"The Golden Dozen" is an anthology of seventeen short stories by twelve of Poland’s leading authors, written over the last few decades. The concept behind the collection seems to be to reflect Polish “post-war destiny”. Thus it includes tales about the settlement of the western lands that became Polish territory after the war (including stories by Stefan Chwin and Paweł Huelle) and related attempts to get the better of Chance and Being Alien, which also meant accepting some German heritage as an element of one’s own tradition (as in the stories by Włodzimierz Kowalewski and Olga Tokarczuk), including the history of Gdańsk or what used to be Eastern Prussia. But the main topic of these stories is the reality of communist Poland, seen from its dark side and also in a comic, satirical light: Stanisław Barańczak’s story is about the terror and wickedness of small-town “influence” with the authorities, Huelle’s is about the good-natured heroism of a true professional who refuses to turn a blind eye to sloppy work, Libera writes about the absurdities arising from Poland’s economic situation, Bronisław Maj about a performance by the rock group The Animals in workers’ Łódź, and Tokarczuk about the beginning of martial law, seen through the eyes of an English psychology professor who doesn’t know what is going on. These authors are trying to understand the essence of communism as something that coloured daily life and human values (as in the stories by Zbigniew Mentzel and Janusz Weiss).
Historical and political themes do not fill the entire volume; philosophical reflection and thoughts about the meaning of life are just as important here. These themes come to the fore in the stories by Chwin, Kowalewski, Tokarczuk, Eustachy Rylski and Adam Zagajewski. An alternative to being involved in politics is to do battle with the void and expose the absurdity of life, which is clearly in evidence in Rylski’s or Zagajewski’s stories. This ties in with thinking (sometimes with self-irony) about the paucity of the writing profession, as in Jerzy Pilch’s or Zagajewski’s stories, and also in the unusual juxtaposition of the two “Literary Evenings” by Kowalewski and Tokarczuk, which describe the same encounter, in Olsztyn in 1929, between Thomas Mann and his lover, seen once from the man’s and once from the woman’s point of view.
Extract from "A Short History of a Certain Joke" by Stefan Chwin A little later on I found out that everything might have been different: that is both the place, and me. It was a great shock to me. It turned out I wouldn’t have spoken Polish at all, if Father and Uncle hadn’t made it “at the last moment”. There was an inconsistency in this, because I should really have said I certainly wouldn’t have existed at all – but the point here was that I would have called everything by a different name, which was much harder to understand than the possibility that I might not have been born at all – the very idea that I would have used a different word for “tree”, “cat” or “Cathedral”.
“At the last minute” Father and Uncle had boarded a train that was going “to Olsztyn”. Later on I found out they travelled for a very long time, until they reached Nowy Dwór, where the train stopped, because it had run out of water. So they got out and stood by the tracks, spent a while gazing at the houses and trees, then set off towards the station buildings, while the train panted behind them under a pump as the tender took on water. But the steady panting was receding into the distance, because they were walking towards the station buildings, had already had enough of the journey and were wondering whether it really made any difference - it was quite a nice place, one could just as well live here too. So as they were walking along like that, my heart was beating hard, because they were getting further and further away from the train – they must have been thinking it wouldn’t be all that bad here, they’d find something for themselves, and my heart was beating loud, because the railwayman had already moved the pump nozzle away from above the tender, washed his hands in the remains of the water dripping from above, wiped them on his trousers and started to climb the steps to the locomotive, but they couldn’t see any of that because they were looking the other way entirely, towards the station building, which they had almost reached by now. The railwayman got into the locomotive and turned something under the boiler, there was a hiss of steam, a belch of smoke and a rumbling sound, the wheels began to clatter and ever so slowly the train moved off, but just then Father stopped, looked around once more, then said to Uncle: “Ech, no…” The train was moving quite fast by now, so they suddenly ran full pelt towards the tracks, because suddenly they felt like getting back on board, so they rushed across the points, past the semaphore, jumped across the wires and signal lights, and tripped over the tracks, but they made it! They caught up with the one-before-last carriage, then hop! And they were on board.
And so I was born in Gdańsk, to be precise at number 18 Poznańska Street in Oliwa, “the other side of the tracks”, in a house built before the war for workers from Schichau, although I might have been born in Nowa Wklejka or in the very fine town of Nowy Dwór. I never found out what had put Father off the charms of that city. The moment when he said “Ech, no…” has remained a mystery for ever.
That moment aroused my fears far more than the moment when Father had boarded the train in Wilno, holding a brown briefcase and gazing warily at the sunset blazing in farewell over Zamkowa Góra – because Father’s change of address and his move away from Wilno had been decided by Stalin, but who made the decision about that moment, quick as blinking, in Nowy Dwór? Leaving Zamkowa Góra, illuminated by the rosy light of the fading sunset that coloured the waters of the Wilia silvery-pink as it headed towards the Niemen, had a nostalgic beauty about it, although it was heart-breakingly painful. Touched by the finger of Fate, in a raincoat tied with a leather belt, as he stood at the end of the carriage staring at the disappearing hills of Kolonia Wileńska, Father was noble, but the man at Nowy Dwór station who said: “Ech, no…”? Can it possibly have been one and the same person? It was hard for me to connect the two of them. Over Zamkowa Góra, as it sank into the rays of the sunset, the mighty shadow of a uniformed man with a moustache charted the journey for trains full of people who did not know what would happen next, but who was the shadow that put Father off the city of Nowy Dwór? And what was the driving force behind his desire to bring me into the world in Gdańsk, of all places?
That “Ech, no…” stuck firm at the roots of my being. If Father had only taken a more careful look around Nowy Dwór, if only he had inspected the streets, schools and water tanks, if only he had weighed up all the pros and cons. But here there was nothing of the kind! And this was to be my beginning? Everything was seething inside me. If only he hadn’t got out at all!!! If he hadn’t got out at all… Oh! Then the sheer agony of Exile would have turned up at the roots of my existence, and I would have had two fathers: the one travelling my way in the train from Wilno to Białystok, and that other one, who with a sweep of his uniformed arm had indicated to the train driver a faraway coastal city by the strange name of Danzig, which at his instance, as a result of artillery fire had changed into the city of Gdańsk, where Mama was also heading on the train from Warsaw to Gdynia, not knowing a thing, just wondering what the job would be like at the Medical Academy on Dębinki that she was due to start in September, because the house in Mokotów that she should have gone home to after the Uprising had been burned down by Hitler, leaving not even a single brick intact. This outstretched Arm with the uniform cuff, pointing at the black edifice of the “Marienkirche” looming in the distance above the foggy horizon, which in only a few days of artillery bombardment had changed into the “Mariacki Church”, indicated the site of The Meeting that would result in the arrival on Earth of a new sentient being, namely me. That Arm included me in its mysterious plans too: I was to owe it my existence as a crucial element of the post-war order of Europe.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones