Beginning in 1994, every two or three years Jerzy Pilch has issued a collection of the best of his newspaper and magazine columns. "The Train to Eternal Life" gathers texts that came out between 2002 and 2006. In the note included in this collection we are told that while compiling the present selection, the author deliberately set aside texts on literature and soccer (two of his favourite subjects) since he plans to present these in a separate book.
In "The Train to Eternal Life" there are two dominant themes. The first is that of public affairs broadly understood, concerning current Polish politics and especially the life of political parties, of which Pilch is an ironic observer and commentator. This particular writerly passion could be described bluntly as preying on the gaffes, blunders, and general foolishness of the political class. The second, and, it would seem, more important theme is that of personal issues that are usually connected with the author’s nostalgic recollections. It is here that Pilch speaks most about himself, about books and cultural events that have made a particular impression on him and about encounters with extraordinary figures that have been important to him.
Jerzy Pilch is regarded as an unparallelled master of contemporary Polish column writing, an uncommonly shrewd author with a subtle and stylish sense of humour. The texts gathered in "The Train to Eternal Life" show that such a reputation is richly deserved.
The latest manifestation of the sanitary fascism rampant in the land of Poland is the rapidly approaching, media-heralded total ban on cigarette smoking in Intercity trains. Polls conducted on this subject by the railroad company reveal that eighty per cent of travellers are in favour of such a prohibition. For smokers the fact that in this woeful age of healthy (and thus eternal) life, they garner twenty per cent of the vote, is a considerable achievement; yet the healthy majority has, as usual, a crushing preponderance over the sick minority. An addiction, as everyone knows, is a sickness, but it is an ambiguous one, a guilty one, an exception; it is a sickness that, though not infectious in the traditional sense of the word, is in its essence infinitely worse than an infectious one. The stench and smoke emanating from the smoker poisons all those around in the blink of an eye. In a word, this is not a sickness whose victims have any hope of being granted the status or rights of the handicapped. Quite the contrary: the smoker’s space is forever being cut back. Proper smoking rooms have long been wiped off the face of the earth and what is left—demeaning “smoking areas” round the back of the can—are also gradually on their way out.
Smoking compartments are to vanish from Intercity passenger cars, and a healthful Soviet-style egalitarianism will be brought into being. Boarding a train from Warsaw to, let’s say, Wrocław, for over five hours I will not have a cigarette, I will not expose my hale and hearty fellow creature sitting in the corner to second-hand smoke. He, on the other hand, faced with such a long journey, will fortify himself with slices of bread spread with sweet-smelling lard and a roll with slices of utterly salubrious country sausage, and he will strew the floor with pieces of eggshell from his hard-boiled eggs, and dirty the upholstery with glazing from his doughnuts. And I will sit there telling myself: there is no problem; passive eating is not harmful; so far at least the American scientists have not discovered such a thing; psychological pressure does not count; there is no problem. Out of longing for a cigarette I will issue a pitiful sniff, and my non-smoking, healthy and thus hugely empathetic fellow creature will offer me “the best thing for a cold—a clove of garlic.” I’ll decline and he’ll pop two of them saying, “prevention is better than cure.” When he drinks them down with a life-giving Fanta, burps, picks his teeth and prepares to take a nap, when he removes his footwear and stretches his feet relaxedly onto the seat in front of him, it is entirely possible—I will not hide it—that a crisis may ensue. I’ll wait till he closes his eyes and then sneak out to the lavatory, where, taking out my cigarettes, I will light up and, fully cognizant of all the regulations I’m contravening, I will inhale desperately for all I’m worth. I have no illusions. After no more than a couple of drags, the pale blue smoke will smite certain sensitive nostrils, my fellow creature will emerge from his slumber and alert the authorities, who will come along and hammer on the door. Five hundred zlotys is what my little frolic with tobacco will cost me.
These are not cheap horror stories I am making up here; every one of you has had journeys of this kind, every one of you has travelled across Poland with a monster in the compartment. If it was not some stupendous gutbucket, it was an innocent child with three Magnum ice creams and a sack of potato chips, if it was not a murderous born storyteller it was some beauty swathed in the sensuous fragrance of Masumi eau de toilette, loyal to the styles and cosmetics of the 1970’s. If you were not forced to be a passive witness to their consumption, you were forced to be a passive listener to their usually, as was curiously the case on Polish trains, conspiratorial musings. If they did not cloud the compartment with the vapours of peasant vittles, they fumigated it with cheap Russian perfumes. But for goodness’ sake, then there was somewhere to escape to! While there were still smoking compartments, there was someplace to which you could evacuate yourself from those spectres of the Polish railroad!
Smoking compartments (especially those in first class) were not simply ghettoes for smokers. They were havens, they were sanctuaries of tranquility and freedom! Many a time even non-smokers sought refuge in those supposedly contaminated places! Many a time we smokers, seeing panic and death in the eyes of some harried passenger after a mere hour of travel, gathered him to our bosom and, at least till he regained his composure, and often longer, we refrained from smoking! And then afterwards we still were able to travel on in harmony and concord! From time to time some health freak would pass along the corridor, quickening his pace and holding his nose; he would glance once in our direction and then never look our way again—the suicide compartment was best given a wide berth.
Many years ago I was in the very heart of a certain American state which consisted of a single vast cornfield. In the centre of the cornfield was a large park. In the evenings I would go for a walk there, sit down on a bench, and light a cigarette. From the distant woods runners would emerge; they would come to an abrupt stop when they spotted me, then change their route to run around me in a gigantic arc. They kept so far away I could barely see them, yet in the absolute stillness I could hear them warning one another with panic-stricken cries: “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” Never mind which English expression suggested itself to me in response—the main thing was that at such moments I longed for my homeland. Today, as far as this matter is concerned there is not even anywhere I could escape to from my homeland—sanitary fascism is rearing its head everywhere.
Smoking is of course harmful and can result in death, yet the hope of non-smokers that they will live forever is an illusory one. Smoking kills in the way that at one time, for example, absinthe used to kill. But I very much doubt whether the victims of absinthe would be alive and healthy today if they had drunk something else. Even if they had drunk nothing but pure non-carbonated Polish mineral water.
Translated by Bill Johnston