Land of Happiness by Łukasz Orbitowski, an author famous for "genre" literature (horror and fantasy, in this case) has made a step toward literature "as such," though without entirely departing from his work to date.
His latest book (justly nominated for this year's Polityka Passport), is a special kind of novel of a generation (the author was born in 1977, and thus it concerns the generation now in its thirties), which combines realistic and insightful psychological and social analysis with an original touch of the fantastic.
Literally speaking, this is the story of a few friends from the Lower Silesian town of Rykusmyk; at the threshold of adulthood they have a remarkable and tragic adventure together, which casts a pall over their later lives, though they live scattered apart; finally, they are compelled to return to their point of departure and to grapple once more with, so to speak, the unknown, whose nature the author gradually reveals, with a great feeling for suspense.
Orbitowski's book is outstanding because, apart from its technical skill, his work eludes one-dimensional interpretations. The point is not only that he shies from easy oppositions of good and evil, that he prefers shades of gray to black and white. The crucial point might just be that both levels of narrative can be taken separately - one being another tale of the "lost generation," the other a creation (or ultimately: a reconstruction) of a certain myth, which drives the "supernatural" component of the book and the related vicissitudes – and it would turn out that both "parts" remain convincing. It could be that Orbitowski weaves them together to find a way to universalize and complicate an ordinary narrative about lives which are ruptured in various ways, about dreams which come true at too great a cost, and about the risks involved in every human decision. Or perhaps it is merely for the telling. When, near the end of the book, one of the protagonists says: "Things were good and we had it good. Now things are bad and we have it bad. Why bother making a big story out of it," it is clear this is not an accidental sort of question. And that Orbitowski, in mythologizing his narrative and breaking down realism, sees this as a defense against silence, emptiness, and the void, which sucks in not only his literary protagonists, but also (to put it in somewhat grand terms) each one of us individually.
One shudders to think how good his next book might be.
Translated by Soren Gauger
My mother was called Fury. We were living together when I started hearing. For a long time I kept asking her to take me to a doctor. She plunged her own finger into my ear canals. She said everything was fine and I had to be brave. A little man is still a man. Then she twisted my ear.
“A doctor’s going to poke a needle in there,” I heard. “Just see how that hurts.”
They say truth and opportunities can only be found in big cities, but for a very long time I couldn’t imagine life anywhere other than in Rykusmyku. Mum would have liked to leave. The long rows of massive tenements in Legnica terrified me. I used to watch out for the giants who lived in them when I was there. Wrocław, which we rarely visited, consisted of a zoo, an occasional amusement park, ice-cream in the Main Square and a cinema showing old Disney cartoons. After watching a film, I’d get on a bus, happy to be going home. That’s also the reason I didn’t go on holidays. Rykusmyku provided everything I needed. Except silence.
There was a market in Castle Square, behind the bus stop, where every day something different was sold. Monday flowers, Tuesday animals, Wednesday clothes, Thursday cars, and so on until Sunday, when junk was hawked: colourful cigarette lighters from Germany, Russian electronic games about a wolf or submarine, shirts for workmen and T-shirts with a Sandra on them. The thing I most wanted in the world was a little calculator, round, red-and-white like a football. Mum even gave me some money which I immediately squandered on the vending machines. As for the little calculator, I just drew it for myself, in my maths notebook.
The Marketplace was very dilapidated in those day and the municipal council building, constructed after the war, looked worst of all. It looked as though it were falling apart with grief over the fate of the tenements, as battered as the scoundrels partying from morning till night at the Ratuszowa. High above the balding roofs protruded the Strzegomska Tower next to which stood our house. Staromiejska Street ran alongside our house with a hairdresser’s and toy shop; it ended abruptly at a disused cinema and the culture centre, where my mum worked. If I walked straight ahead, I soon reached the fields beyond Rykusmyku, and then in front of me I would see a canopy of trees hiding a submerged quarry. To the right, a gravel road, bordered on both sides by poplars, led to the Metal Works; the opposite turn led to a park which had a pond full of ducks with petrol-coloured heads. There was also a small playground. The swings were made of logs and tyres held together by chains. A little further on ran a stream and, on its bank, on a slightly raised area, stood the shell of a cement bunker, inviting us to play war games. On the other side of the river, new housing estates were springing up. The people who lived there seemed alien, like the barbarians who screwed bones of their enemies deep into their tattooed faces.
Apparently a woman had once been raped there, a stranger. She’d appeared here for some unknown reason, rented some private lodgings and wandered around the castle for days on end. Somebody assaulted her just beyond the river. She reported it to the police but immediately withdrew her statement, explaining that she’d consented. Then she left. I was very small when I heard the story by chance and the grown-ups refused to explain what I didn’t understand.
On the other side of town was another park, larger and more neglected. There stood the Church of Peace, the pride of entire Rykusmyku, built after the Thirty-Year War without a single nail being used, a token of peace between Catholics and Protestants. One only had to go to the house next door, ask the pastor, and he would open the church and switch on a tape telling the history of the place, God and Rykusmyku. The ruined building of what, before the war, used to be a café served us as a playground. Beyond the fence and streets, there was nothing but railways and the Inprodus Co-operative for the Disabled. I imagined people without arms and legs being created there, then dispatched by train to places where they were needed.
We also had a castle. The castle is what was most important. Located on a corroded elevation between the Marketplace and Castle Square, the sand-coloured castle made one think of Piast, the Polish king, who had undoubtedly lived there at some point. It was built by Radosław the Czech. Kings and Marysieńka came here to visit. In the nineteenth century, the castle was turned into a prison and, a hundred years later, into a forced labour camp, which some local people still remember. Maybe that’s why all the entrances have been walled up and the windows of the lower floors boarded up. Yet I still saw lights in the tower.
Shouting, laughter and other sounds which, because of my age, I couldn’t understand, used to emerge from the bowels of the castle at night.
Mother was very beautiful. One day I studied myself in front of the mirror, naked. I had a concave stomach with a shallow belly-button and small eyes separated by a long nose. I went to mum and asked her why she hadn’t told me she wasn’t my mum. A beautiful woman doesn’t give birth to ugly offspring, I wanted to add, but got a slap across the face.
Our first game involved the castle. It’s difficult to say how old we were, maybe eight, maybe even younger. Grown-ups said it was dangerous there and we could fall off; I heard about a labyrinth with no way out and a boy who had found a way in a long time ago and was still wandering around even though he was already grown up. But we knew better.
It must have been Horn who found a way in – a tree with a branch just below a window on the first floor. The five of us used to go there at least once a month. More often in the summer. I’d slip down the branch straight into the chill and onto rubble and glass. The sloping branch drowned out all light. We’d lean against the stone sill. We all joked, trying to give ourselves courage. The quest was always the same and ended in the same way. Who was going to go the furthest into the darkness? Was anyone going to reach the end of the castle corridor? Bluet it claimed there was an underground lake below but couldn’t explain how he knew.
I’d hold my cigarette-lighter through a rag or glove so as not to burn my hand. I walked close to the wall. I’d glance behind me at the bright, receding rectangle and four bewildered shadows. I’d count, and they’d also count. Number, step, number, step. I’d place my foot carefully, parting the rubble with the tip of my shoe. It got darker and darker, and increasingly colder. I thought about the boy living in the vaults, of the lake full of monsters and bandits who had their hide-out there. The window grew smaller and smaller, I’d walk slower and slower until finally I’d turn back and run as fast as I could, yelling loudly. There was no shame in that, we all did it. If I’d taken more steps than anyone had done before, DJ Harm would scratch my record on the wall. If not, he didn’t.
Afterwards we’d go to the now deserted marketplace and sit on the long tables. We’d tell ourselves all the things we were going to do, how great it was going to be when we finally made it to the bottom, and repeated various stories about the castle. Something was living there, something was waiting. The castle was our first game. It also turned out to be the last.
We had a flat on Środkowa Street, near the little market square. The entrance was through the courtyard at the back, where a carpet-rack stretched out its rusty arms and faded curtains hung in windows below which lay piles of rubble.
I had my own corner, although my true source of happiness was mum’s room. She forbid me to enter it, but, ever since I was little, I’d been left alone for the whole day and could do whatever I liked. I leapt on the enormous bed and browsed through the magazine Przyjaciółka. I believed that my mother’s dressing-table grew all on its own, like a church built over centuries. I wouldn’t have made such a comparison at the time. I had a different one which involved the mirror, dusty apart from the centre panel in which my mother looked at herself. I imagined that I was looking at the world through a window covered in black snow.
Treasures lay next to it: a bowl full of hair-clips, insect-shaped broaches and bits of tortoise shell threaded on some string. Using make-up, I covered my face with warpaint. I bedecked myself with necklaces.I pretended that tubes of lipstick stuck together with tape were bullet belts. I aimed the hairdryer at the mirror and said: “Die.”
Translated by Danusia Stok