There have already been plenty of books depicting the grim period of martial law in Poland, and there are sure to be many more similar publications, because the experiences of this era had key significance for people of all generations. It might seem hard to add anything new to the fictional image of those years, but books still keep appearing that portray events of the early 1980s in an interesting way. I would undoubtedly include Dorota Zańko’s novel, "Tales from a Photocopier", among them. The story begins in December 1981, just before martial law is introduced, the troops appear on the streets and the Solidarity activists are interned. Despite fear, lack of confidence and the constant threat of arrest a small group of opposition members in Krakow, mostly from student circles, try to carry on with their activities, printing leaflets, preparing information bulletins to counter the communist authorities’ lying propaganda, and helping the families of internees and those in hiding for fear of arrest. Zańko describes the fates of an entire group of characters of various ages, from a high-school student called Mariusz to a woman called Julia, who is already a grandmother, all of whom are involved in illegal activities. But the characters of Andrzej, a philosophy student, and his girlfriend Manya, a Polish studies student, play a leading role, and so does their difficult “love at the time of the plague”, which is put to the test when Andrzej has to hide and break off contact with Manya, who falls into the hands of the secret police and is faced with the dilemma of whether to save herself or Andrzej. Zańko successfully recreates the stifling atmosphere of the time, full of fear, despair and the ordinary daily problems of survival in a country plunged into crisis (it was a time when everything, even shoes, was on ration cards). At the same time, she gives us detailed psychological portraits of the “silent heroes” of those years, who risked a lot (even their lives, like the monk Paweł who is tortured to death by the secret police) as they tried to express their opposition to the regime.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Dorota Zańko is a translator and co-author of free-flow interviews with Father Józef Tischner and Archbishop Józef Życiński. She works for the editorial team at the Catholic Monthly Znak.
She kept still on the chair. The moon was hanging between the third and fourth bars. She was terribly hungry and wanted to go to the toilet. “Stork” went on writing something, as if she weren’t in the room. She didn’t know how long she’d been there by now. Maybe since yesterday.
She saw him put down his pen.
“Well?” He raised his head and gave her an inquiring look. “So what now? Can we reach an agreement? I’m sure you must want to get out of here by now, don’t you?” he said in a surprisingly warm tone.
She shifted on the chair and came to life.
“Yes, I do!” she said eagerly.
“Well of course. Let’s sort it out quickly. How long should I have to keep such a pretty girl, after all?” He smiled.
He leaned back and stretched his legs.
“So once again, let’s start from the beginning. Where did you meet?”
Manya dropped her gaze.
“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“I don’t recall.”
“You helped him, right?”
“I refuse to answer.”
“All right then,” he conceded. “You’ve read up The Little Conspirator, you’re a diligent pupil. You already know it all and you’re well prepared, eh? So you also know I have the right to keep you here for forty-eight hours, don’t you? Two days. But they don’t tell you the whole story there. Do you know what you’ll look like in two days’ time? You’ll be as grey as this wall, hungry and dirty, and you’ll stink. You’ll be fainting with tiredness. And you won’t feel like saving the world any more. So better tell me at once – you’ll be saving us both some time. And you’ll be able to go. Where is he?”
She didn’t answer.
He stood up and began pacing the room, then suddenly went out, leaving the door open. Shortly after he came back in and sat down at the desk. He was holding some photographs.
More pictures, she thought. “Stork” took each one in turn and slowly inspected them. Now and then he looked up and stared at Manya. He put the photos down on the desk, locked his fingers together and didn’t say a word. Then he got up heavily and went out again, closing the door.
Manya straightened up and looked around the room. From where she was sitting she tried to see what was in the photographs, but they were lying in a spot where the light from a lamp was reflected in them. For a while she listened hard, but it was quiet in the corridor. She stood up and quickly reached for them. When she saw the first one, her heard began to pound like mad. With shaking hands she leafed through them. There were five or six of them. They all showed the same thing – the battered body of a young woman. Following an accident or a beating. Probably a beating. She may have been alive, or maybe… She was lying on the floor in an unnatural position with an arm twisted, and her clothes were torn and stained.
Outside the wind sprang up and the rumble of an oncoming storm resounded. As it stopped, she heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor. She threw the photos on the desk and went straight back to the chair. “Stork” came in. She didn’t raise her head. She thrust her hands under her thighs, trying to stop her body from trembling, and stared at her own trousers. She could still see that face. The girl’s face. Her face. Not that girl’s, but her own. Herself. Herself in an hour, in two hours, in a week? How long would they keep her here? What were they going to do to her? It’s not true they don’t beat people during questioning!
If I don’t tell them, I’ll look like her. So I’ll tell them. I can’t stand pain. I don’t want to die. What for? For an empty tin of fish?
A flash of lightning lit up the tiny window, then a thunderbolt struck somewhere nearby, making her jump in the chair.
I’ll tell them. 8b Szwedzka Street, she repeated Andrzej’s address to herself.
Because what’s the harm in giving them that address? He’s sure to have stopped living there, so it’s of no use to these thugs. And they’ll let me go. Yes!
No. No they won’t. In the manual, The Citizen and the Security Services, I think it was called, they write that you shouldn’t say anything during interrogation, and maybe they’ll let you go. Because a person who doesn’t say anything is useless.
It’s not true. He’s promised to let me go if I tell him, hasn’t he? So I’ll tell him. He’s not actually living there. He said then he’d be moving out in a week. So I can tell them.
But what if he went back?
He can’t have – why should he go back to the same place? He’s careful, he knows about these things. Various people are sure to be helping him. He’s not alone.
Sure, he’s not alone. That girl…
Well, so what about the girl? Maybe he’s working with her, maybe she’s actually helping him?
Working with her, yeah, right. He was laughing in response to her! He never laughs like that in my direction. She’s even quite pretty. It’s not such a bad occupation, that hiding. He goes out and about, travels around the city, meets up with girls. So he can get in touch with whomever he likes. Meaning he doesn’t want to get in touch with me. If he wanted to, he’d have found a hundred ways to see me.
No, maybe not, that’s not true, after all, I don’t know a thing.
Right. It’s over now. That’s obvious. And anyway… It doesn’t matter a bit what I say here. Who am I? No one. Can the entire opposition really come crashing down because of a single bit of evidence from some Manya girl? I can give them that address. It’s just an address. On top of which it’s out of date, because he doesn’t live there any more.
But what if he does?
Then he’ll escape from them! He’s not going to let himself get caught like I did! Of course! He’ll escape. Or hide.
Oh yes! it suddenly hit her. He’ll hide. Yes, obviously he’ll hide. After all, that day he had shown her that small door. Right behind the door of his room, a little door to the attic, and a hiding place in the attic – the homeowner had got it ready just in case.
She sat up in the chair, feeling pleased. How come she hadn’t thought of that at once? She took a look at the desk, at the photos. Then at that one photo, with Andrzej in it, which “Stork” had showed her at the beginning – it was still lying where he’d tossed it. She bent forward and curled up. She rested her elbows on her knees and hid her face in her hands.
Forgive me, she thought in despair.
Outside the rain was streaming down and flashes of lightning kept illuminating the room, one after another.
That’s how much she’s worth. She’s always known it. Right then as she swore to him in her mind that she would never, ever, come hell or high water – she already knew then. Now she’s only going to do what she’s always known she would. She won’t hold out. All that stuff earlier on was just self-delusion. All those newsletters, leaflets, photocopiers, that whole game. That was her way of buying herself a quiet conscience, she was calming her fears of the day she knew would eventually come anyway. She was buying up a stockpile of guilt, trying to beguile fate. She was totting up good deeds to accumulate a few credits before she would … betray.
She had always feared it. She was afraid of betrayal, and that one day she’d be afraid. But at the time she didn’t know what it meant.
She closed her eyes, and a mental image appeared to her. Right now he’s sitting in that room, eating supper and reading. In one hand he’s got a slice of bread, and with the other he’s holding down some pages in a book. The small scar on his right cheek is a bit tight. Andrzej puts down his sandwich and stirs his tea. He takes out the spoon and puts it to the edge of the glass, first on one side, then on the other, to drain off the last few drops.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones