In this book, Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz formulates a biting commentary on Polish social and political reality. Most of the eight stories in this collection are satirical in character and have a common narrator-protagonist. This is the young journalist Rafał Aleksandrowicz (the author's allusion to his own name), who tilts against the symptoms of stupidity, abuses, and manipulation with which, if we are to believe the author, characterise Polish public life. Ziemkiewicz's jocular, witty work has an unusual strong point: in the middle of a narrative marked by an impeccably realistic style, literary tricks and devices from the realm of fantasy occasionally pop up to surprise the reader. As a result, the world represented in this prose takes on an outlandish hue, appearing much more weird—and, at the same time, intriguing. It could also be said that Ziemkiewicz's fantastic motifs, paradoxically, serve the realism and reinforce the political engagement that has always distinguished this writer. This is exactly what happens in the title story about the "unhealthy" relationships inside Polish television, or in the story Devoutly to Be Wished about a religious mania that comes out of nowhere to overwhelm the worlds of media and business. Ziemkiewicz is a sharp observer and a malicious commentator on politics and manners. He spares no one—not even himself. There is a great deal of spleen directed at today's journalists, represented as characters ready to commit every sort of malfeasance.
- Dariusz Nowacki
Everyone knows, of course, that wherever you spit in Warsaw, you have an eighty per cent chance of hitting an unemployed journalist in the eye. But an unemployed journalist from a right-wing newspaper is an even more hopeless case than the others. Political correctness makes this field a one-way street. You can land on a right-wing paper starting from anywhere, but once you're there, you can only move to a paper even further to the right. And since everything to the right of The National Gazette was already firmly in the hands of Father Muchomorek, that sparse little square was all that remained for Prorok and me.
"I'm going to become a hermit monk," Prorok declaimed after his fifth beer. "Like one of my friends. He's been living in a hermitage in the Holy Cross Wilderness for five years. The only people he sees are pilgrims. He's there heart and soul…as if he'd already died and gone to paradise," he continued dreamily.
"I'm on the skids. I'll end up homeless, living on what I pick out of dustbins." I had also finished my fifth beer. "I'll be drinking wood alcohol and sorting through rubbish. I'll insist that people call me 'The Recycling Man.'"
I can't say this life-plan was devoid of merit, and the proximity of the Central Station made it even more attractive. I would have gone for it if it hadn't been for male pride. It was that kind of point in my life—the last thing I wanted was for it to look as if divorcing me was enough to make me have an immediate breakdown and land in the gutter.
"Fuck it, and Muchomorek first of all. We'll get over this bad patch," I promised my reflection as I shaved and, in order to restrain the inevitable moral slide, threw myself into a whirl of freelance assignments: horoscopes for the women's press, folders about European integration, analytical reports for some kind of agricultural development committee, and lots more that I don't even remember. But free-lancing is like going out to dinner in a flashy joint: lots of stress, and not very filling. I had to think up something new, and fast.
So I decided—don't fall asleep, dear reader, because I'm getting to the heart of the matter—to dump journalism, which wasn't worth the trouble, and go into PR. Must I explain? OK. Have you ever seen a ragged PR man running from one press conference to the next, being forced to listen to an hour of blather from various company presidents and managing directors in order to be able finally to lay his hands on a couple of miserable catered hors d'oeuvres and a plastic cup full of watery wine? Of course not. A PR man stands on the other side of the table towards which the journalistic hoi-polloi strains. He wears an elegant suit and smiles with dignity or empathy. The PR man picks a chosen few out of that hoi polloi and beckons a lovely hostess with a plastic bag full of handouts, bulging with a solid bottle of whiskey or, at least, French wine. In the restaurant, the PR man shows great generosity and puts everything on his expense account from the agency, which can set it off against VAT – or charge directly to the client. Put simply, the PR man is on a higher level than the journalist.
How do you become a higher being? I set about gathering background material. Theoretically, the easiest way would be to catch hold of the network—a Polish branch office of a Western PR firm. They demand nothing of their employees, and least of all any kind of qualifications, cleverness, or effectiveness. Network firms couldn’t care less, because one way or another they have guaranteed commissions in their millions from other companies in their own capital group. The way they carry out those commissions is irrelevant, since their only purpose in any case is to move profits out of Poland to countries with more reasonable tax rates. Of course, these tempting, undemanding sinecures could not help being monopolised by people with impenetrable connections. So I had no hope of getting into PR with a Western firm. There were necessary qualifications, but of a kind in which I was completely lacking. The only people doing PR in Western firms were those with close connections to the governing coalition of the day, or to the opposition only in cases where it was already apparent that the opposition would soon be coming into power. PR in big firms in Poland has nothing, after all, to do with PR. It is only a cover for "lobbying," and I don't want to explain what "lobbying" means in Poland, because every child knows. Aside from the lobbyists, there is only room in each such department for one terrorised small-town girl whose qualifications are limited to four languages and an American business course. With the sweat of her brow she does all the real work for the party nominees.
I was tempted by a position as a freelance PR specialist. Somebody who, when something happens, is equally capable either of trumpeting the news or of hushing things up to the extent that he is the only one clients will turn to in a crisis. For purposes of this kind it would be best to find oneself in an honest, not overly large agency that lives from commission to commission. I had not the slightest doubt that I was the sort of catch every such agency dreams of. Journalism had allowed me to form numerous acquaintances, and on top of that I was eloquent, polished, endowed with lightning-quick intelligence, broad knowledge, and a great deal of—not to slip into PR jargon—creativity. And on top of that, I knew even without Renata that my personal charm had a strong effect on women, and that, too, was important in the trade.
However, it would be necessary to convince my future employer of all this, and the best way to go about it would be to rack up some kind of spectacular success. I cannot truly recall whether I thought of this before I heard about Jonasz's problems, or whether it was that news that gave me the idea… In any case, it seemed like an ideal opportunity.
Jonasz, a vague acquaintance from years gone by, had opened a medium-sized discount outlet near Warsaw. An ideal location, a wide range of merchandise that sold well—in other words, what should have been, in all human probability, a sure-fire success. And yet, for reasons that were not at all clear, the business bombed. The competition opened a little store called "Sanctas" or something, with no advertising at all and situated much further away from the main road. Although it sold junk at extortionate prices and was hard to get to, it drew away the majority of Jonasz's customers. He tried promotions and cost-cutting, but none of the things that ought to have helped him worked. The whole situation seemed so strange that it was written up by a specialist magazine.
Translated by William Brand