Greeks Go Home to Die

Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki
Greeks Go Home to Die
  • Znak
    Kraków 2013
    244 pages
    140x205
    ISBN: 978-83-240-2073-7
    Translation Rights: Agence Littéraire Pierre Astier & Associés

At the end of the 1940s, after the Greek civil war which was lost by the forces of the left, some fifteen thousand political refugees came to Poland. They settled mainly in Lower Silesian towns such as Bielawa, where Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki spent his childhood and early youth. The writer has dedicated this story to the Bielawa Greeks, his one-time neighbours. In the process, he once again brings up an issue which is very meaningful to him – the painful experience of emigration.
    
The central problem here is a sense of estrangement and an inability to put down roots, in a double sense. The novel’s main character, Sakis Sallas, despite having been born and educated in Poland, and thus entirely assimilated, will always be a foreigner. When he returns to the land of his ancestors in 1980, the same thing happens to him: in the eyes of the Greeks he is a “Polonos” (a Pole). But is this why his personal life consists of a string of defeats? We see him as an embittered fifty-year-old, formerly a journalist for an Athens-based paper, but now embarking on a career as a writer, who comes to a Greek island to write a novel about his family at a residential house for artists. But not only does he want to pay tribute to his adored Father and beloved Mother (who always have capital letters), and take a nostalgic look at his extremely happy childhood – his main aim is to conduct a private investigation. The fact is that Sakis is worried that he knows very little about his parents’ past; they consistently avoided reminiscence, and he rightly suspects that both of them are, or rather were (they died long ago), concealing a grim secret, and that their life story has a hidden dimension. The dreadful truth will be revealed in the final scene, and will totally immerse Sakis in sorrow.
    
Greeks Go Home to Die is told on two planes – recollections and the present. The former is filled with numerous, on the whole humorous small-town anecdotes, in which the main figure is the eccentric Father – an unrivalled dreamer and fantasist. They are supplemented by moving scenes from home life. Not much happens on the present-day narrative level, however – Sakis starts a relationship with one of the town’s residents, and then with the woman running the house for Greek authors. But it is hard to call these relationships love affairs. The women, Eris and Maria, make the hero aware that he is emotionally crippled.
    
To generalise, the most important feature here is the realm of the emotions, hence the “Greekness” of the novel – historical as well as cultural – seems more than conventional. These are just stage settings. At heart it is about family emotions, so to say, covering in the first place the relationship between a child and his parents, about a fulfilled fatherhood on the one hand, and about the empty place left by the father’s departure on the other. The latter seems particularly crucial, because Sakis’s father dies twice – once in reality, and once symbolically, when the truth is accidentally revealed about the disgraceful acts he committed before escaping to Poland.

Dariusz Nowacki
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki (born 1967) writes fiction and poetry. For many years he has lived outside Poland (in places including Iceland, and now Austria). His work includes novels and short stories, and to date he has published nine books. His fiction is full of oddballs, lunatics, misfits and people who have been uprooted, or sometimes derailed, who refuse or are unable to find their own unambiguously defined place in life.

Father had tried his hand at various occupations. He wasn’t able to hold a steady job like Mother. In sickness and in health. Starting on the hour, on the dot, or even earlier. Always the same, ever the same. From the first of the month to the first of the next. Rhythm wasn’t a notion that suited my dear Daddy. My Papa, like the King he was, the owner of the green throne he had brought over to the new house, adored change, motion, the turmoil of life.  Something always had to be happening. A little fuss, a tiny revolution, because, after all, my father, Dad, Daddy, dearest Daddy, the self-professed revolutionary, the guerrilla from the distant mountains, would offer his services to anyone who had a cargo to unload. Whenever a train arrived bringing something or someone, he would be the first to meet it. If anything broke off, got smashed or failed to arrive, a mysterious surge of strength would drive him to lift, fix, put away, insert and remove everything in sight. He would return home exhausted but happy, with money in his pocket. And on those occasions he would give me a penny, saying here’s some money, my boy, it’s good money, honestly earned. Go to a pastry shop, my boy, and get yourself something sweet, and don’t forget about your Mother, don’t forget to get her a cream puff. A cream puff for your Mother and whatever you fancy for yourself. And off I’d go with a golden coin proffered by the King of all Seas and Oceans. Sometimes I could even keep the change.
As years went by his back started to give way. He was simply getting older. I have to add that we weren’t the only people of our kind in our town but Daddy wasn’t keen on their company. They had come from another mountain, another forest, and had a different perspective on the world. Perhaps a more pragmatic one, and besides, it wasn’t right for a King to have dealings with commoners. He regarded some of them as traitors because they had converted to Catholicism. Some of them had even started to believe in God, and still others were not from his unit. Those who were had preferred to settle in Czechoslovakia for some reason. They had gone their separate ways at some stage of their journey, never to be heard of again. Mum had also converted to Catholicism and went to church, she even had me baptised. Apparently Father didn’t speak to her for over a month. But she was different, she could do whatever she liked, for Father was grateful for her industriousness and, above all, he loved her. In the early days, when life had been very difficult, Mummy used to say: we’ve got potatoes, we’ve got onions, we’ve got garlic, we’ll survive. And there was nothing she couldn’t conjure up for Father using these scant ingredients. What’s for dinner tonight? Tonight, my dearest, we’re having stuffed grape leaves. Mum would grate some potatoes, add a few eggs, a little garlic and a pinch of pepper, wrap it all up in layers of peeled onion and stick it into the oven. Dolmathakia yaladzi is being served! I look at my Father and can see that he wants to believe it’s not just plain potatoes. He revels in the food. The stuffed grape leaves melt on his tongue, he takes his time with each mouthful. He is back home now, back in the old country. The sun is shining, there is a soft breeze. After a while he raises his eyes towards heaven and says, there’s a little cloud coming but it will go away very soon, picking up another piece of the magic deception with his fork. More quiet mumbling. Swallowing. Wonderful, my dear, wonderful. What an exquisite starter. What’s for mains? How can you even ask? It’s your favourite! Don’t say you’ve made beef stew with chestnuts? Slices of potato sizzle in the frying pan. Mummy fries them until they turn golden, really golden. First on one side then on the other. She seasons them with pepper and salt. Then tips them out onto a plate. The onion splashes about in the burnt oil, Mum adds a spoonful of sugar and waits for the onion to go all sheeny and brown. She tips it out onto the potatoes and tops it with chopped garlic. Kreas me kastana! Wildfire burns in Dad’s eyes. He swallows the main course faster than the starter. His chin shakes, he buries it in his plate. And the beef with chestnuts disappears in the cavernous stomach of my King of all Oceans. And what about dessert? What are we having for dessert? Would ravani do, except without semolina, just some orange peel. It’ll do fine. Mum fishes out some orange peel, bone-dry from a jar, probably a leftover from the Germans. She puts it in the frying pan, covers it with boiling water, adds a little fat and a spoonful of sugar. Here’s your dessert, here you go. It’s the best dessert in the world, Daddy thanks her. He brushes her careworn hands with his red beard, bristly like a new whisk. Father’s whisk on Mum’s hand, that’s the best thank you. After a while, once the regal dinner has opened up new nooks and crannies in Poseidon’s brain, for the sugar was plentiful and the meal was lovely and festive, Father says to Mum: I can’t go on with the unloading. I’m getting old. But I’m not up to your kind of work either. I would die of boredom there, working shifts would kill me. That’s not how I want to meet Him. What, then? What do you want, what would you like to do? The King scratched his belly. He stroked his red beard. He put a cigarette in his mouth. Struck a match. He watched the flame. He was lost in thought and let the match go out. A trail of smoke shrouded the Red Sea. It twisted and turned, disappearing in its depths. Warszawa, he said. There’s a guy at the other end of town who wants to sell a Warszawa car.  
Once my parents were slightly better off, after Father had won some money at cards and earned some by unloading, and because Mum kept meeting 200 percent quotas working insane hours in the textile factory, and they had saved up, borrowed and scrimped and saved every penny they could, they somehow managed to buy a secondhand Warszawa. It was grey, like everything else in Poland in those days. Like Warsaw, the capital my Dad had once visited. He had felt the need to go to the Greek Embassy. He had gone there to ask for something, to try and explain something, but had come back empty-handed and sad and later told us what had happened. Warsaw is just like our Warszawa, it’s all grim and grey, sometimes growling like a stray dog. It’s full of concrete and it’s all dug-up. And it’s much bigger than our Warszawa. Oh yes, much, much bigger. If you look at the back seat, and then through the back windshield, the other Warsaw stretches way, way further. Its end is nowhere in sight and neither is the end of its sadness. If at least it were somewhere in the mountains or on the seaside. But it’s on a flat plain, with no cicadas chirping, just the police directing traffic with their whistles and batons. Even though there’s not much traffic to direct, since everyone drives however they want anyway. It’s much nicer here. Much, much nicer...  And so the Warszawa became a taxi. One of the four taxis in town. And Father became one of the four taxi drivers, the only foreigner among them.
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He used to park at the taxi stand in the main square and wait for a phone call, for the taxi stand had its own phone, like a public phonebox except they were the only ones who could use it. Daddy would wait for a call from those who were better off, for there were some rich people in our town, too. And sometimes people who were not so rich but needy would turn up. Those who had no money, or not enough, would come back later, with various tokens of their gratitude. Anything from food to wicker baskets. His kindness had elevated my Father to the status of a minor hero with a red beard, until people started coming to the taxi stand and demanding a ride from the Greek and no other driver. The Greek is good. He knows the way and talks funny. If the Greek drives you, you get where you want to go. And if you don’t have the money the Greek will wait, or you can give him something else instead. When it happened that all four drivers were at the taxi stand together and the phone rang, and Father was second or third, or perhaps fourth and last in line, and the first driver took the call, the voice usually asked, is the Greek there, can the Greek come? Dad wasn’t stupid, kings are rarely as stupid as taxi drivers, and after all, my Father wasn’t really a taxi driver, he was a King driving a taxi, and that’s why, at times like these, he had to take royal decisions. He didn’t want any trouble with the others either. It was three to one. He was outnumbered but he did have his head screwed on the right way. And so, whenever the phone rang and Papa was not the first in line and a customer insisted on the Greek, he would tell the other guy to lie and say the Greek was on another job. And when people came to the taxi stand and wanted to climb into our grey Warszawa he pretended he couldn’t get the engine started. And not just that, Poseidon the Redbeard eventually became the head of the taxi mafia and for a long time anyone wanting to drive a fifth taxi wouldn’t stand a chance. Between them they had decided that four was enough. Enough for our town and enough for them. There was this chap. He bought a car, had it registered, got his permit. But then one day there was sand in his tank even though he hadn’t driven to the sea. And so it was just the four of them again. A quartet, for a good few years. But what use was it for Papa to have his pals elect him the mafia boss. None whatever, in fact he suffered on account of his office. Having accepted the sceptre of the first among equals on the taxi stand, he announced: I free Sundays. You driving. Good? Surprise and joy gripped the other three. Yes, yes, yes! And they loved him even more because there was one less driver on Sundays, and the rates were double. But my Daddy was a Greek King and he knew that work on Sundays wasn’t work but slavery at double the rate.  Sundays were a holiday for us because Dad was at home. He was there for Mum and for me. Well, maybe not completely, because on Sundays Dad was also there for coffee and pastries at Goważewski’s.

Translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood