Without a doubt, such uncompromising, crazy debuts as Ignacy Karpowicz’s novel are a rare occurrence. The first part of the book doesn’t herald any surprises or special attractions. The author describes one day from the life of Maciek, a Polish literature student from the provincial city of Białystok. It is Monday, and Maciek hates Mondays – he also hates his poorly paid job, his family, relatives, his lousy sex with his fiancée whom he doesn’t love, contemporary Poland, his measly existence without any hope for success, and, ultimately, also himself. So yet another novel about the frustrations of a young Pole who has failed to gain admission to the consumerist paradise? Well, no, as roughly halfway through the narrative Karpowicz abandons realism and starts dazzling the reader with a genuine orgy of imagination. The main character ‘disengages’ himself from reality and is thrown into a swirl of hallucinations, mirages and grotesque situations as he tries to cope with individual and collective fears. Karpowicz creates a fantastic world in which Maciek walks through Białystok accompanied by the figures of Józef Piłsudski and father Jerzy Popiełuszko who have come to life and stepped off their pedestals, and becomes embroiled in a mafia war and a fight between the ‘catho-Poles’ and the euroenthusiasts. The novel closes with a Witkacy-like scene of a street battle between the ‘genuine’ Poles and the democrats. Uncool is a bold, taboo-breaking, and horribly funny book. ‘Horribly’ is the right word to use here, because Karpowicz is a master of black humour.
- Robert Ostaszewski
That day I woke up early. Despite the autumnal atmosphere the sun was shining, casting transparent rays of light on the checked quilt hand-sewn by my granny. Thanks to the efforts of my closest female relatives, there was no dust floating in the air.
First I thought about my parents, especially my father, who was sure to have been getting ready to go out for at least an hour now, while playing with our dog by the way. My father works for a city cleaning firm. Credit for the cleanliness of our city is due to quiet, mild-mannered people like him, who love animals and have a joyful approach to life.
For a while I wondered where my unusually good mood had come from. But of course, it’s obvious! Today’s Monday.
After a Sunday full of sweet idleness and lunch with our extended family, after a walk with my girlfriend along the romantic lanes squeezed in between some historic, prefab concrete tower blocks (she did let me kiss her!), I’m finally going to The Podlasie News, where – as you know – I’m working.
I’ve not yet had the chance to introduce the people who are teaching me how to be a good citizen. I know that their innate modesty bids me give some thought to what I write, but I hope my weary hand will hesitate and not cross out the paragraphs devoted to them.
First and foremost there’s the Chief, who is our guardian angel. His office door is always open at any time of day or night. Although his brow is lined with fine wrinkles, he retains in his heart a youthful openness to the world and an enthusiasm for his work. We often hear his ringing laughter – it means he’s talking to his dear spouse, who is amusing him with an account of one of the charity balls.
I cannot fail to mention Stanisława, the lady who sits almost directly opposite my desk. Always very busy, she looks a little lost amid the sea of information that pours into the newspaper office every day, but she unerringly fishes out the most crucial issues. She deserves the credit for the excellent interviews published on our pages.
Zosia is the lady who takes care of our image. She is always impeccably coiffed, in a jacket that hugs her perfect figure. She has the statuesque quality of an Egyptian sculpture and intelligence worthy of a statesman, or rather – ha, ha, ha – a stateswoman.
Mr Sławek knows all about sport – he used to be a superb athlete (he was top of the county shot-put league in 1973), and to this day he has an alluringly burly figure and a sober expression.
At the thought of these people, I happily throw off the quilt and make tracks for the bathroom, which may very possibly be occupied by my younger brother. He’s a noxious brat, but for all that he’s a good guy. I behaved inappropriately at his age too, so I’m not worried. I know his teachers will make sure he grows up to be human.
I simply have a lot of luck.
To my list of “haves” I can add: an age of 24, a doctorate on the go, a girlfriend Agnieszka (relationship breakdown also on the go), three track suits, a pair of fluorescent trainers and some black leather Filas, and one day just like another. On top of that I have a job that if I think about it, I start to think, and even feel sure – although I’m actually quite an unsure sort of person – that I prefer not to think about it. And I have a room that’s sort of my own, but I live with my parents (supposedly), my brothers (in principle), my granny, the dog and the fish tank, and I don’t know what to think about them either, because I don’t know how we all fit into sixty metres. The fact that they’re square metres is not much consolation.
And I have a lack of prospects that’s as secure as a bank deposit, reliably interest-bearing and probably gaining interest by the year. And I have a few mates whom I like, and more than a few whom I don’t. I’d gladly beat them up, but I’m afraid if it came to that, it’d be them that beat me up, not the other way around.
And I have my pathways between the blocks to avoid the gangs of football fans and yobs who have their pathways too, some paved in amphetamines, some asphalt.
And I have a model-making hobby. “Those old knickknacks of yours didn’t take up much space!” yelled my father. Here I should use the past tense: I had a hobby, rather a modest and shrinking one. I used to make models, first it was 1:32 scale big bombers, Flying Fortresses, their Soviet bootlegs, i.e. Tupolev Tu-4s, and Jerry Junkers Ju-290s, all enormous, fabulous, especially after fixing them to the ceiling (on fishing line). “Wicked!” squawks my moronic brother at the sight of our poodle, who is running about the flat with the small Fiat keys in his jaws. And has my furious father running about after him. And my mother would run about after him.
Only Granny just sits there oblivious to it all.
The electrical activity in her cerebral hemispheres ceased to function the moment she saw General Jaruzelski in a suit. That was when she stopped believing in the power of reason.
“He was so handsome in his uniform, and now he looks like a down-and-out, And he’s even gone bald.” Those were more or less the last meaningful words she ever spoke.
After that she just told lies, but lying is not proof of healthy brain function. That’s why, despite the lack of certainty instilled in me along with respect for the elderly, I’m sure that if you did a scan of Granny’s bonce you’d get a lovely straight line running nowhere. That line’s not medical, it’s mathematical.
When Granny moved in, I had to give up the 1:32 scale strategic bombers. The place was getting too crowded. A lot of things suffered attrition then, some were destroyed (the bombers were shot down by broom-powered anti-aircraft fire), while others were in some way – I don’t know how – rendered null and void.
I’d started making a 1:72 scale single-engine fighter plane. “Anetka!” I hear – it’s Granny telling one of her lies.
And now it’s the complete pits. My brother-the-moron got a fish tank for his birthday. There’s a little fish living in it. The fish is a genetically mutated fringetail with a smile like Marilyn Monroe. It doesn’t make any wishes come true or suck you off, it just takes up space. And consumes electricity. “Ricky,” my mother would yell, “don’t chase the dog or it’ll get tired out!” I started making shitty little 1:144 scale models. Itsy little bits and pieces, really fine work. I’m sure my eyesight went as a result. I’m sure my hands shake suspiciously often, as if I’d drunk a lot. Which is no surprise, it can’t be, because I do drink a bit, or at least I try to.
A bigger and bigger scale, smaller and smaller models, harder and harder to create the illusion of shrinking reality, or at least accuracy, broadly speaking, for the whole plastic model.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones