In The Final Deal, Myśliwski once again puts his favourite format to use – the monologue of a nameless central character extended into a full-length novel, which he narrates in his declining years as an attempt to take stock of his life. His rambling account is intersected by all sorts of reminiscences (scenes and images from the past), which appear as digressions and with no respect for chronology, usually dramatised and fitted with dialogue. A new feature is the presence of a love theme, because the monologue is supplemented by letters written to the main character for several decades by his girlfriend from school, Maria. The odd thing is that he has never once replied, even though the letters are full of ardent confessions and declarations of undying love for him. As we read on, we discover that his cruelty towards Maria has a deeper motive: he is obsessed with the idea of freedom. Again and again he has quite consciously changed profession and place of residence; as he has always chosen to live in rented rooms, he has never had a home of his own or even any furniture. He has never been in a relationship that lasted more than a few months or, a couple of times, a few years. He admits that he has “voluntarily disinherited” himself of just about everything, and then he asks: “In the name of what? Freedom? Rubbish. Unless freedom in the form of constantly running away from myself”. Of course the cruellest of his rapid exits was when he ran away from Maria, and the stupidest was from painting, from his own talent. He had all the makings of a first-rate painter, but he dropped out of the academy and took up professional tailoring instead. This choice – like everything in his life – was random and didn’t last. But is this the story of the unsuccessful life of an unfortunate man? Not necessarily. What exactly does a successful or unsuccessful life mean? What in fact is life? Here we find plenty of questions of this kind – fundamental, ultimate ones, of an almost philosophical cut. However grandiloquent it may sound, Myśliwski tries to fathom the meaning of existence and the mystery of life, without offering any solutions or unambiguous answers along the way.
It is worth commenting on the novel’s title. The central character is a born card-player, always happy to play poker with Mateja the cobbler, but he plays his most significant game at… the cemetery, against – and there is no other way to understand this – the cobbler’s ghost. To some extent Myśliwski invalidates the ominous word “final” in the title, which is fully confirmed in the last scene of the book. Thus in her final letter, Maria – now old and tired of life – informs our hero of her plan to commit suicide. But this farewell letter was by no means the very last, and not because Maria abandoned this plan. It is easy to guess where it was sent from. It would be hard to imagine a finer coda to the heartbreaking love song which Myśliwski sings in The Final Deal: the unfulfilled lovers will come together in the world beyond, in incomparably more pleasant circumstances – in other words, where there is no passage of time, and where the concepts of youth and beauty no longer apply.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
At that time in the early morning, the lake was covered in mist so dense some days that when you stood on the high bank overlooking the shore, you couldn’t see the surface of the water below. It was only when the sun came up on the other side of the lake that the mist would begin to disperse, and the surface would gradually come into view. There was something extraordinary in the way the sun emerged so stubbornly, forcing its way through the mist that seemed to close up defensively against it. Though maybe I’d forgotten what a sunrise looks like, and now I was discovering it afresh. Because really, when was the last time I’d seen the sun coming up. I tried to remember, but it must have been so long ago that the memory was gone.
It was too bad I didn’t paint any more, because if I did, I’d have set up an easel on the bank to try and capture that sun on canvas. I even had a title: Birth of the Sun. Lightless almost, stripped of its rays, devoid of warmth, rarefied by the mist, which seemed to saturate it, along with the entire world, so even the earth was powerless to help it. I sensed its pain, its improbable struggle, as it pushed its way out all alone. I had the impression it would sweep away the whole earth with it, including that all-encompassing mist. And I felt relieved when it finally appeared. After which, moving in a broad swathe across where the forest had been cut down as if to clear its path to the lake, it reached the far shore and plunged in, washing its tribulations away. From there you could see it move toward us, scattering the mist with its rays, and I even felt a kind of tension, like you feel whenever you’re anticipating something, about when it would reach the high bank Oskar and I were standing on. Oskar must have felt the same thing, because he would never let himself be led away until the sun had come close enough to us that I could say, Thank you for rising, sun, and Oskar would give a joyful bark. Soon he was leading me to the bank of his own accord every day in the early morning. He’d sit on his hind legs and not whine, or growl, or bark. He’d simply lift his head and stare at me restlessly. And we’d wait till the sun began to come up, and only when it reached us did he let himself be walked back into the woods.
On the other side of the lake I could see a building, a resort or guest house. It looked a lot bigger than ours, but even in full sunlight you couldn’t make out much more than the fact it was there. Ours wasn’t that big, modest you might say, but the ad in the paper had claimed it was the best place to unwind, deep in the woods. I figured there wouldn’t be many guests, because who goes on vacation at that time of year, when the trees have lost almost all of their leaves, and there’s starting to be a chill in the early morning.
Sure enough, aside from me the only person there was the aforementioned Mr. Dionizy. If it hadn’t been for the owner and her son, who came by two or three times a week because he lived elsewhere, the place would have seemed completely deserted. I was the only person upstairs; Mr. Dionizy lived on the ground floor, since he had trouble walking. He leaned heavily on a cane, as if every step was painful. I don’t believe he ever went on walks. In any case I never saw him out, not just in the morning, but in the afternoon or evening either. Apparently he’d brought an entire carload of books with him. The owner’s son, who delivered supplies for the guest house and did odd jobs around the place—and now, in the fall, also raked the leaves—needed more than one trip just to bring the books in. Plus, he found himself with the additional task of bringing Mr. Dionizy an entire week’s worth of newspapers and magazines every Saturday evening.
