by snapping them in two, smoke the cheapest tobacco, I didn’t want to do everything my father did because he had to.

Excerpt translated by Sean Gasper Bye

Literary novel
Szczepan Twardoch

Full-blooded novel with a generous helping of 20th-century history of Silesia

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2020
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie,
Foreign language translations: Twardoch’s works have been published in Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and USA. Rights to Humbel have been sold to Germany (Rowohlt) and Netherlands (Nieuw Amsterdam).

Literature needs stars. Today, Szczepan Twardoch is without doubt a star of Polish literature. He’s a writer whose work has been adapted for screen (a serialised version of his King of Warsaw will soon premiere on TV) and is translated more and more often into the most important world languages (including German and English), a writer whose readers can’t wait for his books and whose public pronouncements arouse emotions – a rare feat for contemporary prose writers. But despite the contemporary cult of celebrity, you can’t become a star of literature without knowing how to write. And Twardoch can write – proof of which is his new book Humbel.

In Humbel, Twardoch takes up topics explored in his earlier works. We’ll find here issues of Silesian identity tangled up in conflicts between Poles and Germans; fratricidal struggles, from which no winners emerge; the sufferings of individuals caught up in the turbulent maelstroms of history; male desires; and finally, the figure of the femme fatale. The author impresses with his sensitivity to detail and psychological insights, but above all with his rare ability to sustain a narrative and intrigue. Thus, readers aren’t given an elegant yarn spun around the decoration of the era or a moralising treatise on the subject of the fluid identity of Alois Pokora, who is wounded in the French trenches of the First World War, but a full-blooded novel with a generous helping of 20th-century history of Silesia peopled by well-drawn protagonists.

Humbel may call to mind to an extent Pierre Lemaitre’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Great Swindle, although with regard to its universal – literally parabolic – dimension it’s closer to another work set during the First World War: Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front. As with Remarque, history touches everybody here, even if they gamely try to give it the slip.

Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by David French

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