Part and Parcel of Life

Paweł Potoroczyn
Part and Parcel of Life
  • Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal
    Warszawa 2013
    352 pages
    123x195
    ISBN 978-83-7747-833-2
    Translation Rights: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal

Part and Parcel of Life is a surprising, late debut which aims to outline the history of a community of Poles, not ‘focusing on the nobility’ but on the villagers: the peasants, the Jewish community, the presbytery, the partisans and, of course, the village women. The village is called Piórków. Its inhabitants are grim, vindictive and governed by innate urges. They are a community of decent people who check what each other is doing and inflict harm upon each other that affects whole generations, in a way that is human and commonplace, part and parcel of life. Part and Parcel, which was well received by critics, has been written in meticulously worked, stylised, flexible language, which manages to encompass the realities of peasant life and the author’s irony along with a different angle from the standard Polish stance which sees only heroes and martyrs. The vitality of this story lies in the astuteness of its farcical characterisation and its derisive way of reducing national issues, such as resistance to the German occupying forces, to nitty-gritty reality, bringing them down to earth and down to bodily motives. It all starts with a funeral, since, as we read in the book, “In Piórków there was more of a buzz at funerals than at weddings or the picture house or in sparks of electricity.” The village tradition that one and all would attend a funeral – because tickets and invitations were unnecessary and if it were an enemy being laid to rest a funeral provided “pure delight” – seems to be a metaphor for the entire Polish community’s approach to life, focusing on funeral rituals and concealing its murky, primitive, impulsive behaviour behind uplifting images of Our Saviour and Our Lady. The author of 'Part and Parcel of Life does not hold the adherence to ritual in peasant culture to be either sacred or profane in its own right. Along with everything else these matters are subject to chance, fate, psychological influences and the historical forces which sweep through the village. Good and evil coexist and intermingle – always and everywhere. The ebb and flow of life and death, acted out in the wedding processions and funeral cortèges which trail through the village, gives no basis for assessing, weighing up or curbing the uneven measure of virtuous deeds and misdemeanours. One goes one way, the other another.

There are several key storylines which are interwoven in the book: the main one tells of the love between Jaś Smyczek, a gifted musician and womaniser, and Wanda, the beautiful baker's wife. Neither the priest nor the villagers can forgive them for living in sin. Smyczek, a partisan, is killed by a German bullet in the opening scene of the novel. The reader is taken back in time to explore the tangled web of Piórków's inhabitants' lives: those of the gentry, the peasants, the Jews and even the Germans. The characters include female communists, artists and globetrotters. Potoroczyn writes a new style of rural prose, which has been freed from the usual black-and-white approach and religious patriarchal order. He draws on the traditions established by Reymont, Kawalec and Myśliwski, but in his prose there are also echoes of Gombrowicz's irony and the distinctive rhythms of Jerzy Pilch's local narratives. A hidden 'focus' of Part and Parcel of Life is its discussion of art, questions about who can be considered an artist and who is just dabbling and can only aspire to the role. There is a large dose of a new writer's self-mockery in these questions.

Kazimiera Szczuka

The note from Father Morga to Squire Radecki contained only two sentences. The first read, 'Grzegorz, I'll drop in on Saturday for afternoon tea and a game of Preference.' The second, 'Whatever you can do for the unfortunate soul who hands you this note will be done as if unto your brother and unto me.'

The squire took both these declarations to heart. He went to such great lengths over the tea that it was like a dinner: after the boletus mushroom soup, pikeperch and duck followed by poppy-seed cake, mead, fruit liqueurs and dry rye vodka there was not enough of the evening left for a game of Preference. He ordered quarters to be prepared for Smyczek in the attic – it was the manor house attic. Once the carriage taking Morga home disappeared down the avenue of poplars, he settled down to write a letter of recommendation to an old family friend.

There was no reason whatsoever why Mr Radecki should like Smyczek. The squire did not like him because Wanda had rejected the squire's advances; not just once, but twice. The first time was after the baker died. Outwardly she wore mourning, whereas under the covers, as it later became clear, she was coupling with Smyczek. And she rejected him for the second time when Jaś was serving time in Tarnów prison.

The squire did not like him because during the hunting season he had to send for Smyczek when he wanted to serve his guests partridge or hare; on his own he couldn't have hit a cart laden with hay from five paces.

The squire did not like him because once he had taken the libertine under his roof, in spite of himself, he could not help treating him better than the rest of the servants, in fact better even than he had treated the householders in the days when the manor in Olszany was still a family home. The squire did not like him because once he had shown Smyczek the pianoforte, from which the squire had never managed to extract a clear sound, the instrument was as good as lost together with the remains of his feeling of superiority.

The squire just did not like him and that was that.

The lord of the manor would have killed to be talented, in any way whatsoever, or even to have a semblance of talent, a shadowy trace of talent in any of the arts deemed worthy of pursuit. Although able to read music, he could not play any instrument. At best he could assist by turning the pages, avenging himself with an equivocal bow directed at the pianist, which gave to understand he was an artist of no less calibre who, merely due to a lack of boldness, accepted a secondary role with grace; a bow which expressed the belief that real genius is unassuming, whereas mere talent is more prone to flaunt itself. His portrayal of weariness was so convincing, he closed his eyelids and tipped his head back so genuinely, he flipped the skirts of his frock coat aside with such a perfect gesture as he sat down on the stool behind the pianist that he created the impression that a maestro had come to the manor house at Olszany to grace the homely musical gathering with his presence. The squire's études were so evocative that there was no doubt some of the applause was intended for him, and rightly and justly so.

From his early youth until well into maturity, the squire had tried his hand at poetry, as he assumed it did not require a natural gift as with music or painting, and that words were equally accessible to the deaf and the blind and their meaning fairly distributed amongst all those who were able to write. This assumption proved as false as his poetry regardless of whether he was writing odes in Russian, sonnets in English or haiku. A fatal tendency to overemphasise the point, a common blunder in verse, completely wrecked what Radecki himself considered the essence of poetry – freedom from literary constraints and freedom of expression. Although the rhythms, melodies and tones which are not at the disposal of those to whom writing comes with the utmost difficulty were indeed present in his poems, they had the facile, tinny ring of an enamel pail, whichever language he employed.

He was able to paint, it seemed, but an unnatural perspective betrayed him, so that even his relatively acceptable pictures seemed to have been painted by a long-sighted person who had to stand four paces away from the canvas to see the shapes and colours which had made their way onto it, a person who from close up could only see brush strokes and particles of paint. Or perhaps he had the ability, but didn't like to exercise it except in the case of his self-conscious nudes of young boys whose ethereal substance frozen in banal poses pointed towards dithering in the face of new discoveries, while the small lips and huge genitals gave an indication of the artist's state of anguish. The exceedingly troublesome stratagems required to obtain models caused him to paint rarely and with great trepidation.

It was the squire's misfortune – a curse bestowed on him by his rigorous education and truly good taste – that he was conscious of his lack of talent. Unfortunately he was not aware that to express yourself you need to know who you are.

He abandoned all attempts at singing when he was still a boy after noticing the somewhat troubled expressions on his parents' faces. 'You need not sing, dear,' said his mother, 'perhaps you could just tell us about it.'

Many a time the squire had wondered how Morga, who, after all, was a newcomer to the area – indeed no more than a drifter in terms of the Radecki and Gieskaner families, who could trace their roots back in these parts some four hundred years – commanded the peasants' obedience to the extent that they immediately did whatever he ordered, sometimes without even a murmur or the customary grumble. He wasn't particularly clever or learned; his excessive pride made him merciless, although he was fair, in his own way. The authority conveyed by age might have explained it, except that Morga wasn't that old. Perhaps the reason why he was less respected by the womenfolk for whom a vigorous male, even one wearing robes, will always just be a bloke (all the more so if he is virtuous) was that nothing arouses a peasant woman's curiosity as much as indifference or impotence, and nothing reduces the respect she feels more than such curiosity. And perhaps the same causes gave rise to the respect he was accorded by the menfolk because he wasn't yet old but had already voluntarily joined the other camp, so to speak.

In addition to all this the squire, while not understanding why Smyczek obeyed Morga's dictum and abandoned the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, had reasons and obligations of his own to obey the parish priest. And so he wrote a letter which began with the words, 'Dear Uncle, forgive me for approaching you directly, but I have no connections in the Gunbatsu. Since our last meeting in the imperial palace gardens, I have not asked for anything and I would not dream of squandering your time or putting you to any trouble for my own sake, but an opportunity has arisen to help an ordinary man of the sort you spoke of when we met.'

The letter ended with the words, '...otherwise it is only a matter of time until he ends up behind bars.'

The squire's projections were as simplistic as the silent films on show at the picture house in Częstochowa. Act I: Wicked Smyczek gets his just deserts and departs into exile. Act II: The squire throws his whole world at Wanda's feet (the intoxicating rush of a sleigh on sparkling snow, sunlight beaming through the treetops). In Act III Wanda succumbs to the squire (the whole picture spins), but in Act IV she is tormented by her guilty conscience (subtitle: What, oh what, have I done!), yet the squire asks for her hand in marriage (a diamond engagement ring shimmers in the candlelight).

Act V: Wicked Smyczek turns out to be innocent and, secretly assisted by the squire, he escapes from exile. Smyczek reconciles himself to his fate and the squire marries Wanda.

Or:

Act V: Smyczek, who has been unjustly convicted, returns from exile and forgives Wanda. As an act of contrition, the squire offers the newlyweds a generous trousseau.

Or:

Act V: Smyczek marries another woman or is killed in the war. Under duress from his family and society, with a heavy heart, the squire breaks off his engagement. Wanda tosses the ring into the village pond and bemoans her fate (Oh, woe is me!).

No reply ever arrived from the Marshal, but the squire's letter did the trick. Before two months were up, an army dispatch rider arrived at the manor house on his motorcycle with call-up papers for Smyczek.

Then, for the first time, in a letter to Wanda, Jaś used a treble clef for his signature. Without getting out of the motorcycle's sidecar, he gave the letter to Wawerek and asked him to deliver it. Wawerek agreed, tipped his hat and walked off towards Zatylna. Smyczek pulled the regulation goggles down over his eyes, the vehicle roared, filled the area with smoke, spun around on the spot and then disappeared down the road to Broniszewo in a flurry of dust and a curious stench of violet exhaust fumes.

Translated by Kasia Beresford