Begun in the late 1980s, Janusz Krasiński’s monumental cycle of novels is a work without precedent in modern Polish fiction. Having personally experienced two inhuman systems, fascism and communism, Krasiński has produced a literary testament covering a huge time span, using a style and form that comes very close to fictionalised memoirs. To add extra credibility to his work, he has given his main character, Szymon Bolesta, his own life story. The fourth part of this cycle, Before the Final Agony, covers the years 1968 to 1984, from the unrest preceding the events of March 1968 in Poland (when a student demonstration was brutally suppressed) to the political assassination of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. Szymon Bolesta is a writer and is active in the Polish Writers’ Union. These are the two areas of his interests that we learn most about. Of his literary activities, the most fully described are his changing fortunes relating to the production of a real Polish-Soviet film entitled Remember Your Name (1974, directed by Sergei Kolosov). These include accounts of several visits he makes to Moscow, combined with stories about his Russian friends. But Bolesta’s adventures are also, perhaps above all, a symbol for a communal fate. We know little about his private life, because it is entirely overshadowed by his “public” one. Thus most of the episodes revolve around Poland’s burning issues of the day – the worker and intellectual demonstrations of the 1970s, the rise of Solidarity, martial law and its consequences.
Retracing his steps, he pushed his way through the thistles. That great death, he thought about Stalin, hadn’t done much good, the criminal system still persisted. And it had to come to those bullets at the Wujek mine, those murdered miners, for him to be able to see what he had lived through, reflected in the blood-splashed mirror of martial law. So it was high time to describe it all…! And just remain cautious, not give himself away to anyone, write at least three copies and hide each one in a different place!
He reached the tip of the island, where it stuck out a tongue of sand battered by the current and crowded with terns. At the sight of Szymon they took off squealing, like little silver crescents against the blue of the sky. It crossed his mind that this was just one of thousands, hundreds of thousands of bird generations that had been here, and he could feel the demonic breath of history blowing in from the water. This timeless river channel, this island dating back more than a quarter of a million years, and far across the water the church tower in Popów: slender, tapering, climbing boldly skywards. Covered in scaly red roof tiles it loomed abruptly from behind the ruffled waves of greenery on the horizon. It was an austere imitation of Vistula Gothic, but however many times he looked at it from this spot it always took his thoughts hundreds of years back in time. The Republic… Once it had been a world power. Great tsars and mighty sultans had trailed their plumes in the dust before it. The tolerance prevailing within it gave tyrants and despots no rest, but once it had been weakened by the Swedish invasion they carved it up and shared it out. Then after long years of enslavement it was briefly reborn. Only briefly – and now it was a wretched Soviet vassal. Unbearable! He picked up a knotty stick from the sand, waved it in a gesture of despair, threw it into the water and turned back.
He went back to the bridge and turned away from the river towards the forest. Every time he approached his property he was glad to see the recently assembled hut, its steep roof and brightly coloured shutters. He had never imagined this place would soon become his escape; until now he had only ever thought of it as a secret hideaway where he would write his outlawed novel. Now, since the national catastrophe, what he sought here most was tranquillity. The bald stones of a rockery peered out from behind a wire fence supporting wild roses. Something green and phallic-looking was sticking out of the cracks between them. He reached the wrought iron gate, took out his key and opened it. A dog rushed under his feet, barking excitedly, and ran up to the fence opposite. On the far side of it, a horse was plodding along with its head bowed, under the half-naked limbs of an oak tree, followed by a country fellow in a padded jacket. It was from him that he had bought part of this land – Jagielski, a thrifty farmer, holding the handles of a plough as the blade cut through soil that was relatively poor for these parts. The ridge it carved was turning the stubble on its back. Szymon went up to the fence and quietened the dog, as Jagielski stopped the horse.
For a while they both stood there in silence. They hadn’t seen each other since last autumn, and so many things had happened in that time. The farmer wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
“How are things with you, Mr Bolesta?”
The question was like a thorn in his flesh. What answer could he possibly give? That he’d escaped arrest, and despite martial law he was at liberty. And that in spite of everything no Soviet tanks had come rolling across these fields, and the nation’s bid for independence had only been stamped on by a home-grown boot. Christ! The sharp corner of a sheet of ice rose to his throat. An incurable illness seemed to be crushing his chest as he stood and stared at the farmer’s haggard face turned towards him, at the horse shifting from foot to foot and the ridges of upturned earth, unable to untie his tongue.
“How are you feeling?” Jagielski repeated his question, letting his lip droop mournfully.
How should he be feeling? A quarter of a century since he had come out from behind bars the secret police was running amok again, packing people off to camps and prisons… He had lived to see Stalin’s death, but he would never see the demise of this murderous regime. He would never witness its death throes. For the rest of his life, all the way to the grave he would be dogged by the shadow of the black “raven”. The thought was intolerable! He had come here to get away from it – it shouldn’t have caught up with him under this oak. His eyelids were burning, and the sun was shining straight into his eyes, making him squint. As if in a dream he could see the half-ploughed piece of land beyond the wire fence and the absurd, quite unreal team in harness: the farmer with his plough, his horse steaming with sweat and the question hanging in the air: “How are you? How’s life these days?” But there was a bung of ice in his throat and he couldn’t gasp out a word. Jagielski was still waiting for him to say something, but he hadn’t the time to stand about in vain – the ground could not lie fallow… Time to finish ploughing! Szymon struggled to swallow his saliva as a spasm of despair twisted his lips and lashed at his teeth to stop them from jamming. Jagielski nodded, as if he understood his silence, swung his arm and cracked his whip.
The girth strap tensed, the horse and plough moved forward, the overturned ridge showed its shiny wet belly, and several ravens took off from the oak tree, circled like flying char and swooped to the ground. On the river, invisible from here, far beyond the ploughed patch, the white tip of a sail etched the sky.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones