In his latest novel Marian Pankowski, the grand old man of Polish fiction, gives the reader as big a surprise as usual. Widely regarded as a provocateur and iconoclast who isn’t afraid to take up taboo subjects, this time he sends his hero to… the next world, to an angels’ rally that’s being held there. In the process he paints a picture of the next world which, to be honest, is extremely atypical, not to say weird from the off. The angels are organised into work brigades, like concentration camp prisoners. These include the “Defence of Original Sin Squad”, the “Husbands’ Squad”, aka the “macho”, and the “Post-Sodomite Squad”. For ethereal beings, the angels have some rather unusual concerns, and are mainly extremely interested in anything earthly and corporeal. They organise a poetry slam, for example, at which they recite obscene verses. Is The Angels’ Last Rally just an eschatological fantasy designed to scandalise ordinary mortals, and nothing more? Of course not. In his characteristic way, using a rather frivolous, provocative format (where memories of the past are mixed with images of the future, reality is overgrown with fantasy, and prose features alongside poetry), Pankowski discusses matters of the most serious kind. Here he develops themes that he took up in his novel Pilgrims from the Motherland, published over twenty years ago. Once again he asks questions about the place of God and religion in the modern world, about the sense of various religious practices, and about the relationship of early twenty-first-century man to the religious sphere; he also returns once again to his favourite topic, describing how the sacred and the profane, the mundane and the sublime merge and intertwine. Along the way he adds to the doubts rather than aiming for unambiguous conclusions as he tries to clarify his complicated attitude to religion and God. This short novel provides a lot of food for thought.
A veritable camp ground, on the eve of… on the eve of what? The new? But whose? It’s a metaphysical fashion show. Here are some stout matrons, always in their Sunday best, and over there some jeans and T-shirts, clinging all too noticeably to the hallmarks of both sexes. I stop and look, and then I start to spin like a merry-go-round because I don’t know which way to go, who to ask or how to make any sort of contact with these utterly… human-behaviour-displaying Angels. There’s no one in my vicinity. There used to be a Jewish tavern here. Not even the remains of the smoke from it or from them is left in the air.
“You’re surprised and amazed, eh?”
I turn around, and there stands a tall, El Greco style Angel. She smiles, amused by my dumbstruck silence. She sees I’ve noticed her jeans.
“My name is Helena, and jeans are the costume for Angels with a sceptical attitude to Heaven’s traditional system…”
“Fallen Angels… Falling,” I throw in, to shield my confusion. She smiles. She can see from my face I’m having trouble with my choice of words.
“You’re now being escorted and will be escorted throughout your day among us… by not-quite-Angel, actually-still-woman Helena, still full of earthliness, but accepted on a seven-year course. On earth I was a sociologist, and here I’m researching the truths the monotheistic kingdom brought to mankind.”
She can see the look on my face, that of a country bumpkin scratching his head as he stands before Picasso’s “Guernica”.
“You know… I’m still a rationalist… hence my lack of wings,” she says, turning around to show the smooth oval shape of her shoulders. “There are no other trainees in my squad. We’re all…er… how can I put it? If someone asks us what we are, we reply, in a rather plebeian way… Us? We’re Knowers! Which doesn’t in the least mean ‘we know’, but that knowledge, and nothing else, is what seriously connects us with the great mystery of the Universe. We are not airborne, but they,” – she points her chin at a squad that’s just going by – “are Believers, Angels who believe. That’s the Defence of Original Sin Squad. Winged, of course. Their workplace is the dreams of earthlings. They suggest subtle images to you, aiming to substitute them for your… naughty illusions” – she smiles, patently at her own earthly memories – “while we’re involved with people infected by hatred, or obese with selfishness.”
“Would they, the believers,” I ask spontaneously, “couldn’t they help you?”
“By their presence they authenticate the possibility of an exemplary existence. You’ve heard about the ideal of purity of soul and body from the history of myths and religion… Without it our faith wouldn’t make sense.”
She smiles, as if trying to express her neutrality, or maybe even sympathy for the alien from over the water. Now she’s clothed in a sort of mist, and all I can see is her hair, like ears of ripe wheat, and her wingless shoulders, fading. Her right hand is still waving at me from the bottom of the valley. But now it has vanished too.
I am not alone. A new squad is coming out onto the main street of the camp. They’re walking evenly, in perfect alignment, and now they’re taking a right-angled turn on the right foot. I set off towards the hill where there’s an extraordinary commotion. They’re rolling up a green conference table on wheels, positioning it and putting stones under it to stop the surface from wobbling. WHAAAT?! My guide Helena is testing a microphone, blowing into it and tapping it, making sure everything’s in order. She’s in charge of the business of the day. Now she turns her blonde head to face east, from where some important person is clearly supposed to be coming. She’s pretending she can’t see me, the peeping tom, because I’m hiding behind a wild rose bush, in a lavish display of petals and anthers painting the bumblebees’ noses. And what sweet little roses….
A crown of them I’d wear,
Resting above each ear,
An innocent dewdrop so pretty,
Shining on each little titty!
That’s enough floral spell-casting, as Helena the sociologist, duty officer for today’s heavenly seminar, gaily slaps her hand on the table top – thwack! And the hubbub stops.
“Yesterday, my dears, we held a discussion with a rather provocative title, ‘Through the transcomical telescope towards infinity’. We’re not sure the title was to everybody’s liking… I’m thinking of the degree of objective expression of questions and suggestions.”
Somebody’s hand goes up. From where I’m standing, I can see it’s an Angel-ess of over fifty, a lady Angel.
“Yes please,” Helena encourages her.
“The person who announced yesterday’s seminar,” she says, addressing almost the front rows, “seemed quite bewitched by the mere etymology of the word ‘infinity’, the semantic range of the term that nowadays has application in mathematical thought too… Yet the supporters of yesterday’s interpretation were thinking of this concept… with a small letter. Were they perhaps trying to suggest that ‘infinity’… is actually a sort of non-existence?”
She has not entirely sat down before a senior with wings that were probably too slicked down salon-style, raises his hand and stands up. He festoons his face in a dinner-party smile and makes this speech:
“Looking for holes in the entire thing is bargain-basement argument… even more so during our winged Rally, which may be the last ever. So for our doubting friends I’d like to suggest a slightly different title for yesterday’s seminar, such as: ‘With transcomical telescope towards new discoveries of the eternal laws that govern Order’. The last word is written with a big letter, a very big letter.”
There was plenty of smiling and head shaking. And so? End of the second day of the Rally? Far from it. A stocky Angel is already pushing his way to the microphone on the table. Helena politely moves it closer. The stocky Angel waits a few seconds more, until the assembled company are more or less quiet. At that point he stifles their noise with his noise; though of medium height, he gives the audience a monumental look and says:
“Look at me and ask yourself what arch-angelic, arch-straight-talking thing is this old cove trying to tell us? What twopenny-halfpenny prayer, half-techno, half-blues, is he going to chant… in praise of Saint Whohe who’s-never-here? To get us to chime in with him in thunderous chorus?” He shook his head most categorically. “No. I don’t practise soapbox dialectics, and this is no time for choral catechisms... Nor is it the moment for all that ‘let’s make a ring round the earth, let’s join hands’, not today, when the planet is shaken to its foundations! This year the deep-sea crusts under the oceans shook our world with no consideration for the will of God … And the place was swarming with thousands of widows and widowers, thousands of orphans… Of course we’ll take care of them, we’ll get them arms and legs made of stuff that doesn’t age!”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones