The action of this novel takes place in 1939, in the months running up to the outbreak of the Second World War. It is set on the Polish-Ukrainian border, and its hero is a ten-year-old boy. This book is a sort of non-committal autobiography, derived from the author’s wish to recreate his own childhood, which was spent in that part of the world – such a beautiful place, but so painfully affected by inter-ethnic conflict. Thus antagonism grows between the Polish colonists who have settled in the borderlands of the old Polish Republic and the local Ukrainian population, although the child hero is not aware of it. Józek, as he is called, is the son of a Polish official whose wife is Ukrainian. The boy’s father has never come to terms with the fact that, in the view of the Polish colonists who dislike the local population, he has married into the wrong ethnic group. Featured psychoanalytically, this family thorn in the flesh is one of the novel’s major themes. The boy has clearly taken his mother’s side, and generally speaks to her in Ukrainian, and his adolescence is marked by rebellion against his father’s authority. Above all, The Golden Trumpet is a novel about growing up. Although the narrative’s limited time scale does not allow the author to provide a broader catalogue of Józek’s trials, we do get to see (mainly through flashbacks) how the darker side of reality is gradually revealed to him.
Bogdan Loebl was born in 1932 in the south-eastern borderlands of pre-war Poland. He has written poetry, prose, radio plays, newspaper articles, reportage and lyrics for songs, including the blues.
He kept running until the faint flicker in his chest had grown into a burning bush, biting at his lungs. The Orthodox church was near now, and behind it stood the bell tower, as yet out of sight. Exhausted by running, Józio leaned against a willow stump and gazed at the church, which was actually a rocky hill, covered in brown moss. If he could find the crevice that led inside he could hide from his father’s rage in there.
He looked up towards the cross with the slanted line through it that stood on its summit and crossed himself. He realised that his father’s rage would be even fiercer if he saw his son touching his brow, chest and arms three times with three fingers held together, as if he were a Ukrainian, not a Lach, the insulting name the local boys sometimes called him. But that hill, steeped in the odour of incense, was not a Catholic church, but an Orthodox one, now silent and locked with a huge silver key, though the adjoining bell tower was always open. Breathing freely now, Józio set off towards it, but after a few steps he was stopped by some alarming voices. Someone hidden behind the church or in the bell tower was groaning with pain, or trying to pour out their despair.
From round the corner of the church two old women emerged, locked in an embrace. They were moving in a sort of slow, arrhythmic dance. Their fingers were spread wide, plunged into each other’s ruffled white hair, while each was trying to kick the other’s legs, enveloped in long skirts, and even trying to bite each other, as horses harnessed to a single shaft might do; the festive headscarves they had tied on before leaving home were surely lying trodden in the mud somewhere behind the church.
Józio didn’t know whether to turn around or go past the women, who were drifting nearer to him. Terrified by their convulsive moaning and wheezing, he began to retreat, but the thought that this would take him nearer to the forest inspector’s orchard stopped him in his tracks.
The women were very close to him now. He thought he could feel the heat of their stale breath. Just a step or two, and their aged hands would catch him and pull him into their dance. He squeezed his way through between them and a ditch filled with muddy goo. Their eyes veiled in a mist of hatred, the women didn’t notice him, but perhaps the sound of his footsteps got through to them, because they stopped and turned their heads towards him. He saw tears running down the furrows of their ancient wrinkles from their half-closed eyes.
All at once the women stepped apart. The slightly smaller, stouter one pulled up her skirt, bent over and showed the taller one her bare backside. The taller one stood still for a moment, as if frozen with shock, then turned her back on the smaller one, bent over and lifted her skirt, too. Petrified by the whiteness and vastness of the women’s bare backsides, Józio set off at a run. Insults came flying after him, like stones. He expected to hear ”Lach”, the one he found particularly painful, but they obviously didn’t know this epithet.
He stopped and found to his amazement that the old crones weren’t looking in his direction at all, but were still taking turns to flash their bare backsides at each other.
Józio went into the bell tower and, clinging tight to the rungs, climbed to its upper floor. A deeply penetrating silence poured down on him from the upside-down chalice of the bell. Trying not to disturb it, he tiptoed up to a little window and looked down. The women were no longer in the road. Perhaps he had reminded them of the word of God and they had fallen to their knees at the church door, invisible from here, to ask forgiveness for the sins they had just committed?
A snow-white dove was sitting on the adjacent windowsill. It glanced at Józio and flew away.
Józio stared down the road that ran here from the forest inspector’s house. He didn’t know what he’d do if he saw his angry father’s britzka coming down it. Perhaps he would soar into the sky, like that dove just now, and fly away from Jasienio for ever?
All at once he had the dazzling thought that the unusually large bird was not a dove but the Holy Ghost, immortalised for centuries in oil paintings and drawings by artists gifted with the grace of God.
Struck with superstitious fear, Józio fell to his knees and, with the thumb, ring and index fingers of his right hand pressed together, he crossed himself three times, then raised his eyes to heaven and began to ardently beg the snow-white Ghost to heal Lolek’s broken nose before the forest inspector left home, and if He couldn’t do that in time, to make sure the britzka didn’t show up at all on the road from the inspector’s house.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones