Literary novel
Radek Rak
The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart
Class divisions and economic violence in legendary world

They say that nothing would have come of it anyway. For there are loves that from the earliest are condemned to defectiveness and “cripplehood”, and that beget only sorrow and suffering. Everyone can see this, apart from the lovers themselves.

When Kóba finally dragged himself all the way to the inn, he knew things were bad. The dilapidated inn was writhing before his eyes, doubling and whirling, as if wicked devils were twisting it. Then there was a black hole, and momentarily flashing inside it, the worried face of Old Myszka.

In the distance, Rubin Kohlmann was jabbering some- thing about Shabbos, that now he’d, ayneklayne- miteshmok, take a rest. It even sounded funny, but Kóba couldn’t laugh, because he thought it would make the top of his head fall off. It went dark again, though it was probably because night had fallen. Kóba wanted badly to fall asleep but somehow wasn’t able to. Sleep circled him like a wary dog, afraid to ap- proach closer. So the young man was adrift on a chop- py sea of darkness, and sometimes Myszka would emerge out of the blackness, as wrinkly as an old apple – and sometimes he wouldn’t.

‘Go to sleep, won’t you,’ grunted the old man. ‘It’s fine for you, tomorrow you can sleep in, but I gotta work at the crack of dawn. Here, I’m leaving you some water and some linen, change the compress during the night. Oy, you’ll cough up a lung. I’m gonna sleep in the pan- try, I ain’t getting any shut-eye with you here.’ ‘Ayneklaynemiteshmok,’ croaked Kóba, with a stupid grin.

Someone’s hands caressed the young man’s face, from the base of the ears to the neck. They were the smooth hands of someone who did little labour, and they defi- nitely didn’t belong to Old Myszka. They smelled of aniseed and carnations.

She slipped in beneath the covers. She interlaced her toes with Kóba’s – they were freezing cold, as if she’d been walking around barefoot for a while. It tickled, but pleasantly. She snuggled all the way up to Kóba, a little warm, a little cold, smooth as muslin and seem- ingly totally naked. The farmhand started feeling bliss- ful and as if his fever was draining away. He fell asleep with his face nestled in the sea of black, fragrant hair spread over the pillow.

In the morning he felt a little better, though he remem- bered little of the previous night. He was surprised that the mattress smelled of spices, like the Jewish incense Kohlmann smoked up the whole house with every Shabbos. Then Jakób found a hair on the pillow

– thick, dark and curled. He sat for a while on the bed and twirled it in his fingers, and felt peculiar things inside.

He was still weak, but the illness had left his chest and he wasn’t even coughing so hard. This was certainly helped by the thick chicken broth Chana gave him to drink. Meanwhile, old Kohlmann gave him lighter jobs, like sprinkling water over the inn’s dirt floor or wiping down the tables; the innkeeper knew he had to look after his farmhands, even if they were goyim. That night, the moon again shone bright and at mid- night Chana went out onto the roof once again. As Kóba struggled his way up to lead her back down, she peered at him completely lucidly and smiled strangely. ‘You’re going to fall, Chana.’

‘No I won’t.’

‘Let’s come down.’ ‘It’s fine here.’

And Chana slid one hand over her nightshirt. And then the other. And then she undid a few upper buttons and stood like that in front of Kóba, naked from the waist up. She had beautiful shoulders and unattrac- tive breasts – triangular, their nipples too large and too dark. Kóba was just, just about to say ‘no’, he didn’t want to, he couldn’t, but the laws of the night are dif- ferent from the laws of the day. And he didn’t say any- thing, because he knew that ‘yes’, he did want to, and he knew he could.

But the girl just reached between her breasts and pulled out her heart – small, fluttering and feathery. ‘This is for you,’ she said.

Excerpt translated by Sean Gasper Bye

Literary novel
Radek Rak
The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart
Class divisions and economic violence in legendary world

Publisher: Powergraph, Kraków 2019
Translation rights: Powergraph

In his third novel, Radek Rak takes us to two places. The first is Galicia (a historical region located between south-eastern Poland and western Ukraine) in the mid-19th century, at the time of the so-called Galician Slaughter of 1846, a bloody peasant rebellion against the nobility, led by Jakub Szela. Szela himself is Rak’s main character (though here he is called Jakób, not Jakub, suggesting a unique, creative vision of the figure) and it is the conditions of his back- breaking peasant life as well as his relationship with the “lords” – meaning the nobility – that form the narrative backbone of The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart. Yet there is another layer here as well – a mystical, legendary Galicia, a Galicia inhabited by the Snake King at the foot of the Beskid Mountains. Historical events and characters mingle together with magic and folk beliefs, creating a story that is in many respects faithful to the actual series of events, yet deeply immersed in folklore.

In this sense, Rak has something in common with Tolkien, who built Middle Earth because he wished to create a mythology for his homeland that it had always lacked. Rak is doing something similar as a Polish author, spinning his tale so naturally that it seems copied from ancient scrolls of legends. But the greatest difference is that barely two centuries divide Rak’s story from our reality. Radek Rak also shares qualities with Andrzej Sapkowski and his stories of the Witcher – Rak’s fantasy is similarly realistic in portraying violence, sensual in its love scenes, and grounded in issues that are still current in today’s world, such as class divisions and economic violence. Rak’s great feat is that this fantasy novel was nominated for the prestigious Gdynia and Nike literary awards and has enjoyed the approbation of critics, something no fantasy author in Poland other than Sapkowski can boast.

Marcin Zwierzchowski

Translated by Sean Gasper Bye

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