I wondered when he ever got any writing done, if he read all of that stuff. Every now and then he’d offer me some newspaper or magazine in which he reckoned there was something of interest. I said thanks but no thanks, normally I’d be glad to look at it but I had also come there to work and there wasn’t time for reading. Also, whenever I would head out for a stroll or to walk the dog, I heard the radio playing in his room. He must have been a bit hard of hearing, or maybe he liked to have it turned up so he wouldn’t miss anything. There are people who can’t stand silence, they lose themselves in it like in mist. Or maybe for them silence amounts to the same thing as loneliness.
Even after I’d gotten a ways from the guest house I could still hear the radio behind me. Then in the evenings, once the TV news programs began, he’d always sit in front of the television in the dining room. He never missed a day, and there were times he’d watch till late at night. Not just the news, but panel discussions, press conferences, commentaries, interviews; he’d change the channel and sometimes turn up the volume so loud I could hear it through my door on the second floor. True, he was pleased when I showed up; he hobbled out with his cane and greeted me warmly, as if we’d met many times in that guest house.
“At last there’ll be someone to talk to. Welcome, my dear sir.”
The very next day at dinner, he was eating his main course when I came down to the dining room, and he grabbed his knife, fork and plate and moved over to my table.
“I hope you don’t mind, it’s not nice eating alone. Are you here for long?”
The next day he gave me his business card.
“I wrote my cell number on there also, I only give it out to people I trust. If you’re ever in town I’d love to have you over. Please just call ahead and let me know.”
I glanced at the card. Dionizy Orzelewski, nothing else. And the address.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll be sure to take you up on that if I ever pass through.” I introduced myself in return. I stuck his card in the breast pocket of my jacket. Later, when I got back home, I copied it out into my address book, though I wondered why. I mean, even if I’d visited the town where he lived I wouldn’t have called. And I had no intention of going back to the guest house. For some reason I didn’t find the card in my address book. Maybe it got stuck under another card. Cards stick to each other like that when they haven’t been looked at in a long time.
A few days later he started telling me what he’d been reading about in the papers, then what he’d heard on the radio, then after that what he’d seen on TV the previous evening. I pretended to listen, but my mind was elsewhere: some time ago I learned how to make it seem like I was listening to people when I wasn’t. On top of everything else his mouth was full, so the words were indistinct, like they were being chewed up along with the food, and you could hardly understand any of them. Then one day after that, apparently convinced he could trust me, he got all heated up like he was actually taking part in one of the debates or discussions he’d watched the night before on the television, his raised voice almost seemed filled with rage, he was mocking, derisive, he exploded in sarcastic laughter, he flung insults about, but I couldn’t figure out whom it was he was insulting.
“They’ve no idea what they’re doing, the idiots. What a bunch of ignoramuses!” He clattered his fork against his plate, but all I understood was that there were some idiots or ignoramuses.
About halfway through my stay I was so sick of the man I began to wonder how I could get free of him. I started coming down earlier to the dining room for meals, but that didn’t work. Then I began arriving later, but that did no good either. Some instinct led him to come early or late just like me. I even considered cutting my time there short; if I was going to have to listen to him at every mealtime for the rest of my stay, there’d be no unwinding, and unwinding was the whole point of being there.
At some point he joined me at my table again at dinnertime. I could tell he was worked up, because before he’d even settled in his chair (he had trouble sitting because of whatever was wrong with his leg), he tossed out a question:
“What do you think about all that’s been going on?”
“What’s been going on?” I responded with a seemingly innocent question, to try and calm him down a bit.
“What do you mean?” he snorted. “Don’t you read the papers, listen to the radio, watch TV? History’s going on, before our eyes.” He fixed me with an expectant stare.
Coolly, as if we hadn’t been talking at all, I cut off a piece of steak, put it in my mouth, chewed it, swallowed, and only then replied:
“History’s always going on before our eyes, it’s just that those eyes aren’t always willing to be ours.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Perhaps I’d like to, though. Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing. Besides, it depends who you’re agreeing with.”
“In that case let me tell you something someone once said about history: ‘What do I care about history. My world is the first and only one.’”
“Who was that?” he snapped, making no attempt to conceal his annoyance.
“You ought to know him.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t spend time with idiots.”
“He wasn’t an idiot, he was a philosopher.”
“A philosopher?” He waved his fork dismissively, then tugged the chunk of meat that was on it off with his teeth. As he chewed, he said: “You think a philosopher can’t be an idiot?”
“In that case, it may mean more to you that he was an officer, because he was both. And not just any officer, he served well, he was brave, he was decorated for fortitude and valor.”
“A philosopher and an officer?” He paused in his eating for a moment as if he were mulling something over. I thought the thing about the officer had convinced him, but he muttered contemptuously: “Big deal.”
From that time on he didn’t join me again at my table. He never even exchanged a word about the weather whenever we’d run into one another as I was coming back from my walk.
Translated by Bill Johnston