Tsaptsarap is a set of short stories linked by the same narrator/main character. A middle-aged writer and journalist, in most of the stories he features as the observer of some trivial, ordinary events; he only takes an active part in a few of them. However, he keeps an eye on everyday life, overhearing and grabbing hold of anything he finds meaningful or that might have a certain symbolic or metaphysical significance. Liskowacki places this curious voyeur in three principal locations: a seaside sanatorium, a hospital and some city buses. To some extent these settings determine the subject matter of the stories. The sanatorium and hospital stories are mainly about human attitudes and behaviour, and in Bus Stories, as the other set is called, we can detect an aim to produce a collective portrait of the contemporary Polish people. The things the bus passengers say make up a catalogue of the opinions, fears and illusions of the so-called ordinary citizen. It is probably no accident that Liskowacki has given his book the title of one of the Bus Stories. The now rather obsolete word “tsaptsarap” is usually associated with cunning theft. The way of thinking that sees modern-day Poland as a country that has been thoroughly plundered is an extremely persistent, universal “folk” stereotype. There are many mistaken myths of this kind that ordinary, simple citizens feed on. However, that does not mean Tsaptsarap is a journalistic book. Instead, Liskowacki is interested in tiny scraps of real life, micro-events, the petty dialogues and ordinary situations that no one really notices – no one regards these little specks of life as having any meaning. No one except for the wordsmith, who closely observes the world around him and eavesdrops on it just as closely.
* A Russian word coined by Alexander Pushkin, implying “he upped and grabbed it”. (Translator’s note.)
- Dariusz Nowacki
Artur Daniel Liskowacki (born 1956) writes fiction, poetry, essays, radio plays and children’s books. He is also a newspaper columnist and theatre critic.
It was just after we joined the Union, maybe even the day after.
I was travelling downhill, past the church, towards the old brickworks, which was nothing but a pile of bricks, and onwards steeply, wildly, along Warcisław Street.
For some reason I felt guilty as soon as I got on board.
Lately people have been staring a bit too hard at the headlines in their newspapers for me to be able to feel guilt-free, or at least punishment-free.
Fortunately people are reading less and less; when they stop reading altogether, especially in public, universal peace will reign.
I was standing next to an old man; white hair with a bald patch, a waistcoat with nine pockets (why do retired people need so many pockets? for bullets, a second wallet, photos of all their grandchildren?), when tappity-tap went his fingernail against the dusty window-pane.
Beyond which a lorry was rolling by, long and really heavy. Pine trunks tied in bundles. They looked as if they’d just been felled. I could almost smell the odours of wood and sun-baked bark.
I could almost hear them creaking on the bend that the vehicle transporting them took too slowly. But not slowly enough to make way for the bus, from which I was watching it.
The old man stopped tapping with his fingernail, as if he were keeping mum.
“It has started,” he said at last. And nodded. “It has started.”
It wasn’t as if he were talking to me, because he hadn’t so much as glanced at me the whole time I’d been standing next to his seat, yet I felt called upon to reply. Anyway, what he’d said was already an answer – I simply didn’t know the question.
“Yes,” I said hesitantly. Too hesitantly for him to be able to ignore it.
He cast a glance over his shoulder, but not in a way that gave me the chance to catch his eye. I didn’t instantly realise that was what he wanted. Or rather didn’t want – to catch my eye, that is. He just wanted me to see that he was casting a glance in my direction. Quite so.
“Tsap-tsarap,” he said, looking at the pine trunks, now visible from the cut-off end. White fields, dead tree rings. He laughed dryly, and coughed. “Tsap-tsarap,” he repeated, with strange, almost painful relief, as if he were coughing something up, spitting something out. Something that lay heavy inside.
By now I had guessed why I was guilty – of explaining.
However, the fact that he was sitting and I was standing created an awkward arrangement. He was lower down, but I was no higher, because I was standing to attention. I was staring at the back of his neck, and he at the window. He was looking ahead, thus as if talking to no one, and I was talking to him, bending slightly, and therefore seeming humble.
But I gave it a try.
“So why do you think that…” I hesitated. Maybe that wasn’t what he meant? Something, nothing. Nothing of mine.
“Tsap-tsarap,” he repeated with an obstinacy that was in fact aimed at me.
“…that someone is taking them away from us. Transporting them out of here,” I concluded. “Why do you think that’s such a bad thing? Timber normally gets traded. It’s traded, and it makes a big profit,” I said, wading in deep, flunking the lecture on economics that’s spitefully political these days.
He laughed, almost happily now. He still didn’t look at me.
And so I couldn’t move, though I wanted to go on my way. Leave him alone, Tsaptsarap, with his prophecy-come-true, with his expert’s evidence. But then he would have stayed with me all the more. With my stuttering truth about trade, my fanfaronade, all my wise guy’s knowledge, my guilt, for all our sins.
“Tsap-tsarap,” he said, more quietly somehow, as if he’d forgotten about me.
We passed the viaduct, and went on down the hill, stern, grey apartment houses of the German proletariat, Anders Square, where they sleep on benches and piss in the bushes (red noses on Monte Cassino), Manhattan coming up.
The marketplace, stall to stall, and cops only in pairs now, more like the city defence, less of the offence, not to the city, at any rate, potatoes, beetroots, bananas, shoes by the weight, bras hung out on a wire fence, second-hand booksellers, amounting to a son’s school reading and a faded Winnetou, to spread out on the pavement and pick cherries for liqueur.
The lorry loaded with timber was jolting along ahead of us, we were still behind it. If we went straight, we could climb up Piotr Skarga Street, passing Tuwim.
Bring us home wheat from the Polish field, bring us home coffins of Polish pine. Ah, I made myself choke, ah, how true. As if I were the one yearning for that corn in the pine coffin.
“I do understand you,” I said in a solemn but placatory tone, “but the world has changed a bit. It seems to you that way.”
“Leave the old man alone,” said the one behind me, who was closer than I’d reckoned. Smaller than me, with the narrow, hard little face of someone who knows he is in the majority. I took a look around, no one was looking at us.
We slowed down, to turn into the depot, right by the shop. The lorry had evidently chosen the city centre, the long Liberation road.
“What do you mean? I’m just explaining. Do you know why?”
“Leave the old man alone,” he repeated, and turned towards the window. But chiefly away from me.
There I stood with my mug open, though my lips were sealed.
“They’re taking everything away from us,” said the old man. He glanced at me. “Everything.”
We stopped, end of the line, everyone off their own way.
I changed onto a tram, and onwards, to the city. I did my things, a few of other people’s things, until evening. Wondering at moments for wondering, if Tsaptsarap’s eyes were glazed when he glanced at me. I thought they were, and I got the urge to check what he’d seen. I went into the toilet and washed my hands, in order to look in the mirror.
“Tsap-tsarap,” I said to myself. “Tsap-tsarap. We take everything away. From everyone. All of us, always.”
I couldn’t manage a smile. I switched off the light in the toilet, took my toys and went home.
At the stop I checked the departure times. They made sense. I had about fifteen minutes until the express. So I stood and waited.
And just then, coming down the other side of the street, I saw a lorry, moving slowly, as if its wheels were buckled. Its long platform was loaded with pines. There was another one following it. And behind that yet another, and another after that. And another. Right to the very end of the street, all the way to the forest.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones