They say this is not the time of great novels, yet every so often a book appears that contradicts this thesis. This impressively lengthy book, with its full-blooded characters, takes up literature's eternal themes: the fate of a man caught up in history, his national and existential entanglements, love, death, war... This is Szczepan Twardoch's Morphine.
The protagonist of this nearly six-hundred-page novel set in 1939 Warsaw is Konstanty Willemann, a thirty-year-old whose vast biography could easily be divided among several people. On the one hand, he is Hela's husband and Jureczek's father, while on the other he is a womanizer, nubile Sala's lover, a bon vivant and a morphinist. The son of the fanatical Katarzyna, a Silesian woman who chose her Polish identity, and a German officer of aristocratic heritage, he does not feel any attachment to either of his national options. He is a second lieutenant attempting to avoid his military duties, while at the same time a grotesque conspirator pulled into the underground resistance against his will. He is reminiscent of characters from the literature of Gombrowicz and Witkacy, and there are also echoes of Mickiewicz's Konrad Wallenrod and Andrzej Munk's films, full of opportunists thrown into war, not believing in the patriotic ethos.
Twardoch is as interested in Willemann's personal problems as he is in his troubles with the war, his identity and his nationality—a "man without a heart or a country." Torn between the "saintly woman" (his wife Hela), with his obligations as a husband and father, and the demonic, dissolute Sala, between loyalty to his friend Jacek and passion towards his wife, Iga, Konstanty develops into a fascinating character who is ambiguous, repulsive and cynical. As is often the case in the best kind of literature, we root for him, despite the fact that it is difficult to sympathize with him.
Morphine pulls you in just like the drug the book is named after, carrying off the reader with its rushing, pulsating rhythm. Despite its nineteenth-century dimensions, the novel is very contemporary in terms of its language. Thanks to Twardoch, we are transported to Warsaw during the first weeks of the German occupation, wandering through a variety of suspicious places and burned-out streets; we meet an entire cross-section of people and watch their complex fates unfold over a period of many years. A strange voice follows our protagonist step by step—a mysterious power that knows both the past and the future. We do not know if this is some mechanism that exercises control over the world, Evil, or the title drug whispering malevolent spells into our protagonist's ear. Szczepan Twardoch is a keen observer, a harsh analyst of the world around him. He avoids obvious conclusions or simple diagnoses—he shows a man tossed about by the whirlwinds of history and his own impulses, someone with more shameful sides to his character than good. Perhaps this is just the way the world is.
Szczepan Twardoch (born 1979) is an essayist and columnist. He recently published the warmly received novel Wieczny Grunwald [Eternal Grunwald] and a collection of essays Tak jest dobrze [It's Good Like That]. He is an expert on the language and culture of Silesia, as well as in the field of weapons. For Morphine he received Polityka's prestigious "Paszport," an award for artists who define new directions in the development of Polish culture.
It's me. Disheveled hair, pale mug, two-days' growth.
Only now is everything coming to me, or rather coming back: the city destroyed, no longer mine, Hela and Jureczek in our flat in the Wedel building on Madalińskiego Street, the mobilization, the siege, the surrender, Starzyński raving about the disgrace of the German army fighting the poor people of Praga, commendations, back pay, Ksyk's insanity and his black mustache, after our surrender we move from our positions at Sielecki Park and on Parkowa Street to the light cavalry's barracks where we're meant to wait for imprisonment, but I'm not going to be taken prisoner, the babbling on about how we have to continue to fight, the colonel lets me leave, go, go, absolutely right, we've got to continue fighting, we'll bury my pistol, along with a few of my friends' guns, in the Sisters of Nazareth's garden on Czerniakowska Street, then we'll burn our uniforms, even our boots, in the stove, though it's a shame to do that to our boots, it stinks horribly, I'm not going to be a prisoner of war, there's no way. And earlier, along with the mobilization—a promise. Sobriety. After our surrender it was limited to sobriety à la m, which explains the last bottles of wine yesterday, where can you get wine now? Nowhere. Hiding out, what a circus!
Smoke above the burning Citadel, so noble and beautiful. We send a brotherly greeting to soldiers fighting on the Hel peninsula, the radio presenter is speaking in a trembling voice, long live Poland, Poland hasn't perished yet. But it has.
I give up.
I drink a little more water, straight from the bucket, I lift it up with strong arms, until my stomach swells again like a wineskin. A mirror. It's me, it's me, it's me.
I hate this place. I hate it.
"Aniela, make me some coffee!" I yell, my scream piercing my temples with thick nails, like Pontius Pilate's fingers.
"There ain't no coffee!" she patiently shouts back from the flat, she shouted the same thing yesterday.
I know there isn't any, so why am I yelling?
"Well then make me some tea."
"There ain't no tea. I just lit the stove. But what for, what for?"
"What's there to eat?"
"Nuthin'. Sir, you gotta go, gotta buy somethin'. They're sellin' bread on Mirowska Street, 30 groszy a kilo, the ration's a quarter loaf."
Aniela purrs, she purrs from the kitchen, from the little kitchen in this little flat, where they sublet yet another tiny room, a room in which it stinks like an old lady, it stinks like boiled cabbage and onions, even though she certainly hasn't cooked a single onion or cabbage for at least a month, but it still stinks, or maybe it just seems like it should stink of cabbage and onions, or maybe it should stink of tripe and I'm bringing forth these smells for myself, I'm imagining them in order to raise my spirits?
Out into the city, I must go out. Leave this flat and not come back. Outside—rain, freezing cold. Back to the bathroom. To shave or not to shave? Shave, with cold water? I'll shave. And tidy up my hair. But without brilliantine, even though there is some, in the package on the shelf, but this isn't the time for brilliantine, wartime, so just a comb, in order not to go around disheveled. And then aspirin, two. They're also running out. Then an undershirt, long underwear, socks. Then I put on a thick Scottish wool jacket, underneath it I'm wearing a warm pullover. Hat. Scarf. I won't take an overcoat, it's still too early for an overcoat. It's not enough, not enough. Tweed keeps the warmth in, but it's not enough. Clothing, as proof that I'm somebody, but I'm nobody. As protection from the end of the world, as a reminder that I am—not just anybody.
Me, this is me. I am Konstanty Willemann, I like cars, elegant clothes, I don't like horses, uniforms or losers. I'm—not just anybody. Or am I?
But it's for nothing, for nothing. I look at myself in the mirror, me, it's me, but the world has ended and in this world—me, it's not me anymore. And even if it were, I'd certainly be nobody. Even in expensive clothes, in expensive shoes. Nobody. Exactly.
I'm leaving. The door closes behind me contemptuously. It's mocking me, this old door, Aniela's door, not my door, though it is mine. I'm leaving. I won't come back. I don't know yet where I'll go, but I won't come back here.
I left, not my city. Windows without panes, where they were, they're papered over with crosses, St. Andrew's window crosses, on these crosses our lives have been crucified, but more often there's only blank plywood and black eye sockets of gouged-out window frames and ripped out panes. Stores are closed, boarded up or trashed, instead of stores commerce is in the streets, people are selling everything: English riding boots, combs, lamps and food for exorbitant prices. And the people, babushkas from outside Warsaw, God knows where they got their wares from, elegant women, bandits, small-time hoodlums, youngsters. Society is now dissolved, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there are no ladies, there are no whores, there is neither professor nor thief. Goods from smashed-up stores, from robberies or regular looting, or their own furs, the old world has melted away onto the streets, onto newspapers and cardboard, the order of things is flowing away like melted crystal, fur coats coveted in this cold October have made their way from their rightful closets onto the streets, from the streets into improper hands, some horrid woman is trying to sell a cavalry saddle, pulled off someone's horse, pulled out from under someone's ass and who needs a stock saddle? Maybe you could strap it on your back and carry Germans through the streets.
They may well shoot her.
“They can shoot you for that, woman,” I say.
“If you're not buying, sir, get going, sir...!”
So I leave. It's good that I have money, and I have it because I'm clever. At first I'm walking along, clever as I am, I'm going down Krochmalna Street, Jews appear, they want to sell me everything, but only for dollars and gold, they're in a hurry and are damned frightened, but I keep going, I don't look at the Jews, I'm going to Hala Mirowska, to buy some bread, fatback, eggs. Only half of the stalls are manned. Crazy prices, a kilo of bread for a zloty seventy. Municipally distributed bread for thirty groszy is no longer available, it's all gone. Have to pay market prices, worse than from a Jew. I take a kilo. Apart from the bread, I buy a cup of curdled milk, a filthy cup on a string, for ten groszy the stallholder ladles milk from the milk can for anyone who wants some, I pay, to hell with the filthy lip prints on the tin cup, I drink, it helps.
It doesn't help. A woman has chocolate, from before the war, one bar twelve zloty. Twelve! I take three zlotys' worth for Jureczek, with her dirty hands the woman breaks some off, wraps it in newspaper.
With food in my briefcase, because I'm not going to carry a bag in my hand like some servant, I continue on. When you've got money, you can get anything, you can survive anything.
And I have some. In August, a week before the mobilization, I cleaned out my account with PKO, I didn't have a lot, but there was something, so I cleaned it out, I was so prudent, so wise, I bought gold at an exorbitant price, but a prewar price, I bought dollars and so now I have some, and Hela also has something to feed Jureczek with, I think about this proudly, avoiding the line in front of PKO, I purposefully take a roundabout way, so I can take a look at that line that winds all the way to the Philharmonic, they're only allowing withdrawals of fifty zloty at a time, people are looking at each other with wolves' eyes from under the brims of their hats and in those looks: sanacja, thieves, damned colonels, where is our, my money!
But I've got some. Because I'm clever, and people are idiots.