The winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2009, Jacek Dukaj’s impressively thick volume The King of Pain consists of eight novella-sized stories. The King of Pain is a collection of extremely varied works, and once again confirms Dukaj’s place among Polish literature’s most eminent creators of alternative realities. Thus, it could be that the tale takes the form of an alternative version of historical events (for example, in Wormwood we find an alternative, fantasy version of the Chernobyl disaster and its consequences); or it could be that mankind will wander up some path of technological development (such as biotechnology and genetics in The King of Pain and the Grasshopper), and as a result its political and social systems – and even human bodies themselves – will succumb to destruction or total remodelling. Or else the ability of the human mind to cross into a multi-layered virtual reality will become universally accessible (this is the case in several of his stories, e.g. Line of Resistance). The collection also includes a tale called The Eye of the Monster, which is both an idiosyncratic pastiche and, at the same time, an homage to Stanisław Lem, to whom Dukaj is now Poland’s greatest literary heir.
Dukaj gives a penetrating analysis of the effects of technological change. Take for example the title story, in which humankind predominantly develops biotechnology and genetics. This gives rise to a new form of terrorism, for now anyone can cultivate a deadly virus in their garage at home and use it to threaten the state. In the face of such threats, organizations as powerful as the state become defenceless and sink into backwardness, to be replaced by a loosely knit conglomeration of small associations, each of which grotesquely masks its true aims with a trivial catchword, such as “beach volleyball”. Moreover, Dukaj’s extraordinary imagination creates not only original visions of political development, but also of the evolution of the human species brought about by new technology, of ways of perceiving and judging the world and the self through a new kind of subject (the story School has an unusual description of the process of redesigning a boy who has been abducted from a South American slum into a cyborg serving the conquest of the galaxy. Dukaj is also able to create strikingly original visions of new and diverse worlds, their landscapes, the beings that inhabit them, and their sometimes disparate physics. The stories contained in The King of Pain are unquestionably an example of the exceptional potency of a creative imagination combined with an analytical mind, both of which Dukaj has been utilising to seduce his readers from the very start of his career.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
Jacek Dukaj (born 1974) is one of Poland’s most fascinating science fiction writers. He is the first Polish winner of the European Literary Award (2009).
He was late for the celebration; his child was ill and he stayed at home with his other half. Little Andrzej, his cousin, a living after-image of his childhood. ...
The cousin who was more like a brother. From a time when they both lisped: couthin, couthin, couth; only he – from among his many cousins – was to remain as the lifelong brother with no brother. Once upon a time he used to log in as Qqazn. ...
They are sitting on the wooden porch. A light bulb sways inside its tin shade, the spring darkness ebbs and flows, insects make their music, a dog rattles its chain. On the far side of the road, someone tries to fire up a wheezing wreck of a car.
It’s chilly, so, hot chocolate. As they drink, they nibble at the last few pieces of Michał’s cake from the china side plates. Paweł paints fairytale monsters with the smear of chocolate on his plate.
(Dialogue). How are things at home? Same old, same old. Everybody bugging each other. And you? What have you been up to? Ugh, I’ve had enough of it all. All what? Money, traffic, city life, the gage of madness? Go on, tell me what’s been happening.
Nothing’s been happening. There’s nothing to tell. No stories. Everyday incidents, turning the pages of the calendar, simple as that. Day after day after day after day after day after day.
Why are you so down? Is there something wrong? I don’t know, Andrzej, it’s a cliché, but life has its schedules, for both women and men: such and such a number of years goes by, and then you have to change direction, or you’ll wind up on existential fallow ground. The measure for chicks is their fertility; for blokes it’s a mid-life crisis. I have it all written out, step-by-step, disco proteo.
What are you talking about, man? How old are you? How old are we? We’re still kids.
So what? I feel that leash, that collar around my neck.
I never stop counting. It’s almost two years’ long now.
Are you up to your eyes in mortgage debt?
Paweł stares at Qqazn as if he’s crazy.
He gives him a soul-penetrating look. What a faux pas - Qqazn is as soulless as the rest of the country bumpkins.
Ha. Quite the opposite, Cousin. A couple of years and it’ll be longer than my life expectancy. Free capital. Living the life of Riley.
Now it was Qqazn’s turn to stare at an idiot.
Hallelujah and praise the Lord! That’s what everybody wants.
A grey curtain hangs between them, an impermeable sheet of plastic. Moths and mosquitoes buzz around their heads, but no thoughts come buzzing past.
In spite of all, Paweł presses on.
Hey Cousin, it’s not like that, it really isn’t.
Wałęsa mode: It wasn’t luxuries of that kind we fought for.
So you’d prefer it the other way around?
Work is a luxury. ...
As for those who don’t work, we - those of us who do work - have to keep providing them with content for their lives.
Content: gameplay. ...
At first it was called “spending your free time”. But as productivity grew, the free time increased in proportion to working hours. There was a rise in those branches of the economy concerned with providing content for the part of life we call “free time”.
So-called celebrity (life by proxy)
So-called sporty lifestyles
So-called charitable work
So-called social work
Content. A filler. (Content to be content).
After all – you have to do something when you don’t have anything to do.
(I have a family, Paweł; just you try doing nothing in that situation!)
Don’t look backwards, look ahead. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO NOTHING.
It’s hard work – the hardest! – continuously devising and updating a repertoire of meanings of life.
It could be the colour of your top. Perhaps it’s a sword with a bonus to your attributes. Or – perhaps it’s a metaphysical system. ...
Qqazn finishes his cake and licks his spoon clean. He really is trying to understand.
He digests and digests and digests, until he can digest no more:
You mean that in the evenings you have nobody to talk to.
No, Cousin, no. You open your mouth to speak – and what do you talk about? Just think about it, and be honest.
Do I have enough to last me until the first of the month
Whose turn was it to go shopping
How is your guild getting on
What kind of mischief has your kid been getting up to
They’re all sick at work
The club has bought a good goalkeeper
The neighbour’s ripped up the pavement
The new taste of sugar
The frost in a constellation
There’ll be a new game tomorrow
They’ve caught a paedophile MP
Or perhaps we’ll go on holiday to New Zealand
In this game – splitting up, in the other – everlasting love
You looked so lovely in the green dress, what style is that
A spider bit me during the night
Who’ll be the new Bond
And that, that’s your content!
That is the meaning of your life.
And now subtract financial fears (they’ll disappear). And subtract family (that’ll disappear).
From the remainder – what percentage was not produced by us, by me?
Qqazn stares into the night, listens to the sounds of the sleepy village, and cocks his head to one side. ...
No. I’m not buying that, Paweł.
But it’s true. THAT’S THE MEANING OF LIFE. That’s exactly what drags people from one night to the next, from one weekend to the next.
The content coming from our minds.
Creative people’s lifeblood.
Now, perhaps, something has broken through the curtain. Qqazn looks up, then down, up, then down.
Paweł reads the look in his old friend’s eyes: Poor sod. What have they done to you. You have money, but you don’t have a life. Sympathy Link +5.
Paweł knows that Qqazn is not capable of understanding more. (On the other side of a Lagrangian point). He hasn’t had the kind of life experiences to which he could attach Paweł’s words, even the most precisely chosen ones.
And so Paweł keeps them for himself. Staring into the night. (A dog barks, a barn door clatters).
That’s the truth, mon ami. The future that can’t be avoided. You’ll get there, too. And if not you, then your children.
It’s the only business that’ll preserve its raison d’être, once everything is cheap, luxurious and safe. ... The only business ad infinitum: producing meanings for life.
We produce them. We do it for you. To stop you sinking into your own nolensum.
It’s us, us, us. Day after day. Wringing our neurones dry. Pumping the sperm from our souls. Ripping our teeth out.
There you have it.
But Paweł isn’t saying any more. He fetches some vodka.
They sit and drink.
Pale-faced demons with celluloid wings lean over them, smiling sadly. The spirit of a rusty tractor sails right through the barns and farmyards. There’s a whirlwind of moonshine blowing.
Soundtrack: Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante in A minor.
Paweł squints, and sees clearly:
Andrzej teaches Polish at a county secondary school. He will set the children this as an essay topic. And in one season’s time the entire neurosis will come back to Paweł, to the Geyser. They will build desires and demands upon the drama of the creative and the disclosure of artificially produced ideas. He can see stories, fashions, emotional bundles, designs, contests and re-contests, and colourful rebellions.
Work is what happens when you get carried away.
Translation by Garry Malloy