Historical fiction
Wiesław Helak
On the River Zbruch

In Helak’s novel, the Borderlands becomes an emanation of Polish identity

They passed through the gate and from this distance could already make out mother waiting for them by the entrance. Everything around the manor house glistened with puri-ty, the carefully tended grass on the flowerbed, the trimmed roses, and also the small gazebo and the evenly-raked gravel on the drive were testament to the fact that mother kept order here with an iron fist. Not even leaves or fallen acorns spoiled the lawn un-der the expansive old oak. The ladder by the portico over the door was gone because the plasterer had fin- ished his work, and the repaired motto crowning the triangular pediment now glowed white in the last rays of the sun peeking through the park: I Am a Polish Manor Fighting Valiantly and Guarding Faithful-ly. To Konstanty, these words, too, were like a childish transformation of reality, and on deeper reflection, sounded like a pang of conscience from the days of the Partitions and of independence lost through no fault but their own. And why fight? That was the past now, he thought, these days we had take our proper place among the peoples of Europe under the scepter of His Majesty Emperor Franz Joseph, be-cause that was where power and a source of culture were found—the museums, sculptures and paintings he so adored. All that remained of that old world were his mother’s love of order and prayer, and her black dress, which he never liked. (…)

The next day, after Mass and a morning ride, during a fencing lesson with his father, a boy came running to the lord of the manor with a letter. They did not stop the match, so the messenger waited obediently until the lord asked him to approach at the proper moment. The noble steel rang gently and the fencers’ movements grew more fluid, and today it seemed the son was able to hold off his opponent’s attacks. He was parrying attacks to the chest, the head, the cheek, and knew he couldn’t let himself be broken, couldn’t give up, since his father wouldn’t forgive him a second time. Meanwhile in his heart he could think only of how to break free of this vicious circle of discipline and submission. His father was now attacking har-der, as though he’d read those desires hidden in the depths of his soul, and right then the saber quick- ened, and their steps became even nimbler, and again the blades were in constant motion–a fierce alternatingattack against an attempted feint. And Konstanty could only retreat and backed up against the wall, and suddenly his father’s attack stopped just at his head. Closer than last time. And he felt the chill of death in his heart. He could tell he was too weak to break free. His father bowed in the prescribed posture and slowly slid the black saber into its scabbard.\“A fight with this distinguished saber, my son, obliterates all sorrow and any pain from the gut. . . It takes away dangerous melancholy, as well as de-structive conceit.”

Only then did he raise his hand, and the messenger ran up to him, handing him a letter on a tray, which the lord read in silence. Then he raised his eyes, pondered for a moment, and said:

“Father Marek writes to me he has suddenly fallen ill. You’ll go to Husiatyn and fetch his niece. Have Ivashko prepare a carriage. . .” He considered another matter, then he finished his thought: “I won’t send the coach-man himself, you’ll have to greet the young lady with proper respect, this is the priest’s family after all.”

He looked at his son as if to say this time he didn’t care to regret his decision.

Excerpt translated by Sean Gasper Bye

Historical fiction
Wiesław Helak
On the River Zbruch

In Helak’s novel, the Borderlands becomes an emanation of Polish identity

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Arcana, Kraków 2017
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Arcana, arcana@poczta.internetdsl.pl

The  novel  takes  place  at  the  turn  of  the  19thand    20th    centuries,    covering    events    from    the  final  years  of  the  Partitions  of  Poland  to  the  beginnings  of  the  Second  World  War.  Its  main  character is Konstanty – a young artist, aesthete, and aficionado  of  painting,  who  after  finishing  school  in  Vienna returns to his family home on the Zbruch River in Podolia – a region now within the borders of Ukraine and Moldova, but previously under Polish rule. Despite a sense of nostalgia for this place where he spent his childhood,  the  young  man  wishes  to  travel,  spend  time  among  people  with  broad  intellectual  horizons,  and  above  all  explore  the  collections  of  the  world’s  museums and marvel at their works of art. Ultimately this  desire  leads  him  to  the  Viennese  court  and  into  the  service  of  Emperor  Franz  Joseph,  during  which  time   he   renounces   his   Polish   identity.   Yet   after   personal turmoil, he returns to the estate of his birth and changes his point of view, understanding that he has “Polish obligations.”

Yet Konstanty is not the most important character in the book – rather, it is the manorial estate. It is precisely the  ethos  of  an  estate  in  Poland’s  former  eastern  Borderlands, a particular way of life irretrievably lost, that seems to interest Helak the most. One of its most important  elements  was  respect  and  attachment  to  tradition.  It  is  Konstanty’s  father  who  advocates  for  this most strongly, doing his utmost to ensure his son remembers  what  is  most  important.  This  manifests  in all sorts of ways, starting with drilling his son and making  sure  he  can  handle  a  sword  well;  through  studying the family’s heirlooms, history, and lands; up to instilling respect for service. It is not for nothing one of the watchwords that guided the lord of the manor was   “Harmony   and   humility.”   Helak   manages   to   capture wonderfully this two-way correlation – often forgotten  today  when  speaking  of  the  Polish  gentry  –  based  on  work  and  mutual  kindness  between  the  owner of the estate, the rest of the household, and the servants.  His  father,  whose  admonitions  Konstanty  often  resists,  also  pays  careful  attention  to  purely  symbolic  gestures,  such  as  dressing  for  important  events  in  the  old  costume  of  the  Polish  nobility,  treated almost like a holy relic.

In Helak’s novel, the Borderlands – or more precisely, Podolia  –  in  some  way  becomes  an  emanation  of  Polishness.  So  we  receive  a  series  of  reflections,  thanks   to   which   it   is   possible   to   recreate   the   atmosphere of a former time and a feeling of longing for a world now gone.

Anna Czartoryska-Sziler, translated by Sean Gaspar Bye

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