To Amsterdam

Michał Olszewski
To Amsterdam
  • Znak
    Kraków 2003
    150 x 213
    166 pages
    ISBN 82-240-0355-X

This is the debut of a talented young writer. He can make you burst out laughing, cry with despair, or feel a familiar atmosphere that you didn’t know could be described in words. This collection of long and short stories introduces us to his world and his generation, the almost 30-year-olds who were adolescents when communism collapsed and Poland had its first experience of capitalism. In Olszewski’s narrative, people of this generation have either made it, moving from the provinces to Warsaw to take up money-making professions, or gone abroad to try their luck drudging illegally in the big cities of Western Europe, or else have never quite managed to escape from the small-town housing estates where they grew up, but have sunk into a hopeless semi-existence, clouded by drink and drugs. But they can’t get away, because their origins are an inescapable part of them. Despite their failure to cope with life and to give in to the temptations of addiction, Olszewski’s heroes never lose our sympathy. They’re lovable rogues who haven’t quite lost hope of a better future, even if some of their contemporaries have.

Though each of the stories in this collection can stand alone, they are linked by common settings and situations, with main characters who share many of the same features, right down to their names. They’re really the same people, but they don’t have to be. In this way the stories create an organic whole, echoing each other like the movements of a symphony.

Although there are other young Polish authors who have stirred controversy in recent months by writing about the same, until recently taboo subjects of addiction and lives gone to waste, Olszewski has a unique talent as a writer. His depiction of the seamier side of life is honest and moving, without resorting to sensationalism. What is special about him is that he really can write – his descriptive passages have the power to awaken strong nostalgia in us, bringing our own past memories and sense of regret to the surface. He also has an easy style that is highly readable, and uses colloquial language in a natural way, producing fluent, vivid dialogue. This exciting debut introduces us to a writer to watch, and whose next publication will be avidly awaited.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Michał Olszewski was born in 1977 in Ełk. He graduated in Polish philology from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He now works for Poland’s leading daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, in Kraków and writes articles on literary criticism and book reviews.

I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that Zenek guards the mortuary at night as well. He looked capable of just about any sort of lunacy. I parked outside the main entrance; from Sunday to Monday the Short Town belongs to no one but the wind and my brother’s fix-hungry friends. Not even the police fancy going out. The gate creaked, like in a cheap horror film. From the nearby park I could hear the crows flapping and making noises as they huddled in the branches; now and then they woke up and filled the air with startled cawing. The only unknown element was the outpatients’ clinic opposite the mortuary  if the porter felt like coming out for a smoke at the wrong moment I wouldn’t even get as far as Wityny.
I walked around the mortuary and stood under the little side window. There it was, within arm’s reach, about thirty centimetres above my head. I pushed hard and it sprang open with a loud clang that echoed audibly off the inside wall. Gymnastics has never been one of my favourite sports, so I had to make several jumps before I managed to grab hold of the edge of the sloping roof. It was all childishly easy, like in a bad thriller. Legs up, squeeze through the narrow gap, then an awkward one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn, and that was it  I was inside the mortuary. I undid the bolts on the double doors and gently set one of them ajar. The place looked dead. Granny was lying comfortably in her coffin, and in the dark I couldn’t see if she was looking at me or still had her eyes shut.
“There’s no time to explain,” I whispered. “We’ll talk in the car.”
She hung limply over my arm. I gave the door a good kick and it shot open noisily, then I ran to the car and sat her in the front seat. The town didn’t look particularly bothered, no thunderbolt fell from the sky, and no angel stood in our way, brandishing a fiery sword. I went back and shut the mortuary door and the gate. I’m still trying to imagine the look on Mr Białawka’s face when he came to work in the morning. Perhaps his immediate conclusion was that he should see about reducing his standard ration of alcohol?
And finally we were off - through the heedless town, past the housing blocks that regarded the whole event indifferently. For common sense, I was definitely on their side. Meanwhile, the family was sleeping the sleep of the just, never imagining that the day ahead would turn out utterly different from the way it had been planned.
“You’re not angry with me, are you? A touch of madness isn’t such a bad thing at any age, is it?” I said, trying to justify my action. She showed no particular desire to chat, but I was prepared for such an eventuality. Her head flopped to one side and leaned against the window, as if she were fast asleep and to hell with all my stupid remarks.
“What shall we listen to?” I said, not beaten yet. “We can have anything except Radio Maria, although…” I thought about it for a moment, “as a last resort we could give it a try. You never know what sort of relationship they may have with the Big Boss in the world beyond, so this could be your final encounter…”
I found the channel, and they were right in the middle of “Open-Ended Chat”. The only callers were staunch defenders of Polish culture, faith and tradition, old women who cried into their receivers as they deplored how wild the young people are nowadays and the poison pouring from the television screens. The presenter was clearly an old stager, skilfully moderating and leaving in the sphere of insinuation things that every decent Pole knew all too well anyway. Certain circles, certain classes, certain persons were getting alarmingly near, breathing their foul breath and moral corruption into our faces and smiling wantonly at the thought of the sweet blood of Christian kiddies. Tomasz Beksiński used to do broadcasts in a similar vein on “Trójka”.
“Sorry,” I said a few minutes later, as I switched off the radio. “My pagan nerves can’t stand it.”
I wasn’t afraid. Even if she woke up what could she possibly do to me? Surely she would have understood my motives better than I did myself, maybe a smile would even have flashed across her face, wrinkled as an apple in January. So we went on driving north, through Przytuły and Gąski, past the moraine mounds looming up in the darkness, as the headlights picked silent woods and bus stops out of the black night, and forlorn dogs beneath single neon lamps at farms. The cold shot right through me. I told her about the idea I’d failed to realise. I had found a competition in a newspaper for a family tree; they were offering big prizes, and the article said that family trees are very fashionable now, so every proper family should have one. I wanted to work on it with my cousin Paweł at Christmas, and Granny could remember all sorts of things that happened seventy years ago, although she had forgotten lots of other things, a hundred times more important and more recent. She had precise information on her great-great-grandparents, and that was the sort of solid stuff that really stood out in any competition. But now she had taken all those hard facts to the grave with her.
The cop leaped out of the bushes on the hill before Olecko, as nimble as a fawn. He was waving a fluorescent, kinky sort of toy. Of course, I didn’t have to stop, as he very well knew. A policeman in the woods in the middle of the night in the north of the country might just as well be a stray officer of the law as a cutthroat looking for mugs to waylay. It was one long, straight stretch down to Olecko, so if he did turn out to be just an ordinary cop, I’d have to go to the police station, and I was hoping to avoid that.
I calmly pulled right over on the verge, stopping at the edge of the slope. From the corner of my eye I noticed the shape of a car, half a tone darker than its surroundings, on the forest path. To approach from the right-hand side, the policeman would be forced to scramble through the bushes and along an incline, impairing the dignity of his uniform. I turned on the light above the front seats and rolled down the window. There was a smell of spruce forest.
He came up slowly and saluted, almost sticking his head inside the car. He had a pale, tired face, bags under his eyes and the bristly moustache of the typical tough cop. I could tell he had seasoned himself up with a couple of shots of high-strength alcohol.
“Good evening, Sir, your documents, driving licence, car registration please,” he recited the usual formula. He spent ages carefully examining my papers under a narrow shaft of light cast by a long torch.
“And where might we be going?”
“To Młynary, Captain, “ I answered truthfully. “But not so loud, please, my passenger’s asleep.”
“No need to over do it with that captain stuff, Sir. And what is the purpose of your journey to Młynary, if I may ask?”
“I’m taking Granny home.”

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones