Michał Witkowski’s new novel is the latest in Poland’s “confessions of a child of the (last) century” series. But the child, as might be expected of the author of Lubiewo, is an exceptional one. Hubert, the narrator, is a man of advanced middle age whose chaotic reminiscences are full of flashbacks and sudden shifts in time. But boy does he have something to reminisce about! Hubert is a small-time shark in the criminal underworld of Jaworzno-Szczakowa, a mining town. In the twilight years of communist Poland, he dreams of a better life and, determined to make his fortune at any cost, he launches various legal and illegal but completely cracked business ventures that guarantee a profit.
My remarks above may suggest that Witkowski’s story is one of many that deal with the crazy period that ushered communist Poland out and the new, Third Republic, in – about the birth of the free market and about people who made fortunes overnight and lost them just as quickly. It’s true that the author of Lubiewo paints a colourful picture of the last decades of the past century and is excellent at describing the atmosphere that pervaded at the time. However, it is the figure of Hubert that is most important in the book. Why, then, is it Barbara Radziwiłłówna’s name in the title? Because Hubert identifies with this controversial Polish queen of yore and this is the nickname he goes by in his milieu. The narrator of Witkowski’s book is something of a dreamer and a free thinker, someone torn by contradictions. He poses as a ruthless mafiosi, but remains ‘soft’ – sentimental and affectionate and he believes equally strongly in God, auguries and horoscopes. This novel should be read first and foremost as the story of a misfit who desperately attempts to realise his dreams and seeks love, happiness and acceptance.
As in his earlier books, Witkowski makes ample use of camp aesthetics in Barbara Radziwiłłówna from Jaworzno-Szczakowa, which can be seen clearly, for example, in the language employed in the novel. The author has ‘cooked up’ an extraordinary mixture of Silesian dialect, literary language, criminal slang and Old Polish.
- Robert Ostaszewski
During all that time, when the communists were in charge, everyone in Jaworzno-Szczakowa knew that if you wanted to buy vodka before 1 in the afternoon, you went to Barbara Radziwiłłówna. If you had to buy dollars, sell dollars, roubles, you needed to put something into hock, gold – you went to Radziwiłłówna. Ach, ashrabachramash, like to the holy patron of money! Although in those days, I was still plain Hubert, they hadn’t started calling me by the name of that harlot yet. And Barbara Radziwiłłówna had a pawnshop on Jagiellonian (sic!) Street, that’s the main road that leads off from the railway station, and near Szczakowa she had a semidetached…beautiful it was, beautiful! Everything was just comme il faut! The building was neat and tidy, so aesthetic. With a garage, well, a semi-garage, and a semi-garden, doors of frosted glass, absolutely de luxe, a wee porch and little columns, and the outside walls were set with the most beautiful mosaics made up of smashed pieces of crockery. Not sixties style though, all over the place, but alternating black and white. You could make different patterns from them, like card faces: diamonds, hearts – or hertz, that’s how they say hearts in Silesia would you believe? You could buy the pieces in canteens or factories, the very best pieces I kept at my place. Some were called ‘late Hollywood’ or ‘late Gierek’ and the ‘all the smashed up stuff’ pieces were called ‘early’. And the architecture was called ‘Polish block’. Even Jaworzno’s crème de la crème sits among those blocks, surrounded by little bits of plate. Good morning to you, neighbour, good morning… And the one with the biggest block and the best smashed plates is that guy, you know …
That’s the one. I sigh. The one with the dark hair. Da-aarrk hair. If you didn’t count that market gardener from around our way, who stole a wad from the party committee and built about twenty greenhouses, I was the richest in the whole of Jaworzno. But he had a greengrocer’s. And having a greengrocer’s in those days didn’t mean having a shop with fruit and veg, but with anything going! Bubble gum, sour rye soup in jars (bleh!) – he even sold those flimsy boots you can only wear once. That’s what his veg looked like. On Sundays he drove up to church in his Peugeot, in a black fur coat and a shapka from the USSR, so bundled up you could scream! Praise the Lord! He got himself gold teeth and a track suit, oh boy he really had it made! I couldn’t concentrate, I played around nervously with my car keys underneath the pew. And what’s worse – I offered up sacrilegious prayers to the Ever Virgin Mary to give him cancer! I’m deeply religious, I love God and especially Our Lady. And there I was, praying that he got cancer and that my Auntie Aniela would die! I’m counting on her to leave me something in her will. But he had no respect for God at all! He was in with the mafia all over the place– in the ‘Kanty’ disco, the ‘Retro’ bar and the ‘Jaworznianka’ café. A few years later, he had his dirty mitts in the night clubs and the pole dancing joint by the motorway… Just about the whole of ‘Snitch’ Street belonged to him, but you tell me, aren’t the Jagiellonians something better than those market gardener informers?
I couldn’t afford a greengrocer’s, but I had an idea! I went to Niewiadow, there was a heatwave, but I go there with this coffee so I can get to see the director. Except that he wanted a ration’s worth of breeze blocks, so off I go to the director of the building materials factory, park my Fiat Bambino, go in, hand over more coffee – just to get to see him. It was so hot. And he says fuck off, I haven’t got any. But I know someone who used to deal in kids’ anoraks, the Bobo label, and I tell him it like it is and then I have some anoraks. Oh wow! My wife’ll be pleased! To get those anoraks, though, first of all I had to fix up a bath that had fallen off the back of a lorry. And that’s how I finally managed to buy myself a caravan. An N 126, a Fiat Bambino could pull it. It was already the mid-1980s by then. That was when Zdzisława Guca, the presenter on Panorama, said there was going to be a long spell of bad weather and then the Lombard Group sang their ‘Telly Weather’ song. When she announced on one Panorama programme that winter was approaching, the night was coming, the dark nights of the 1980s were upon us, people began stocking up on soda siphons, caravans, plastic baby baths from the GDR. They collected all this stuff and started building an Ark. To wait things out.
My friends said, hey Hubert, don’t tell us you’re off on holiday with your caravan to Yugoslavia with all this bad weather about. Times are so hard and you’re taking time off?! Ha ha ha! What holiday, who said anything about a holiday? A food stand! Fo-ood sta-and, do you get it? A third-class catering establishment, so-called minor catering. Toasted sandwiches, chips, hot dogs – nowhere better than Radziwiłłówna’s. (Fried onions on yours?) The guiding principle of the toasted sandwich business? Palm people off with old, reused oil, freshen up stale rolls in the toaster, use grated cheese you’d never look at twice yourself, stick in the odd squashed mushroom and pour over watered-down ketchup and – turn it all into real money. (That’ll be three-eighty please.) As far as the mushrooms went, well I wasn’t all that sure about them myself, but people aren’t pigs, they’ll eat anything. And with the money, since it wasn’t that real in those days and even worse, it could start melting away in front of your very eyes, that wasn’t the end of the whole business. The money had to be turned into gold bar as quickly as possible and shut away in closely guarded steel boxes. (What sauce would you like? Garlic, spicy, mild, ketchup, mustard?)
And then rub your hands in glee!
It was only the steel and the gold that could halt the change in value, even if just for a short time. Transferring itself from water and mushrooms via money to metals of a more certain quality. Because value is energy, water: without a conduit, without a cable, the poor thing roams around aimlessly, carried only by its own internal anxiety. A skittery creature, like a teenage boy. And why shouldn’t it flow into the safe harbour of our steel box?
Translated by Katya Andrusz