All the Languages in the World

Zbigniew Mentzel
All the Languages in the World
  • Znak
    Kraków 2005
    176 pp
    ISBN 83-240-0560-9

In this entertaining novel the middle-aged narrator, Zbigniew Hintz, describes a single day in his life, with frequent flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood, focusing on his relationship with his parents and how deeply it has affected him. The story is set against the background of life in communist Poland and also in the new Poland that has emerged since independence. However, the main themes of the novel are universal, such as the difficulties of communicating properly with our own relatives and of achieving fulfilment in life. It is essentially a comedy, but is as poignant and telling about human nature as it is funny. With a simple plot where not much actually happens, it is packed with the sort of small incidents that are the fabric of everyday life and mean something to all of us. The flashback material provides a rich diversity of amusing sub-plots and minor characters.
The main action takes place in Warsaw over a twelve-hour period on 17 January 1997, almost ten years after the collapse of communism in Poland. That day Hintz helps his widowed father to hold a farewell do at the hospital where he has worked for fifty years. As Hintz describes that day, he recalls how he failed to fulfil the hopes vested in him by his mother, who was herself artistically unfulfilled and dissatisfied with life in general – no one and nothing can please her. In flashbacks to the sad reality of communist Poland, each successive attempt he makes to achieve the career she desires for him is more ridiculous than the last. Equally tragic-comic are his wider family’s attempts to live meaningful lives in this absurd and frustrating environment.
Hintz has certain obsessions in his life, which he approaches with varying degrees of success. At the better end of his achievements he plays the stock market. Much less successful are his attempts to learn foreign languages, though he is fascinated by them and by the power of speech, both of which are thematic throughout the novel.
Beautifully written, this is an amusing novel with a profound message, moving and absorbing on every page.

- Dorota Krawczyńska

It was a terrible dream.

At first I couldn’t find my bearings in it – I didn’t know what I was actually dreaming about, what I felt afraid of, or what those big chunks of raw meat were supposed to be; despite being beaten to a bloody pulp, they were still showing signs of life.
Only a while later, when an image loomed out of the confusion, moved towards me and came into sharp focus did I catch sight of an infinite multitude of human tongues, torn from the living or the dead, tongues that somebody’s invisible hands were using to erect a huge pyramid-shaped building, or else a sky-high sacrificial pyre.
I watched in horror as more and more tongues kept appearing: brown, livid blue, or almost black, and it looked to me as if thousands, millions of mouths still had power over them, for even as they joined up, lumped together and turned into the shapeless mass that was serving as a building material, never for a moment did they come to a standstill  they just kept on moving in feverish convulsions, as if the whole of mankind, cruelly mutilated, as if the whole world – our world – were… crying for help? asking a question? cursing? praying? begging for mercy?
I was surprised I hadn’t woken up with a scream of alarm, bathed in a fearful sweat. Why did I wake up without the slightest sense of fear? I simply opened my eyes and found myself lying in bed, breathing deeply and evenly; my congenital heart defect wasn’t making itself apparent, and altogether my return to reality was calm, extremely calm.
Here I was at home in Warsaw, in my flat on the first floor of a low-rise house on Henryk Siemiradzki Street, named after the artist who a hundred years ago painted the pictures on an enormous canvas, the biggest theatre curtain in Europe.
The winter’s day was taking its time to get up. Darkness still reigned, and I could only read the titles of the books on the shelves surrounding me from memory. I raised my head to check the time on the Sony tower. The digital clock said six, so it was five; I hadn’t yet reset the clock since the time change that autumn, so it was running an hour fast.
I spent a while trying to remember the name of the winter time we’d moved to: was it eastern, western, or central European? I thought it must be eastern, but I had some doubts. Maybe in fact it was western? Anyway, it made no difference. Ever since the Spirit had come down and renewed the face of the earth - this earth, ever since the communists had given up power, ever since the wall had come tumbling down and the Empire had collapsed, the time changes announced each year no longer had the symbolic political meanings I used to bestow on them with such childish naivety.
It was five. Five-o-three.
I knew that not long now, as soon as the final hour of nocturnal silence was over, the concrete mixer would roar into life under the old tenement building opposite, where mansard apartments were being built in the spacious attic for the employees of an American bank; the goods lift would also start rasping to and fro in its steel shaft, summoned by shouts of:
I should have slept for at least two more hours, but I wasn’t drowsy. I lay there with my eyes open, listening to my heart beat, and for the first time in ages I couldn’t feel the slightest irregularity, as I wondered what the newly breaking day would bring me.
That day my eighty-two-year-old father was going to work for the last time ever, and I had promised to help him take in a cake and some pastries that he planned to offer his guests at a modest farewell party.
As a graduate of the Cadet Corps and a Second Lieutenant of Infantry, in September 1939 he was taken prisoner by the Germans, and spent five years in a POW camp at Woldenberg before returning to Poland – the new Poland, where he said goodbye to his uniform, got married, became a pharmacist and started work at his father-in-law’s – my grandfather’s - pharmacy. Soon after, when the communists took all the pharmacies away from their private owners he went to work for the state and tried to make ends meet.
At the city isolation hospital, which before the war had belonged to the Bauman family, my father was never once late for work and never missed a single day. He just worked and worked, doing the best he could, and after twenty-five years on Labour Day – the First of May  he was given a Bronze Service Cross and an imitation pigskin briefcase. To mark the occasion, the health service workers’ trade union newspaper published an article about him, with a photo.
My father regarded the final sentence of the article as scandalous, and angrily hid his copy of Health Care away. We had to spend a long time asking him to show it to us. When my mother finally got hold of it and saw the headline to the piece about my father, she burst into hysterical laughter.
“FROM THE BAYONET TO THE TABLET”, it said, and at first I thought it very funny too.
“Well, I never… What an idea! ‘From the bayonet to the tablet’?” said my mother, shaking her head in disbelief and, laughing though tears, she read the article aloud.
“The field-marshal’s baton itself may have lain in wait in his knapsack, but Rudolf Hintz was destined for another responsible post in the service of his motherland, the Polish People’s Republic”, she read the final sentence, froze with her mouth open, as if struck dumb in mid-word, then furiously threw the newspaper to the floor and began to trample it underfoot. I watched as the photo of my father in his white coat was ripped to shreds.
“What a dreadful rag! What a dreadful rag!” screamed my mother. “I’ve never read such nonsense in all my life. Why didn’t they say how much he earned and how he was supposed to keep a family on it?”
I knew something awful was just about to happen. My father was staring at my mother, clenching his teeth, and trying to fold up the ragged newspaper.
For as long as I can remember, my parents never lived in harmony.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones