Independence Avenue – in Polish, Aleja Niepodległości – is the transport artery that links Warsaw’s city centre and its southern districts. It runs through Mokotów, a district that Krystian Apostate, the main character in Varga’s latest novel, rarely leaves. He was born there in 1968, and it is his permanent home. He makes friends with a boy from the neighbourhood called Jakub Fidelis, and they both attend Saint Augustine’s Catholic high school, which is on the street named in the title. This friendship has continued for twenty-five years, and the novel describes the experiences of these two characters, which at first are shared, and later extremely different, because Fidelis is a success – a dancer and celebrity, constantly featured in colour magazines, but Apostate is a failed painter, a conceptual artist who has squandered his talent. While Fidelis enjoys fame and all sorts of luxury, Apostate is stuck in a state of lethargy; his life is limited to drinking beer and rummaging around on pornographic websites.
Yet Varga’s book is not a simple novel of manners. The metaphorical meaning of the name of the Warsaw street is also relevant, because Varga aims to describe the fortunes of the generation that entered adulthood at the start of Polish independence. Varga asks how this freedom has been put to use, especially at the level of the individual. But perhaps even more important is the patronage of the theologian from Hippo – despite the fact that the story is told in the third person, the spirit of Saint Augustine’s Confessions hovers over Independence Avenue. Unlike in Augustine, the two different paths trodden by Apostate and Fidelis do not lead to a “new life”. Both of them die in accidents at the age of forty, Krystian in a plane crash and Jakub in his luxury car. The main characters’ meaningful names, as well as some leitmotifs and denouements, all prompt us to regard this story as a modern parable about the mystery of human existence.
- Dariusz Nowacki
And then he wondered how it had come about that he was no longer young, although he once used to be. Where had all those days, months, and years gone, spent simply on life and nothing more, even if he had felt he were filling them with something more valuable than just life? Krystian’s art was for a niche market, and the more he had tried to develop as an artist, the more he had curled up and sunk into deep specialisation and oblivion, perhaps because he wasn’t capable of making his own life into even a semblance of art, as Jakub Fidelis had done by making a non-stop performance out of his; Jakub Fidelis’ life may have been a circus—it was art dell’arte—but it was a form of art. Nobody, meanwhile, got any applause or awards for the art of slowly letting the world go by and forget him. Krystian already knew his five minutes were over long ago. Jakub Fidelis’ five minutes had gone on for years, and showed no sign of ending, Krystian realised, not with any malice or envy, but rather with a strange sort of sorrow.
Perhaps my greatest artistic success is that I used to know Jakub Fidelis, the Nation’s Number One Dancer, thought Krystian, and in the old days we used to drink beer together, sitting on a bench; we used to share cigarettes, passing each other dog ends smoked down to the filter with the words “don’t drag on it, it’s still got two puffs left”; at school we sat at the same desk and shared our elevenses, we copied lessons off each other, and when one of us was sick the other went to visit him and reported what he had to learn.
Fidelis no longer drank beer, obviously not because of his elite status, as he had always remained an egalitarian, but in view of the diet required for maintaining a dancer’s shape. A glass or two of good red wine couldn’t hurt him, but the totemic drinking of beer didn’t really come into play – Fidelis’ stomach had to be as flat as the earth. As the Earth, on which Fidelis lived and created – created his own legend, a legend that was going to outlive him and become a symbol of free, reborn Poland.
The same thing went for cigarettes, which Fidelis had given up with genuine distress, because for him they had always been a symbol of personal freedom, especially in the days of the advancing anti-nicotine crusade. But there was no alternative – panting and coughing were out of the question, quite apart from the obligatory whiteness of his teeth. The most important thing is motivation, he once said in an interview about giving up smoking. He had strong motivation. Stronger than the fear of lung cancer. Lung cancer had no chance in a clash with dance. Fidelis chose dance.
Krystian had sometimes thought about his own death, about how it might happen, and he was waiting for it, in the hope that it would be like with the second coming of Christ – something that had always been foretold, but that somehow still hadn’t happened, and that was apparently going to take place later rather than sooner. Apostate knew of course that he would inevitably die, but sometimes he wondered when and in what circumstances. On the stock exchange of his fears and obsessions sometimes cardiovascular diseases went up, and at other times a car crash suddenly appeared, and then for a change senility and the general collapse of all his internal organs, and then for another change a stroke, as a genetic inheritance from his father. However, none of these speculations featured death as the result of a plane crash – that of course being the popular paradox: hypochondriacs go down with an illness, but not the one they obsessed about; women get married, but not to the men they dreamed of; people win the lottery, but it isn’t the winnings they planned for themselves.
So sometimes Krystian thought about death, and was surprised by the people around him, who seemed not to allow themselves to think those kinds of thoughts. The people around him did not take death into consideration. And that kept them alive. They settled the ultimate questions for themselves by reading colour magazines for a zloty each; there on the front page someone had always been killed in a tragic way, but those were such absurd deaths, such curious accidents, such exotic illnesses that they could not have happened to anyone else. Death had passed from the metaphysical sphere into the sphere of entertainment, and that was its greatest victory over life.
Lately, Krystian Apostate was mainly kept alive by his Internet Explorer browser.
Jakub Fidelis was kept alive by dancing and giving interviews.
Kasia Kabotyn was kept alive by her latest new love.
Everyone manages as best he can.
So sometimes Krystian Apostate thought about those rather unpopular ultimate questions and waited. He killed time by waiting for death.
So when was the last time they saw each other? Was it when Jakub had achieved major success as a dancer and was universally recognised as Someone Who Appears On Television? Recognised in shops, in the street, in cafés, in taxis, as the drivers glanced in the rear-view mirror and began their mantra: are you by any chance... and Jakub replied: Yes, I am, but don’t tell anyone, ha ha, and winked. Then they’d ask for his autograph, not for themselves of course, but for their wife or daughter, who were great fans of his, and then Fidelis would ask what they’re called, and reach into his inside jacket pocket, where quite by chance he just happened to have several photos of himself in a tight leotard, posing gracefully with his legs apart and one hand resting on his hip, the other cast out ahead of him. That hand was pointing to a better future.
The person of Jakub Fidelis had united the Polish nation, as ever divided. So Jakub Fidelis was known to the taxi drivers, the sales assistants at shops on the housing estates, and the check-out girls in the hypermarkets fidgeting in their nappies on uncomfortable little chairs – they too knew him and loved him, and so did the policemen and the criminals; the right-wing and left-wing electorate knew him, and he was even better known to the liberal electors, the believers and the atheists; the professors knew him, and so did the workers – everyone knew him and followed his banner. They respected him, because they knew him; you cannot respect someone you don’t know, but if someone is known that means he deserves respect, it means that person means something, that he has achieved that significance of his.
If you want to be respected, then respect yourself, Jakub had said to Krystian the last time they had seen each other. Fidelis was respected, and he didn’t have to queue at the bar for a drink – the drink came to him of its own accord, fawning to make Fidelis want to drink it, while Krystian had to wait for his and couldn’t bear the waiting, because no barman respected Krystian, surely because Krystian did not respect himself. He had a lot of doubts about himself, interspersed with brief moments of sudden bursts of belief in himself, but this belief was like Polish Catholicism – only on Sundays.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones