Lullaby for a Hanged Man is a short tale about friendship and insanity. The plot of this atmospheric miniature clearly has autobiographical foundations. For ten years, until June 2007 Klimko-Dobrzaniecki lived in Reykjavik, where at first he studied Icelandic philology, then worked within various professions, for the longest time as a nurse in a home for old and mentally handicapped people. He featured some of these experiences in one of the stories included in his double novella Rosa’s House – Krysuvik which was published last year.
The events described in Lullaby for a Hanged Man are a sort of supplement to the earlier story, broadening the range of issues and the cast list. This book includes characters whom we know from Krysuvik – the autobiographical narrator, his wife Agnieszka, Boro the eccentric Croat, and the main character, Szymon the musician. Lullaby… is a tribute to this friend, who took his own life at an early age. This story is an attempt to comprehend and explain his unusual personality, equally possessed by art and madness. Questions about the reasons for his friend’s suicide are extremely subtly formulated here. The narrator does not emphasise the seemingly obvious link between illness and this desperate act. In the world of this mostly realistic tale, deeply rooted in reality, the border between so-called normality and insanity is not so much erased as extremely debatable. Like all the characters in Lullaby for a Hanged Man, Szymon was unique, and at the same time ordinary, “one of us”. The reason why he killed himself must remain a mystery.
- Dariusz Nowacki
At the point where the tangible world ends, the one you can see from a ship or a car, the world that is part of related, but not yet fully recorded history, I am sitting. It is August. An August like any other. It seems similar to the one before, because the ocean smells the same. High tide, low tide, waves, seagulls, wind, rusty container ships on the horizon, the beach and its black volcanic sand, an island, a notice saying at what hours the stone mound and the scrap of grass become a greater whole. Everything seems as before, as if there’s nothing missing. Nature is keeping to its eternal rhythm. Sunrise and sunset. Day and night. I breathe, I live, I am, I love, I see. But in this picture of August there’s a figure in blue shorts missing. A guy with a checked shirt rolled up and tied in a casual knot above his navel. The scene is missing a man carrying on his shoulders three sculpted hands welded to long threaded metal rods. He was moving through the grey water towards the shore. The ocean was rising, swelling and filling the crescent shape between the end of the peninsula and the shores of a temporary island. Only now can I see with full clarity that it’s all an illusion, because every time there’s an element missing, like a jigsaw puzzle gradually becoming incomplete. Inimitability; phrases, words, images, notes written on a stave, a way of smoking a cigarette, a chipped beer mug. Inimitability lives, changes into memory, and is passed from generation to generation, distorted, magnified or diminished. Things passed on by word of mouth, my personal dilemma with the Bible… I decided not to wait two hundred years. Maybe the issue with God really did have to remain idle. I have an irresistible need to record the story of a certain friendship, a small snatch of life. Szymon has gone. He is not in the city now. You cannot meet him in the street. That’s what I miss most…
A trail left in the clouds, until the moment it disperses or another aeroplane bisects it. A few words spoken in the bus on the route to the centre, a journey by train. We did not meet on the bus, or on a plane or a train. There were no noises, no engine whirring, no wheels rumbling, no rocking or turbulence. The person who introduced us was called Boro, a “released” lunatic who still lived on the ward. Now and then he lost his mind, most often in summer, when everything went green. He had a whole set of pills for greenery. The doctors could see he was all right now and didn’t have to be locked up, he just had to take his medicine. Once I thought he was going to grow leaves in my car – any minute now he’d go green. I could see he was sweating, then he reached for the pills and started shouting coming, coming, coming. He shouted that he was turning into a field of moss, then into a great big lawn. I don’t really know, but maybe the company of insane people has allowed me to retain normality… Maybe the fact that I had a lawn in my car, a field of moss, a great big cucumber or a water melon protected me from becoming Napoleon or Saint Teresa.
Boro could go on living at the lunatic asylum, although the doctors were putting pressure on him to move out. He was no longer being given food. I used to come and fetch him and take him to Ikea, where they sold the cheapest hot dogs in town. We’d both stuff ourselves with them and drink Fanta. One day he said there was a Pole on the ward, a violinist. He added a few fucks, because he loved swearing in English – he said only when you throw in a few swearwords do you feel alive, and he did it chronically.
In the local psychiatrists’ jargon, Szymon was a rabbit out of a hat. A rabbit was a patient who appeared for a while and then disappeared, then appeared again, and so on. Patched up and back to life – hit a depression, back on the ward. Ward, life, life, ward. A rabbit… I told Boro to have a word with the nurse, he’d talk to Szymon and the doctor – maybe we could nip out to Ikea for hot dogs together. And one day Boro, that enormous figure, that human oak tree with no teeth, cast his shadow over a slender figure in wire-rimmed glasses. A shaft of light from the headlamps bounced off his silver frames, and in an instant Boro was like a Slavonic oak struck by lightning, the sort of tree the locals gather round to abandon themselves to magical dancing. The figure in the silver specs walked around him, craning his neck unnaturally to look in the eye of this bit of Croatia, this bit of the mythical forest, this tree, oak and lunatic. Suddenly the senior registrar switched off the ignition and the headlamps went out. Szymon stopped in the shadow of Boro and looked towards the red Volvo. The doctor got out of the car and asked, “Going to Ikea, right? for hot dogs, isn’t it?” They nodded in agreement and came over to me.
The man who looked like Korczak, Maksymilian Kolbe and Ghandi, hidden behind glasses that in good weather could ignite a corn field or a large barn, introduced himself. “I am Szymon Kuran ”. “Very nice to meet you”, I replied. “No, nice to meet you”, he responded, “you just think it’s nice to meet me”. Yes, maybe he was right, maybe it really was only nice for him, and I just thought it was nice for me, as a learned response. I think it’s called being well brought up, a mixture of prohibitions and climatic factors. Szymon was eating a hot dog, I wanted to ask him a question, but Boro pitched in. “So what about the stones?” he lisped. “It’s simple,” I replied. “You have to be like hens or ostriches – they haven’t got any teeth either, and for their digestive processes to work properly they swallow little pebbles that mince up their food like teeth. Surprised by the mental shortcut and the way we picked up this theme in the middle, without making any sense, Szymon listened to my short lecture on gastrology, put his hot dog wrapper down on the table and started laughing quietly, though Boro and I knew it was the continuation of a conversation we hadn’t finished earlier that month about buying false teeth or a small bag of pebbles. Seeing his reaction, Boro finished his sentence the usual way – curtly and in English. “Fuck you”, he said, and polished off his hot dog, pointedly stuffing the big end into his mouth.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones