Finis Silesiae

Henryk Waniek
Finis Silesiae
  • Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie
    Wrocław 2003
    160 x 230
    360 pages
    ISBN 83-7023-999-4

We know how this dense, wide-ranging novel came into being: in 1997 Henryk Waniek came upon an old German photograph album featuring all the most fascinating corners of Silesia. What was special about the album was that although it contained pictures taken in 1936-1939, its content was free of any sort of fascist propaganda. In it the pure, undefiled beauty of the landscape was preserved, the charm of the Silesian cities and countryside. Inspired by this find, Waniek thought up lots of different stories based on these enchanting photographs. As his main theme he invented a life story for the photographer and his fiancée, told the tale of their unfulfilled romance, and added all sorts of situations and events experienced by the people around them, their parents, relatives and friends. The action mainly takes place in the years 1937-1945 in the then German cities of Gliwice and Bytom. In describing the fate of his heroes, Paul Scholz and Brigitte Kopietz, Waniek takes the opportunity to reconstruct the history of the German lower middle class (Paul’s circle) and the solid middle class (Brigitte’s family) in Upper Silesia; he recreates the final phase of its social and moral history, from the outbreak of the First World War to the post-Second World War evacuations. Waniek’s Finis Silesiae is an attempt to look at Silesia through German eyes, to reconstruct a world of which few mementoes are left – such as this album extolling the beauty of the Silesian landscape.

- Dariusz Nowacki

”Beautiful landscapes. But a bit other-worldly. From a different reality.”
Is that all? Another planet. Reality. They’re true images of the existing world, after all. Part of a great big fresco that will one day form into a vast whole. Who knows? The master painter was being restrained. No grimaces. Intriguing silence. Extraordinary, considering how loquacious he was.
He became pensive. Maybe he saw it all in the light of hopeless despair? Grey photographs on the table. A bottle that was almost empty now. A lack of mutual understanding. No theatre, entertainment or madness. How old could he be? Stock still, staring numbly, sealed for ever in silence. In a second he had become twice as old. And he went on looking like that for several lifeless minutes. But, older or younger, a closed, indifferent mouth was not his style. He cleared his throat a few times to find the right pitch. Though maybe he was putting it on. Just another role. Another character.
”In the early years of my career as an artist, before the war…”
A tired, creaking voice from twenty years ago recalled the days when he painted nothing but landscapes. Nothing else mattered to him. Oh, if only they had met then!
”I thought it would stay like that for ever and I’d live for landscapes for the rest of my life. Transform them into paintings. And in the end I’d find a universe landscape. A huge painting of the universe. The landscape to end all landscapes. That’s what I thought. But it wasn’t to be. Suddenly the scenery went up in flames. The theatre was on fire and the world was on its head. The war changed everything out of all recognition. People. Objects. Ideals. Dreams. Me myself. As an artist there was only one thing I could do. I gave up daubing landscapes. Enough! Never again. And I can no longer be bothered with them.”
Paul understood. There was nothing to talk about. The landscape had died. It had been shot through the heart on one of the fronts in the awful war. The old gentleman had exhausted the theme.
A moment earlier the comical, clownish, carefree artist had sunk into a deep lament. He didn’t want to look at the pictures, as if they reminded him, and not Peter, of something painful. He lit a cigarette. How many was that now? Despite the open window the air was grey with smoke. He asked for his glass to be filled. But this time he didn’t empty it in one go, as he had earlier. He hardly wetted his lips. He became pensive again. Was he searching through the wardrobe of his own incarnations? The costumes of his moods. Maybe this one would do?
”After the deluge I didn’t need landscape painting any more. Nor did other people. They’d dropped it. Nowadays in Poland the world ‘landscape’ is even used with a note of disdain. Why? Because it’s a genre that demands a philosophical approach. But the world doesn’t need philosophy any more either. Does it deserve it anyway? Philosophy ended with Friedrich Nietzsche. Since then intellectual effort has been in defiance of historical fate. It’s the irretrievable past. In Poland too. Here above all. Poland is a young country, blind to everything that isn’t modern. Here people don’t so much think as flounder in the imagination. They value dreams. Reality not a bit.”
The master’s gloom was gradually receding. He took a more lively swig at his vodka, crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and suddenly announced that he was giving up smoking. Quite so! A strong, real man knows when to stop. He stood up abruptly. He threw himself at an invisible opponent. He raised his hand in a gesture capable of silencing a vast crowd of witnesses. A lock of hair fell across his brow again, and rested neatly between his eyes. He fixed a hypnotic stare on a stuffed cat. In a voice he hadn’t tried out before he opened a political rally. He was a powerful man. The caricature of an orator on the platform. A charismatic leader. Mussolini? Goering? Hitler? At least twenty years younger than the artist.
”Landscapes! Scenery! It used to be painted in Poland. But it’s over now, ladies and gentlemen! Nowadays, when I look at Mr Scholz’s splendid photograms, I see confirmation of the truth, that the Germans had a great, wonderful feeling for landscape. They are, and will always be its masters. It makes me all the sadder that in Poland it isn’t valued in the slightest. Here it is regarded as kitsch. But it’s the basis of German superiority. It’s just what they ought to learn from them. Everyone. Not just Poland, but the entire world.”
The parody of German superiority, as demonstrated by the artist-philosopher-writer, was not a great hit with Paul. Sending up the sort of slogans his country was full of might have been funny, but it was rather offensive. He was ignoring the fact that the Germans weren’t the only ones who suffered from it. Here too, in all the newspapers, books, films and radio, and even in everyday conversations, the national megalomania was rampant everywhere, enough to make your head ache. It made you want to stick it under your pillow to stop you seeing, hearing or feeling anything. To escape somewhere. But where? Into being funny? Into cabaret and laughter? To Poland, the land of boozy jokers?
A suggestion was made that there’s a connection between politics and love of the landscape. That’s not fair. Just look at his photographs. The mountains are a refuge. The landscape is an escape. You can breathe out there. Be detached. But the runaway jester couldn’t see a thing. He wasn’t really looking. He was just animated, for an insultingly brief moment, by the picture of a girl. A future German nurse, in photographs taken by a member of diversified, German society. The Polish painter hadn’t noticed a thing. The decline of art, the devilish nature of women, the wane of philosophy – well, of course he had. Some theories, abstractions, and jokes, too. But he kept pushing aside the real world with fun and games, glass after glass.
Paul was still smiling. Not at all cheerfully. Out of polite resignation, nothing more. As they were no longer the object of serious conversation, he gathered up the photographs. He left them for Peter, who might look at them some time. There wasn’t the right atmosphere now. It was time for clowning. The artist was satirising a speech at a political rally.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones