"The Crow" is an unusual fable full of violence and cruelty about the kind of martial law that was imposed in Poland in mid-December 1981 until the mid-July 1983. In this period, the country was ruled by the Military Council of National Salvation, known in Polish by its acronym WRON – its similarity to the word wrona, meaning “crow”, made it a favourite tool for opposition satire. It is for this reason that Dukaj has chosen the crow to represent a force of evil in this book of the same name.
Although the main character is a small boy, and the work is modelled on stories for children, this is a magical fairytale aimed at adult readers. Who is the Crow of the title? He is a large black bird who kidnaps little Adam’s father. The big bird barges his way into the family’s flat, and then the Corvine Corps take the boy’s other relatives away. Adam has been saved by a neighbour called Mr Concrete. Together, though losing each other several times along the way, they roam the gloomy city in search of Adam’s family. Sometimes the boy flies above the city, carried by the Flier. Adam’s adventures are a grim phantasmagoria. The city is under the control of the iron Bitchbulls (monsters that look like huge dogs), the Evilones (mechanical dragons that wave seven truncheons each) and the Chokermotors (enormous whales that swallow people), at every step there are Snarks and Spykes lying in wait, and the trees and roofs are crowded with nasty big birds ready at any moment to attack the Positionists, also known as the Resistants. In Polish, these names are puns based on recognisable figures and objects associated with the martial law era, such as the ZOMO riot police and the UB secret agents.
Dukaj’s fable opens with an epigraph taken from Lewis Carroll. And in fact this book has much in common with "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland". Firstly, there is a lot of Carrollian linguistic inventiveness here, not just making up words, which is one of the attractions of "The Crow". There are also some comical rhymes that interrupt the story. Secondly and more importantly, like Alice, Adam wants at any price to get to the bottom of the adults’ mysterious world, naturally in order to expose the rules that govern it. However, the author’s intentions are not entirely clear. "The Crow" not only pitches into the still live debate about martial law, but could also be read as a form of artistic excess specific to Jacek Dukaj. In it we can see an extremely refined literary game, a Dukajan exercise in fantasy and style, but we can also ascribe a wide variety of political meanings to it. Without doubt it is an impressive, important work, not just for aesthetic reasons.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
He woke up again. Something terrible was happening in the house, he knew it. The noises had woken him up – but he only recognised them a short time later, as he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes.
A window pane had broken – what he had heard in his sleep was the smash of glass shattering. Something heavy had fallen to the floor too, and Mummy had screamed in terror. All this had been happening in his parents’ room.
He jumped out from under the duvet and toddled across the hall. Cold air shrouded his feet. He started to sniff again.
The door of his parents’ room was ajar. A light was on in there. The noise hadn’t stopped. Adam recognised Uncle Kazek’s voice. Uncle Kazek was saying some very bad words.
Adam cautiously put his head close to a crack in the door.
In the broken window, on the smashed frame sat a huge Crow, exactly like the one Adam had dreamed about: black, shiny and terrifying.
The Crow spread its wings and shielded the entire wall, from the bookcase to the shelving. In one taloned foot it was clutching Adam’s bleeding father, while with the other it latched on to the windowsill. Raising and violently dropping its metre-long beak, like a sharp, heavy pickaxe, it stabbed Adam’s mother with it. She was trying to save his father by pulling him free, but she couldn’t do it. The huge bird had hit her, and she fell to the floor, screaming with pain.
The Crow opened its beak. It shook some red drops off it and let out an ear-splitting squawk, until the echo went round the estate.
The curtains and blinds flapped in tatters around the Crow. An icy wind gusted fountains of snow into the house. The ceiling light swayed, and the crooked shadow of the Crow went leaping across the faded wallpaper.
Adam rushed to his mother’s aid, but Uncle Kazek caught him by the arm. The boy tried to pull free, shouting.
The Crow turned its black head towards him. Its huge, flat eyes, like coal-black glass, stared at him.
Adam shivered with cold and gripped Uncle Kazek’s pyjamas tightly. The pitch-black eyes must have been emitting invisible rays that paralyse, because Adam couldn’t move a step, either backwards or forwards. The bird’s dead, ice-cold gaze had frozen him to the floor.
“SON!” cawed the Crow.
Bang! went one of the light bulbs as it burst.
Suddenly the Crow folded its wings, tugged at Adam’s unconscious father, took him and plummeted into the night.
It left behind a whirl of black feathers, white snow and strips of paper ripped out of books. Papers, documents and torn-out pages lay scattered all over the room.
Adam and Uncle Kazek rushed to the window. The frosty gale made their eyes water. Adam tried to climb onto the windowsill, but Uncle Kazek held him back, and just pointed to a shadow getting smaller against the night sky, high above the tower block, above the roofs and cranes.
Uncle Kazek and Granny carried Mummy into the other room. Uncle ran off to use the phone, while Granny tried to see to Mummy. The Crow had stabbed her above the heart. A red stain was spreading on her nightdress.
Mummy wasn’t opening her eyes.
Adam stood in the corner and chewed his fingers.
The neighbour who had a phone appeared.
“They’ll be here any moment,” he said.
Granny looked round for the terrified Adam.
“Please take him with you, Mr Concrete.”
Mr Concrete hastily slammed the door of his flat shut. He turned all the locks and put on the chains.
Once he had caught his breath, he cautiously raised the peephole cover and peered through the glass into the staircase.
“They’re coming,” he whispered.
And he put a finger to his lips.
Adam pressed his ear to the door.
First the wind came up the staircase. Shutters and casings banged. Doormats scraped. Downstairs the door into the staircase slammed. Then the clatter of several pairs of heavy boots rang out: THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP. They were running, but as if they weren’t in a hurry at all. Floor by floor, ever nearer. Instantly Adam tore his ear from the door. They didn’t stop but ran on up – to Adam’s flat.
Mr Concrete put his finger to his lips again. They heard Granny’s screams. Uncle Kazek was also saying something very loud.
The footsteps starting getting closer again. They were running back down the stairs. THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP. Once again the staircase door crashed shut downstairs.
And there was silence.
Mr Concrete opened the door and looked outside. Adam nipped past under his arm and was the first to rush upstairs, to his home.
There wasn’t any home left. They had broken, smashed, ripped, tipped up, emptied, shattered, scattered, pierced, wrecked and ruined.
Adam peeped into his little sister’s cot. Empty.
There was no trace of Mummy, Granny or Uncle Kazek either.
All the windows were open or smashed. Wind and snow roared through the ruin.
Mr Concrete and Adam blundered about on clothes, pieces of paper and bits of appliances and furniture.
“They’ve taken them.”
Adam climbed onto the windowsill. Mr Concrete grabbed him by the collar.
On the snow below the block they could see the tracks of enormous dog paws with a deep tread. Next to the dustbins stood a man in a black coat with the five-metre spike of an antenna rising from the top of his skull. He was turning his head in all directions, and the steel spike was drawing circles and eights in the night.
“The Bitchbulls took them,” Mr Concrete grumbled and rumbled, pressing Adam to him with a fat arm. To the boy it sounded as if a cement-mixer had started turning deep in the bald neighbour’s chest.
“They’ve left a Spyke. Watch out, little one, or it’ll see us and tell all to the Crow.”
They went back to Mr Concrete’s flat.
Mr Concrete made some tea. He poured Something Stronger into his own glass from a bottle. He sipped it and exhaled.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Adam,” sobbed Adam.
The neighbour held out a whopping great hand for him to shake.
“John Stanley Wenceslas Concrete.”
Adam only just managed to squeeze his thumb and index finger.
“Why have you got such big hands?” he asked.
“With these hands,” boomed Mr Concrete, “with these hands I used to build!”
“What did you build?”
“Houses! Streets! We built factories! Cities!”
Mr Concrete went back upstairs to fetch some warm clothes for Adam.
Meanwhile, Adam examined some old photographs of John Stanley Wenceslas set out on the bookcase. They were all taken at large building sites. Mr Concrete still had hair on his head. Stripped to the waist, there he stood with great big bricks in his hands, or holding a spatula and a bucket, with construction machinery in the background. Around him stone walls and concrete pillars were climbing upwards. They had ribbons and banners hanging on them, saying “1000 PERCENT OVER QUOTA, 20,000 PERCENT OVER QUOTA. 25,000 PERCENT OVER QUOTA”.
There were also some smaller photos to one side. In these, a slightly older Mr Concrete was accompanied by a nice lady with very long hair and a boy, first a few years old, and then as a teenager. They were all smiling broadly.
Mr Concrete had trouble finding some good clothes for Adam. The sweater had been ripped on the sleeve, the trousers had holes and the shoes weren’t a pair. The jacket had had half its collar torn off.
“Let’s wait,” said Mr Concrete. “Your uncle called the family. It’ll all be OK, sonny. Your auntie or uncle will come and fetch you before the Crow finds out.”
“But please, Mister, what about Daddy? What about Mummy?”
Mr Concrete wiped his bald head.
“Ah, well, it’s a nasty thing.”
“But they will come back, won’t they?”
“There’s no joking with the Crow.”
Someone knocked at the door.
It was the neighbour from the next flat. He had heard everything. Or maybe he had seen it through his peephole too. He came in-came in and talked-talked to Mr Concrete. Mr Concrete nodded. The neighbour smiled-smiled at Adam. Adam pretended he was only interested in the hot tea, which he was slurping from a teaspoon.
“I can-can give-give you-you the keys-the keys to the passage-to the passage through the cellar-through the cellar,” said the neighbour.
Mr Concrete thanked him. The neighbour went-went home for the keys.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones