Daniel Odija is dedicated to writing about things others don’t even dare think about. His chosen topic is the world of Poland’s poor, the social outcasts and losers who are the victims of the change of political system that took place in the 1990s. The main character in The Sawmill is the loathsome Józef Myśliwski, owner of the eponymous mill, who in a poor village in the north of the country builds his own little empire, doing wrong to his family and his employees alike. Józef hates his wife and does not hide the fact that he has several children by local village women; he is also the regular client of an escort agency. Finally his legitimate son disappoints his father in every possible way. The hero is full of hatred, but he is the object of hatred too, quite naturally, as the local rich guy, the one who has succeeded, but who, to the minds of the idle, drunken locals, should not have. Odija does not spare us the naturalistic images in presenting the moral degradation not only of the main character, but just everyone in the village. The Sawmill is a moving parable about the decline of a small, closed society and the seamier side of Polish provincial life. Though palpable and realistic, Odija’s prose is also strong in its use of metaphors, and abounds with lyrical descriptions of the rural landscape; it also includes a lot of reflection on the topics of transience, loneliness, death, and above all the terrible way in which people go astray in today’s world.
PGRs and not only
That particular spot was truly ugly. The only thing to brighten the surroundings was the concrete puddle of a sports ground, a permanent fixture amid the grey blocks, with a crooked clothes-horse sticking out of it. And that was all. These were the state farms, known as the PGRs. There was filth here resulting from poverty, and boredom resulting from a lack of work. Everyone here knew everyone else, and they didn’t have much to say to each other. The only attraction was the grocery shop, where there was more wine than bread, and also Mrs Mariola’s “Croft”.
Certain proportions had been kept at the PGRs. A few men, and a few women. The whole district had been settled by elderly bachelors, because there were fewer women in this world, but at the PGRs there were almost as many of them as there were men, maybe because it was mainly families that lived here. Noisy families with lots of children. The kids ran about filthy and neglected, very energetic and full of curiosity. They froze into pillars of salt whenever someone who wasn’t local came by. Someone like that was extremely interesting, purely by token of not being local.
Here at the PGRs the men were slightly pickled all the time. A drop of wine or hooch, or some other home-made – anything rather than admit to yourself the idea that life was bad. Lately they had started talking about politics. A fellow had appeared on television who stirred their imagination. He was called Andrzej Pasieka, from somewhere round here, Kulszewki apparently, but no one knew if it was Great or Little Kulszewki. Apparently he wanted things to be better for the farm people and he spoke well, because he spoke plainly. * One day Pasieka came to the PGRs. People’s eyes were out on stalks, because he arrived in a car that was even bigger and surely more expensive than Myśliwski’s most expensive one. Pasieka’s car must have been really expensive, because no one was too sure what it was called and they’d never seen one like it before, not even on TV. However, when Pasieka got out of the car he wasn’t wearing a suit, as a politician should, but a familiar nylon tracksuit. People were relieved to see Pasieka dressed like them.
They all clustered round him on the sports ground, while he told them the elections were approaching, that he was taking care of their interests and that he too was a child of the PGRs! So they should have faith in him, not just when they voted, but in general, because it was already decided that they’d give him their vote, since he was their compatriot and the only one in the country who could pull them out of the shit-heap they lived in, so apart from their vote a penny or two would also come in handy to give him an equal chance in the elections against those government thieves who now had their noses in the trough, but it wouldn’t last much longer, because when he, Pasieka, came to power, he’d smoke out all those parasites, good-for-nothings and numskulls. But to manage it, dear people, you must give me some money, he said, and then he’d be able to put those thieves in their place.
Pasieka was convincing. Not very tall, he didn’t tower over others, but he had well-groomed hair and was generally well groomed, and there was something imperative about the look in his eyes… And he spoke sense too, so everyone could understand what he was on about, and those words of his struck home with a powerful punch, they were so well aimed… Everyone understood that he really did need that money, and that otherwise they too would never have any money, later on in the future once Pasieka was in power. But people didn’t have much to give. Some of them weren’t even entitled to benefits, so what were they supposed to live on?
Some people pretended to be digging deep in their pockets, but they dug and they dug without digging anything out. Other stared into the sky, as if it looked like rain; just to spite them the sun was shining and there wasn’t a single cloud above the PGRs. Most of the women had already gone off home, because there was the dinner to be made. There was an awkward atmosphere, and just then one of the two men who had come with Pasieka whispered something in his ear. Pasieka listened to the lanky fellow, then asked the people how to get to Myśliwski’s place. Once they had answered, he waved his fist at them in parting and said: “People, that’s not the way! If that’s how we help ourselves, we’ll never get anywhere, and the government hyenas will rob us of everything!”
And the people felt stupid, because they knew Pasieka was right and they loved him very much for it. * On sunny days the river gleamed bright behind the state farms, flowing into the lake like a vein into a heart, and on from the lake into the sea. And in late autumn this river was black with the swollen bodies of trout. Slackened by the weight of their roe, the fish silently arched their backs on the sharpened wire hooks that the people from the PGRs stuck in their sides. It was enough to give a tug and a fish went shimmering into the air. Then you just tore the hook from its side and lay in wait for the next one. The fish slowly and quietly lay dying on the grass, the broad wound gaping in its side like a lanced ulcer.
Although the children caught the most, sometimes the men did too, especially when they hadn’t the money for drink. A trout like that was worth something. You only had to go to Sękowiak and the foreigners bought them like crazy. Sękowiak had knocked out all the fish in the lake with an electric current and there were only some miserable roach left, maybe a few little perch too… But a trout like that is such a fine creature it’s a joy to behold! It always brings in enough for a large bottle. Not everyone, of course, not everyone, most people caught them for dinner, but those few, and a few more, which was almost the majority, caught them for drinking.
So what sort of a life is this? In a PGR like that you can only moulder away with boredom. They felt as if something had been taken away from them, and they’d been left to prey on themselves. They’d never been taught how to be left alone with each other. Someone had always told them what to do. Now no one was telling them anything. They were meant to tell themselves, but they weren’t prepared for that. All they had left were their memories, and those were far more interesting than the present. Because now they were living in poverty, and poverty is very boring. And it makes an awful stink, like rotten fish. No one eats their way out of poverty. For how can you overeat if you’re poor? But you can drown it in drink, you just have to drink plenty, until the world stops stinking of fish.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones