Playing Many Drums

Olga Tokarczuk
Playing Many Drums
  • Ruta
    Wałbrzych 2001
    124 x 201
    344 pages 
    ISBN 83-912865-9-2

Playing Many Drums is a collection of beautifully told stories. And the following quote from Scottish Month testifies to the fact that Olga Tokarczuk, like no other author, is able to write about matters of the highest importance: "We grow like nightshade, and we blossom but once a year, on Midsummer's Eve. Our seeds ride upon rivers out into the world. We appear only occasionally, at the time of wars, uprisings and historic disasters. We change our language each morning as we do our clothes. We are mongrels, have houses on wheels, and our passports are virtually illegible. Oh, but we don't have a problem with the Cyrillic alphabet. Even our pope is mobile - he travels hither and thither, a restless guy in white. We will never grow up; we always reach for dessert before we have had the main course. We really are an odd lot - we turn up and then disappear. Maybe it's because of the climate or the endless plains. Our small plant civilisation leaves infantile traces behind it, to the distress of all future archaeologists: drums, broken tin soldiers, single words which are far too difficult to pronounce". The stories which make up the volume Playing Many Drums differ greatly from each other, not only in terms of their subject, but also in their form. Although some are located very precisely in time and place, at the same time they remain outside this time and place. The hero of the story Island, who has been witness to a miracle, asks the author "to create fiction from his story." The latter is inscribed in literature, is its basic prerequisite. In "Scottish Month", the author notes: "It astonished me to discover that writing about oneself creates someone else. That it is impossible to be observer and observed, the one who understands and is understood, at the same time. This undoubtedly explains why there is untruth in every memoir and fantasy in every autobiography". Olga Tokarczuk uses words to conjure up worlds which contain a large dose of intrinsic truth. As in the title story, she is always extracting new characters from herself - "like a rabbit from a hat"She does not invent them; does not dissimulate. She knows at least this much: in order to become someone else one has to negate oneself, "leave the house as A. and return to another house as B.".Olga Tokarczuk is a master at this and can be as convincing as her heroine in the story Playing Many Drums. In an unfamiliar city, this woman succeeds in entrancing people unknown to her, from an unknown culture, with the story of a man who was killed in battle and who, before dying, bade that his skin be made into a drum with whose sound the others should rouse themselves to battle. Literature is also such a drum, one which calls for the hand of an experienced drummer.

Krzysztof Maslon

Professor Andrews represented one of the very important, very profound schools of psychology that had a real future ahead of it. Like almost all such schools, it had grown out of psychoanalysis, but had broken away from its roots and now practiced according to its own methods. It had its own history, its own phenomenology, its own dream imagery, and its own theories on raising children. Professor Andrews was at this moment flying to Poland with a bag full of books and a suitcase full of warm clothes - he had been told that Poland in December is exceptionally cold and unpleasant. Everything was going smoothly: airplanes took off, people were talking to each other in different languages, heavy December clouds hung in the sky, ready to send winter's communion to earth, millions of white flakes of snow, each one unique. An hour earlier he had looked himself in the mirrors at Heathrow and it had seemed to him that he looked like a travelling salesman - he remembered them from his childhood, they would go door to door selling Bibles. No matter - the school of psychology he represented warranted this kind of sales trip. Poland was a country of intelligent people. He just had to plant the seed and he would be home in a week. He would leave them the books - after all, they read English - and then they would be able to consult the authority of the Founder himself. Sipping his drink of fine Polish vodka the stewardess brought him, he remembered the dream he'd had the night before his trip (according to the school of psychology he represented, dreams were the litmus test of reality). He had dreamed of a crow, and in the dream he had played with the big black bird. One could say - yes, he had the courage to admit it to himself - that he had petted the bird, like a little puppy. In his school's symbolical system, the crow represented change, something new and good. He ordered another drink. The airport in Warsaw was surprisingly small and draughty. He congratulated himself on having brought his cap with the ear flaps, a souvenir from his trips to Asia. He caught sight of his Beatrice immediately. Small and pretty, she was standing at the exit holding up a card with his name on it. They got into a tiny, beat-up car and she told him the plan for the coming week while nervously driving him around the sad, sprawling space of the city. Today was Saturday, a free day on the schedule. They would have dinner together and he could rest. Tomorrow was Sunday - a meeting at the university with students. (Yes, she said suddenly, it's a little nerve-wracking right here. He looked out the window but didn't notice anything in particular). Then a lecture to a psychology journal, then dinner. On Monday, if he wanted, a tour of the city. On Tuesday he had a meeting with psychiatrists at some institute; he was in no state of mind to remember the specific names of these places. On Wednesday they would drive to the university in Cracow. Professor Andrews' school of psychology enjoyed great respect there. On Thursday, Auschwitz - he had requested that himself. To be in Poland and not go to Auschwitz... Then on Thursday evening they would return to Warsaw. On Friday and Saturday there were all-day workshops for practical psychologists. On Sunday, the flight home. Only then did he realize he didn't have his suitcase with the books. They hurried back to the airport, but the bag had disappeared. The girl - her name was Gosha - went somewhere and didn't come back for half an hour. She returned without the bag. Perhaps it had been sent back to London. No problem, she said. She would come back tomorrow, it would probably turn up. Looking out the car window, he didn't hear her agitated chatter. He thought about the other things in the suitcase -underwear, clean shirts, books, xeroxes of articles. They had a pleasant dinner with her boyfriend. His face was covered by a thick beard and glasses. He didn't speak English, which made him seem somewhat gloomy to the Professor. Professor Andrews ate a red soup made of beets with little dumplings in it and realized that this was the famous borscht his grandfather had told him about. His grandfather had been born in Łódź. The girl corrected him with a smile, he repeated after her like a child: "barsh-ch," "Woo-dzh." His tongue was helpless against these words. He was exhausted by the time they finally took him to a residential area crowded with tall apartment buildings. They took the elevator to the top floor of one of them and the girl showed him the apartment. It was a small bachelor flat with a tiny kitchen wedged in between the main room and the bathroom. The corridor was so small that the three of them couldn't fit there all together. The two Poles made loud arrangements for the next day, the girl promised to bring him his suitcase. The boyfriend spoke with someone on the phone in a secretive whisper, and finally they left. Exhausted by the borscht and the alcohol, he threw himself on the bed and fell asleep. He slept restlessly. He was thirsty but didn't have the energy to get up. At some point late in the night he heard a commotion in the stairwell, slamming doors, footsteps. Or maybe he just imagined it. He woke up and realized with dismay that it was already eleven o'clock. He looked at his rumpled clothes in distaste. He took a shower in the tiny, mildewed bathroom and then had to put his dirty underwear back on. Looking through the cupboard for some coffee, he finally found some in an old jelly jar. There wasn't a coffee maker, so he boiled water and made it in a mug. It was stale and tasted like it was brewed from tree bark. The telephone was silent - Gosha must be bringing his suitcase. Holding his cup of coffee, he looked at the books on the shelves, all in Polish, with dirty covers, and harsh on the eye. Gosha didn't call. Time passed slowly in the thick, overheated air. The Professor walked to the window and looked out at the skyline, marked by the even blocks of buildings. They were all the same color, gray, like the winter sky. Even the snow seemed gray. The sun shone unconvincingly. There was a tank on the street.

Translated by Kim Jastremski