The urge to expose the truth is the driving force behind Nowakowski’s prose. Stigmatics is his latest collection of portraits of Poles faced with changes to the system that have complicated their everyday lives. But this time Nowakowski’s writing is less concerned with the main beneficiaries of those changes, and more with those who have lost out, who have been impoverished or pushed onto the margins of society. They are outcasts from the new cash culture who don’t know how to adapt to the rules of the “greedy struggle” for money, or how to face up to the demands of the new morality either. Paradoxically, some of them are people who were perfectly able to “live it up”, as they put it themselves, under Hitler and Stalin or in the Gierek era, the nouveaux riches, wheeler-dealers, former market gardeners and other representatives of so-called private initiative who once had the right connections and made clever use of communist Poland’s legal and tax-system loopholes. Now, not adapted to the new requirements, living on pensions and memories of the past, these regulars in bars where, as at “Maggie’s”, the friendly owner lets them take advantage of cheaper liquor bought in the shop next door, they have been driven out of the market game by new finaglers, “aggressive, overfed swine” from the political mafia orders, of whom they have the worst possible opinion.
Among these losers and outcasts there are also some poets (presented with a tear in the eye in the story The Former Poets and the Muse), who enjoyed fame and fortune of a kind in communist Poland, as well as adoring girls from the provinces, but who are now abandoned, left to the mercy of patrons of dubious reputation and potential sponsors with fat wallets seduced during some sort of banqueting. There are also some former dignitaries, often from intelligentsia origins, who belonged to the fine ideological past of the wartime and just after, including Polish Socialist Party members; half-heartedly and against their own interests they let themselves be harnessed to the communist retinue, and then, having closed their eyes to the farce of Polish politics as it fawned on their patrons to the east, let themselves go completely to the dogs, and are now grieving over the ever more apparent failure of their lives.
Nowakowski’s literary diagnosis of the times we live in seems to aptly complement and justify the image of life in modern Poland that can seriously upset or shock us if we listen regularly to the Polish media’s daily news bulletins.
Nowe Książki, 7/2005
He had only just sat down and already she was giving him a filthy look. In those eyes of hers there was so much disgust, so much righteous indignation, as if she’d seen a pig from the dung heap entering the room. She was busy with her bookkeeping, settling up with the supplier and signing invoices. She raised her dolled-up, fiery head and unerringly picked him out of the crowd, though he was cowering in the furthest corner. He was shielding himself with a newspaper, peeping at her furtively. She leaned against the counter, sliding her ring-bedecked paw across its surface. She was upset by his presence. A common scrubber will never become a lady. She had a rump like a packing crate and tits she could throw over her shoulders. But not long ago she used to be so friendly and ingratiating, nice as pie. How she used to welcome them! They were coming here such a long time ago. In those days it was still called “Maggie’s”. That was the sort of thing the bars were called in the commie era – “Dotty’s”, “The Wild Strawberry”, “Little Jack’s”, “The Little Roach”, or “Annie’s”. They liked using diminutives. The worse the dive, the more lovey-dovey the name. They were so crazy then. Before communism they had ordinary, decent names, like “The Carp”, “The Shot-glass”, “The Turtle”, “The Quiet Corner” or “Blind Leon’s”. Now it’s “Las Vegas”, if you please. They’re obsessed with America. He rustled the newspaper nervously, his thoughts scattered, so he couldn’t read or do anything. She sat stubbornly needling him with her basilisk eyes.
“Please leave!” she’d scream any minute. “You’re not allowed in here!”
One sweeping gesture and she’ll turn the dog outside, he thought. It’s peasant atavism. Such a thick-skinned creature has no resistance. Pride was seething within him. After all, he wasn’t just something the cat dragged in. He was respected throughout the communist era by both party members and non-party people alike. He had noble ancestors and was a decent age – he even knew the old, pre-war Poland. His grandmother, a matron called Honorata, a name rarely given at christenings nowadays, ran a boarding school for young ladies from good homes in tsarist Warsaw. The family tradition had handed down the strict, solid principles that guided her in her educational mission. The strict morality in the family home had certainly caused him to loosen the fetters a lot, and like a dog that has broken its chain, he had set off into the turmoil of life. The blood of a country squire was boiling within him. How could it not! He could easily show his aristocratic crest, his direct descent from shaven-headed Sarmatians who sat on the regional council. Napoleon’s late father, a bookkeeper for the Prudential insurance firm on Warecki, now Insurgents’ Square, had lovingly preserved some yellowing old papers, ancient parchments written in Latin with wax seals attached; there the family’s past was set out in black and white, with a striking coat of arms – the Półkozic crest, a silver ass’s head on a red field. In the present era the yobs who’d made themselves some property were eagerly on the look out for coats of arms – they wore signet rings on their crude, fat fingers and had suitable signs and symbols engraved on them, blatantly copied from the armorial. Fakery, imitation had taken over in so many spheres of life. Napoleon had long since sold the signet ring his father left him, but in his heart he kept it faithfully. There’s blue blood in my veins and no one can take that away from me, he enjoyed repeating. He was exaggerating as usual – they were just poor noblemen with small farms on the Mazovian sands, though they did occasionally drink beer and honey with castellans and senators, maybe even with generals.
And here this common scrubber, this provincial thickhead, the undoubted progeny of serfdom, had become the lady of the manor and was treating him like a wretched mongrel from God knows where. He well remembered the time when she came to conquer the capital. A stack of bouffant hair, a crimplene dress in garish, vulgar colours, grubby heels with a horny yellow layer sticking out of her tight, high-heeled shoes, her broad feet crammed into tight stilettos. She was all fingers and thumbs and kept breaking glass, everything went flying from her hands and for ages she couldn’t get her head round the names and different kinds of drink. In those days the shelves were already filled with loads of different brandies, cognacs and whiskies. Cocktails were also getting more and more fashionable then. That was a tricky skill for her dull brain and her clumsy, stubby fingers. She had a tough time learning some city manners after her apprenticeship in the filthy cooperative pubs in the eastern part of the country. Napoleon had given her support with his wide-ranging, sophisticated regular’s knowledge. More than once she had thanked him warmly. She had forgotten about it extremely quickly, and that was the sort of gratitude he had expected. He had ceased to be a customer worthy of her respect. He felt like the last knight left defending himself against the enemy horde in the last remaining bastion. Now she had taken her paw off the counter, straightened her red mop of hair and was putting a foot forward, ready for the charge. But sometimes a stroke of luck saves us from disaster. Just then he heard a loud cackle, and that hulk of a man appeared in the doorway of the other room, all in leather and gold chains, a mighty troglodyte. They called him The Heel. He liked to play snooker. The pyramid game was his speciality. Snooker was back in fashion – in the communist era it had been completely wiped out. The best tables used to come from St Petersburg. Was there still a St Petersburg table in existence anywhere?
“Napoleon!” cried The Heel, favouring him with a broad smile.
He was the exception among the new regulars; he liked to listen to him, especially when he told stories about the old games in the casinos and the big-time gamblers.
She, the owner, was awfully afraid of The Heel. A yob faced with a stronger yob always gives way, and in return the stronger one likes to trample the weaker one into the dirt. The Heel ordered some grape brandy. She brought it over herself. He slapped her on the bottom and said approvingly: “Extra meaty service!”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones