The plot of this novel features a life crisis: Bronek, a Polish Jew who has been living and working in Denmark for 35 years, employed at the Kierkegaard Studies Centre, is sacked from his job and left by his wife. Though previously quite well assimilated into Danish society, now that he has lost his family, job and money, the hero is as it were cast back into being a foreigner.
At an employment agency a xenophobic official assigns him work as a carer at a hospice: he is to assist a dying man who is probably a Pole. However, the outward task of “caring” is at odds with a secret instruction: the old man is a foreigner who is taking advantage of Danish state aid, burdening it with rising costs and thus taking money away from real Danes – so the “assistant” is supposed to do what he can to bring things to an end before the month is over.
However, at the hospice it turns out that the place’s subsidies are dependent on the number of living inmates. Faced with these contradictory notions, Bronek finds himself playing a game where his own job and income are being weighed up against someone else’s life. He soon turns his assistance into the confession of his life. He tells the old man all about himself: as the son of a communist father and a Jewish mother, in childhood instead of love he was taught (by his father) that abstract ideas are better than life itself, and (by his mother) that fearful conformity is better than individuality. In March 1968, during student demonstrations against the communist regime, Bronek was betrayed by a friend, and after doing penal military service was persuaded to leave Poland by his mother.
Świderski’s novel takes on the task of settling scores with communist Poland. As he does this, Świderski sides closely with the right-wing politicians who regard the Polish People’s Republic (PPR) as a criminal state, but nevertheless associate the strength of the PPR with the weakness of the Poles. According to this attitude, the strength of the PPR relied on the fact that it was able to draw everything petty, low-down, mundane and base out of a person, and thus render him incapable of moral resistance. This approach makes Świderski’s novel a mouthpiece for accusations, which he uses to demand judgement on the functionaries of demoralisation and on the traitors. The other main theme in the novel is an equally critical portrait of Danish democracy.
Polyphonic, highly informative, ironical and deadly serious by turns, this novel seems to have a message, which is that democracy needs to recognise its own imperfections so it can cease to demand from immigrants the humiliating effort of assimilation, that one can benefit from freedom as a chance to build a good life, and that being foreign – in existential terms – could be the basis for a new ethical approach.
- Przemysław Czapliński
Bronisław Świderski (born 1946) was a student at Warsaw University’s Sociology and Philosophy Faculty, until he was expelled in March 1968. Since 1970 he has been living in Denmark. For many years he was a researcher at Copenhagen’s Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre. He has written academic articles and books in English, Danish, Russian, Swedish and Polish.
A letter from the Author:
A review of "Death Assistant" by Przemysław Czapliński has been posted on the Book Institute’s website in which he accuses me of close connections with the political right. He writes: “autor staje blisko polityków prawicowych”, which is repeated in the English translation as: “Świderski sides closely with the right-wing politicians”. The English version is especially important, as it instantly torpedoes any opportunity for the book to interest Western publishers, who are as a rule ill-disposed towards the right.
I would not complain if I really did sympathise with the right. But the main characters in my books are foreign people, weak, and most definitely ill-disposed towards the strong arm of neo-liberalism. I am not, and never have been a man of the right. Thus this political classification of my novel is wrong. I am an independent writer, I write what seems to me correct, and I certainly do not praise nationalism, which is after all the starting point for any right-wing ideology.
In his denunciation Czapliński is imitating Stalinist models from the 1950s, when independent writers were defined by the term “right-wing”, which closed their mouths and called for their repression.
As a democrat I am not demanding that Czapliński’s political text be removed, but I would like my letter to be posted alongside it – in English too – out of concern for equal opportunities for Polish books exposed to cliquish attacks by critics.
I slowly place the imprecisely filled-in questionnaire on the desk, right next to two colour photos in gold frames. In the first a couple of small, chubby children are smiling. They’re wearing plastic Viking helmets with horns, all ready to poke a nasty enemy with them. The other photo is of the female civil servant who is sitting in front of me, deep in intimate conversation with Pia Kjærsgaard, leader of the nationalist and broadly foreigner-despising Danish People’s Party (the Dansk Folkeparti). I remember an activist from that party comparing the Muslims to “cancer cells destroying the healthy flesh of Danish society” not so long ago.
“White?” says the incredibly surprised civil servant. “I thought only blacks came to see me. But of course we do see colours by contrast – ultimately there’s no black without white, and vice versa,” and she laughs quietly.
I think on the European continent our sense of humour and certainly our sense of ironic justice has to do with a deep conviction that colours are not innocent – that white is more serious, more worthy even than black or red, definitely more so than yellow.
“Absolutely, I’m one hundred percent white,” I reply, coming closer so she can make sure for herself how extremely honest I am.
“But you live with blacks,” she suggests, reading my address on the questionnaire.
It’s true. I have a room in a concrete ghetto, as the press calls that sort of housing estate. Once upon a time the Jews lived in ghettoes, but in Europe nowadays they’re built for the Muslims. In the place where I live, among people from over thirty countries with yellow, brown and completely black faces I am certainly the only white one. But I’m also a Jew, so I feel as if I’ve come home. I moved into the ghetto not long after the divorce, when I was left completely alone. My wife took the child too. It was the first time I ever thought about suicide.
“No,” I reply, placing my hand on the desk, “I live on my own.”
“My name is Mette,” says the woman quietly.
She puts her hand out in front of her to stop me. She’s not looking at the piece of paper lying in front of her any more – don’t come too close… no, don’t stretch out your hand, God knows what you’ve been touching. You foreigners, you’re all the same. Always looking for something, if not in your nose, then in your trousers. You always want to talk before you listen. Don’t sit down, this won’t take long. Stand over there, on the other side of the table, opposite me. Stand still, keep your trap shut (hold kæftt). I’m doing the talking now.
However, she says nothing and goes on poring over my documents.
“You’re a Pole?” she asks at last, and it sounds like “hooligan, tramp and cynic”.
I don’t reply. I’ve always had trouble with my origins, because to hide her inhumanity my Jewish mother kept repeating non-stop that she was a Pole, while my father, who was a Pole and a communist, used to claim it was best to be a Russian. In Copenhagen, in my turn I wanted to be a Dane, but every third word betrayed me and soon went over to the enemy side.
“Yes indeed, I’m Polish too, “ I reply, but the stress, placed a little too late on the word “Polish”, makes it impossible for her to understand the irony.
“Listen,” she says, “I’ve got a job for you at a hospice, looking after a dying man. He’s all alone, with no family. He came to Denmark recently from Poland and at once he started dying, quite unexpectedly and at the expense of others. Someone who cared for him for a few days has just resigned and there’s no one to take over, so you can start tomorrow. Your position is called Dodens-assistent – ‘death assistant’. It sounds like a university job title, doesn’t it?” And she laughs, clamping her lips shut; maybe her teeth aren’t quite all right, or maybe it’s the other way around and they’re too big and sharp, downright vulpine, and that’s why she hides them?
But I don’t think it’s funny. After all, I know what capitalism is. However, for the time being I keep my sharp tongue in check and just ask softly: “Isn’t there anything closer to life? More constructive, like building houses, for example?”
She leans over the documents.
“Arbejde gi’r livet mening (“Work gives life a meaning”)”, she finally blurts out the bit of wisdom that must have prompted her to look for a job at the Employment Agency. To which, in the same language that’s foreign to me I say: “Please note that actually it has only recently given it that meaning. For instance, the ancient Greeks and Romans called people who worked slaves, as well as dogs, pigs and fools, and refused to accept that their filthy lives stinking of sweat had any meaning. Work? It was just a punishment. It was only capitalism that made work into the meaning of human life, rather than art, religion or poetry.”
She gives me a hostile look. If she hasn’t understood a word I’ve said, it’s because she’s not allowed to comprehend that sort of thing. After all, I’m talking slowly and clearly. She clears her throat to restore her temper, or maybe her Danish pronunciation too, as it’s already getting a little infected by the white applicant’s foreign diphthongs. Now she’s looking at my nose, which isn’t actually mine – I got it from my mother, but wasn’t able to give it back in time. For a moment I’m afraid she’s going to accuse me of possessing someone else’s property. But she soon drops her gaze and starts looking for another vacant position. She turns over bits of paper, has a think, and looks at my data again. “You’re not fit for anything,” she says decidedly. “You know, the Danes have a stern way of judging foreigners.”
“Stern but fair,” I say, dragging out the words a bit, because on my state-run course for foreigners I was taught Danish by an Indian woman. “Academic, writer…” Mette reads from the documents. “Do you think people still need your sort?”
“Not likely! No, not in Denmark, “ I agree with relief, convincingly, because whenever I make a denial in any language it always comes out best.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones