Bieńkowski is one of the most perceptive observers of the tangled fortunes of contemporary Poles. In his first book, It is, he described a group of young people reaching maturity during the period of martial law (the early 1980s). In Nothing, using a trick from the classic model of the realist novel, he portrays the socio-economic changes that took place in Poland in the 1990s and at the start of the new century. This novel has several plots and is made up of monologues by several individuals, each of whom acts as a narrator. Bieńkowski has created a set of characters who represent various generations, social circles and attitudes. They include the employees of a French fast food chain called Positive, but also some musicians and a poet from the Warsaw cultural clique. The main plot tells the story of how Positive built up its empire in Poland. Bieńkowski portrays capitalism with an inhuman face, primarily focusing attention on the fortunes of people who are turned into passive cogs in the corporate machine, which is aimed exclusively at increasing profits. However, Nothing is not only and exclusively an indictment of the activities of big business. It also illustrates the extent to which the transition that Polish society has been experiencing since 1989 distorts people, gradually forcing them to abandon their dreams and ideals. As a result, all they have left is a big NOTHING, an inner void, and they end up feeling tired of themselves, others and the world.
A few words to start with. This story is set in a country right in the middle of the Great European Lowland, a broad plain stretching from Paris to the Urals. One after another, great armies have marched across this plain, which is flat as a table. Troops have been able to move about there without encountering any major natural obstacles, and have marched this way, then that, leaving smouldering ruins and corpses behind them. The action of our story takes place almost fifty years since the last particularly intensive passages of troops across the plain. The great armies went east, then west, leaving devastation that even this land, that was used to ruin, had not seen for many hundreds of years. Although that wasn’t very long ago, the memory of these events is becoming increasingly blurred. It’s impossible to keep on struggling with the idea that life on the plain can never be stable and safe. So once we start to follow the ups and downs of our heroes, we shall see that they are completely absorbed by petty desires and mundane passions, and that they disregard the question: “Which direction will they come from this time?” Let’s also remember the exact moment when we start to spy on them. Great changes have been taking place all around them. It even looks as if the country they live in will finally be able to live its own way, and this has come to pass without them having to put on uniforms or load guns. This time history has proved extremely kind. We are in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, an average-sized city situated more or less mid-way along the road from Paris to Moscow. In a moment we’re going to meet two men who don’t know anything about each other yet. We see a twenty-year-old youth with thick, auburn hair. His face has sharp features, high cheekbones and a prominent nose, and he is almost 1.75 metres tall. But with his entire body, his simple, energetic figure and decisive movements, he gives the impression of being far taller. That’s just how more and more people are coming to regard him, and as everyone knows, tall people get on better in life. The second man has just reached the age of thirty. He is dark-haired with a high forehead. Every trace of grey shows up clearly in his black hair, as he was shocked to notice over a year ago while shaving one morning. At that point he decided it was high time for something in his life to change. He grew a beard, and now he inspects it furtively each morning, anxiously looking for signs of advancing grey. He won’t admit to himself how much this first sign of old age has shaken him, or how much it has influenced the decisions he has taken recently. Standards - Yes, definitely a forty-one. - Gosh, Euzebek, you’re a quick learner – a few more days and you won’t have any problems at all – you’ll just glance at the foot and know the size. - Yes, you can try it on, but don’t stand on the asphalt, man, there’s some cardboard here for that. - Every last one of them fails to realise that the next one to come along is going to take a careful look at a shoe from every angle to check it hasn’t been used, or he’ll suspect some catch and immediately start plotting how much to beat the price down by, putting pressure on me to reduce it. Well, fuck knows, I might reduce it… But they’d like to knock off a hundred zlotys… They just don’t realise Euzebek has to count every last penny. Mareczek is a better dealer – he never takes more than ten zlotys off a pair and doesn’t give a damn about my price cuts. -That’s on your account now, he says, spreading his hands and sticking out that belly of his, and Euzebek soon starts wondering if it would pay not to make any reductions, not to sell anything and have no income at all, or to reduce prices and have less, but always a little. - Well, man, I can’t, you see, what will I get out of it if I come down two hundred, how will I make any profit? - Everyone’s trying it on. - Well, that’s life, that’s my final offer… - Ah, go fuck yourself. You’ll be back here, ’cos you’ll see there are no cheaper or nicer ones in the whole stadium. And this is where fat Mareczek, you have to give him credit, managed to turn himself around… He found a wholesaler – first-rate, and got such a good deal that I bet no one in the whole stadium has better prices. And he keeps fucking well secret– he goes there himself and packs his tiny Fiat full… He doesn’t want anyone to swipe his contact from under his nose, and Euzebek understands that… But just think, Euzebek, it’s Mareczek who –why deny it? - liked you, trusted and employed you… Euzebek knows how to talk to people… and above all he knows which people to talk to… Because everyone from our little town has to stick together, or else this shitty Warsaw will swallow us all… And as soon as we realised we had to get out of that hole, Mareczek did the right thing straightaway, so did Jerzyk, and the boys from the boarding house, and somehow or other they all got it together. ’Cos at school Euzebek always hung around with the older boys… ! Before he was at all fat, Mareczek, the lucky bastard, always greeted Euzebek with a high-five and all that… they used to have a smoke together in the crapper, and anyway Mareczek was in the final year then, while Euzebek had only just started there… They were out of touch for a couple of years, until they met by total chance outside the shop on the estate; Mareczek had changed, no doubt, but he recognised Euzebek immediately. One thing led to another, and Euzebek got a pretty good job… business is moving – how could it fail to with Euzebek running it? And today we’ll finally settle accounts with the fat guy, ’cos the fat guy says payday’s once every two weeks.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones