The main character in Zbigniew Kruszyński’s latest novel is a past-master at using language to describe the world. When the reign of communism is in its decline in Poland he makes himself useful to the secret police, for whom in exchange for a passport and certain advantages that will make life easier he reports on his meetings with people. He starts his career as a collaborator in quite a cynical way, but in time he gets more deeply involved in working for the opposition and becomes a double agent of unclear identity. During martial law he goes away to Switzerland, where he organizes fund raising for the underground wing of Solidarity. He returns to Poland as a hero of the opposition and goes into hiding. Fed up with the prolonged conspiracy, he denounces another underground activist in hiding to the security service, himself falls victim to denunciation, is arrested and spends several years in prison. After the changes of 1989 he does not try for a high position, but simply leaves for Stockholm as a diplomat. Apart from that he remains an outsider.
The sharp end of the novel does not actually spike and expose the main character, despite his cynicism and moral indifference, because it is impossible to define who he is: a traitor or a fighter for a just cause, because he is not the typical coward or traitor, but rather a narcissist and hedonist. If there is something off-putting about him, it is his smug self-satisfaction, or his tendency to exploit the women with whom he has affairs. In his affairs he prefers the “love triangle”, and has a similar arrangement in his relationship with the secret police and the opposition, and so in this book every commitment immediately seeks for itself an antithesis.
First and foremost the main character is a writer, in other words someone who records events. For him, the actual writing process involves a special, affected ritual. Moreover, Kruszyński stresses that the style is the man, i.e. his hero fulfils himself chiefly in language and in his ability to describe the world. But in his style we cannot fail to recognize Kruszyński’s own style. So is the author simply saying: “I could have been like this too if my life had developed differently”? Or maybe: “There is a particular cruelty and moral ambiguity in the very process of recording life”? Or more simply: “A record of events is always literature, in which it’s no use seeking the objective truth”?
“You have a gift for observation” – it all started from that remark.
I do have a gift for observation, and so let’s describe the setting sun, in detail. When it hides behind the beavertail tiles on the Jesuits’ roof, it continues to shine on the spire of the old Piarist college.
“You have a gift for observation, so please do some observing,” said the officer, putting down a passport, a dark-blue booklet, valid for all countries, said the stamp rather prematurely, because you would never go anywhere without a green card for crossing the border, a small piece of cardboard, which the officer was still holding in his hand, toying with it like an ace or a king. “We don’t want much,” he said. Just for me to keep my eyes open. Even so it’d be hard for me to close them and fall asleep. Going to the West, there’s no denying it, involves a visual shock. We’ll be thrilled by everything, the shops, the rubbish. You can touch it all and sniff it all.
We’ll be amazed to find that the cans of beer really do contain the beer described on them and not just air. The shampoos are full of shampoo, the wines of wine. The vodka is just as strong but five times dearer. We’ll carry around bottles we’ve smuggled in and try to off-load them on mean restaurateurs. In the pharmacy we’ll surrender to the scent samples, creating new combinations with Slavonic sweat. We’ll walk about hungry and thirsty. Dissolve soup powder in cold tap water because hot water has to be boiled somewhere. To go with our subsidised Parisian baguette we’ll gnaw on a Krakowska sausage that’s already going off, a delicacy that deserved better treatment.
We’ll get a passport, with a green card – the officer finally tossed it on the desk. “We?” I said in surprise, glancing sideways. Yes, am I planning to drop my lady friend? No, I wasn’t. We’ll also get a hard currency allowance, a hundred and thirty dollars – we’ll see how far that goes, what the market determines and the insane, totally unrestrained price war. It’s not hard to manufacture at the devil of a rate, and then sell at an undue profit. In about fifteen hours for the national average. How much harder it is to be restrained, develop a range and plan demand.
They’re not expecting much, just casual observations. Who earnestly studies the old masters in the Louvre. Who spends the third month selling pancakes, or having a drop of Grand Marnier towards the end of the working day. Who goes to bed with the girl whose grant ran out ages ago. Why is the old professor, who gets full board and lodging at our research centre on rue Laurisson, always turning up among the students at the canteen on rue Mabillon, reeking of plonk, to exploit the plebeian right to a free extra portion of pommes frites. Won’t the cheap, heavy oil enliven his dormant yet active gallstones, which are waiting for what, a battle cry? Is it really possible to take up a strategic position on one of the arches above the murky Seine from where at dusk you can see an orange balloon getting impaled on the Eiffel tower without bursting?
As I ran out of the police station I could feel the passport stamping an ardent rectangle on my chest. It was late spring and life in the park above the moat was transforming itself before my very eyes, clothing itself in something, in a sort of train or veil. The group of mates roused from their long hibernation were drinking apple wine left over from autumn. The grannies had unwrapped their headscarves. and their sallow wrinkled skin resented not being smooth and tanned. A pair of starlings crossed paths with a pair of mallards, creating a wobbly, diamond-shaped chessboard over the water. A pair of sleepy policemen were resting on a dilapidated bench, and their caps laid on either side of them looked like a tribute to those fallen in service – the only things missing were a coffin and a pall.
The world, which only that morning seemed to have gone unbearably wrong – the blunt razor blade had left a half-inch swelling, there had been a stink of gas, the rubbish had instantly spilled itself onto the landing, and as he left the summons to the police station the postman had scrutinised me with a look of pity, his extremely curious pupils scanning me from under his peaked cap – the world which was a chaos of things to get done: fetch the bedding from the laundry, with an overdose of starch again, so it’s like sleeping on a tablecloth; buy calcium and whatever vitamin they had at the pharmacy; take my shoes to the cobbler who inhales the glue; exhaust the shopping list at the grocery by the tram loop as much as possible with items to go with the bread already bought earlier at the bakery; buy alcohol and orange juice for vouchers at the hotel where you don’t have to be staying in order to get drunk; ask in the bookshop if they still don’t have a novel by the author of The Fields, because we’re starting to doubt he ever wrote it; go to the university library and hand in the slip for a banned book with a note from the permissions department allowing me access, and then read it bit by bit under the watchful eye of the librarian, a peroxide blonde with a gaze as leaden as type, storing whatever’s allowed in my head, because maybe descriptions of the sunrise in Radom aren’t forbidden; call my mother from the payphone under the Arcades, which was jammed so it didn’t rush you, reassure her that everything’s fine, yes, I’m all right, feeding myself and digesting, please don’t send any parcels, I don’t need anything, except perhaps for the meaning of it all, but that they won’t accept at the post office in the window with a view of the steel scales.
Everything that only a few hours ago had seemed to be falling apart, dissipating entirely, never to be made whole again despite increased doses of starch and glue, after coming out of the police station onto the solid granite steps flooded in sunlight, above the closed ring of the moat – so what if it was festering, coated in tiny duckweed – suddenly gained unity and splendour.
I wanted to run ahead, I wanted to be part of the unity. Observations bombarded me from all sides, and after only a few dozen yards I had already earned enough for the passport and at least one document. In a corner of the lock cut off from the world I discovered a pair of young lovers; harder, harder, demanded her red fingernails, in vain, because he had long since let go, but the surface of the water hadn’t even shuddered, the duckweed hadn’t blinked. A little further on, in the passage between the car park and the back of the Opera I came upon a friend from my group – all starting with the letter K, the curse of overpopulated subjects – pissing out a beer with an admixture of other fluids. Hardly had he made space in his bladder than he instantly suggested another one. I didn’t refuse, so we went into the beer tent at Teatralny Square, from where I had an entire panorama, and a cacophony of voices all around me.
Swearwords cut through the air. Someone – over here – would do it, but not at that price. Someone else would do it – here, right here – but not by that deadline. For a moment I thought I could organise it, match up the prices and deadlines. Complete the entire agenda and range of orders. I made notes. “Here!” But I needed a notebook. A Moleskine would have been useful, I thought immoderately, a black one that fitted in my hand and my pocket, as used by Beckett, Hemingway too.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones