The Criminal and the Maiden is Michał Witkowski's latest "skewed" detective novel, after the publication of The Lumberjack three years back. By "skewed," I mean it is less a pastiche than free from any and all structures, wordy, furnished with hundreds of digressions and several lengthy interpolations, which disorganize the novel and irritate the consumption-oriented reader, revealing the form as convention and mocking his own formulaicness. Some call it a pretext, others stress the usefulness of this odd formula: the detective-story scaffolding allows the writer to control the chaotic, heteroglossic elements. It is not especially crucial however, how Witkowski uses the popular genre formulae, because he is not writing for detective novel fans; he wants to communicate with those who understand his work, especially with those who gratefully remember his hit novel, Lovetown (2005). Moreover – The Criminal and the Maiden is the most "recycled" work in the Wrocław author's output to date: plots, characters, and places return from both his first novel, and from the more recent Lumberjack.
As in The Lumberjack, our main protagonist is a writer named Michał Witkowski (for short: Michaśka). Once again, it is a chilly time of year (the novel's action takes place in November and December of 2012), and once more we are – for a few days – in Międzyzdroje, among characters with whom we are familiar (Mariusz the thug, Robert the lumberjack, and others). In general, however, we are in Wrocław, which is plagued by a low-life the police are calling the Prewar Murderer. He hunts young boys from the upper classes, knocks them unconscious, then dresses them up in prewar clothing and kills them. Sometimes he brutalizes their bodies – he rapes them, cuts their skin, sometimes he looks into their open stomachs. After these grim ceremonies he tosses the corpses into places favored by prewar Wrocław homosexuals; most of these places, significantly, were described in Lovetown.
Suspiscion falls on the Michał Witkowski character, in part because he is collecting information about the perished boys and the ways that famous serial killers have operated. As the main suspect, he falls into a police trap – Michał falls in love at first sight with a handsome officer (Studencik), but just as quickly, this officer gives our protagonist an alibi for the police. It is clear at once that Michał is not the Prewar Murderer. And here an odd things occurs: from one day to the next, our protagonist becomes – hard to know how else to put it – a self-appointed policeman, and certainly more than a consultant assisting the case.
The transformation from writer to policeman is of major significance. The protagonist says many times that he has broken with literature, as it has disappointed him terribly. For some time he drifts, hard to even say what he does apart from his regular visits to the gym. We might say perhaps that he celebrates himself, and not only in the fact that he recalls his fame as a writer every step of the way, which, however, bygone or weathered, remains his trump card. Apart from his participation in the investigation, Michał becomes a collector of superfiical impressions, an arbiter in style and fashion, a guide through the Polish landscape of consumption. The barrenness of this "plastic" existence irritates him considerably, which is why entering a world marked by crime and perversion is, for him, a chance to come alive. A good illustration is provided by the scenes from the autopsy room, filled with detailed descriptions of the dissection of corpses, or better still, the fascination for the criminal and necrophile practices of the Prewar Murderer.
The person and preoccupations of Michał Witkowski cut through this novel with remarkable force; reading it is an intense experience of the author's presence, and in particular the intermedia creation or pop-culture label/construct of "Witkowski." It is hard to understand The Criminal and the Maiden outside of this context, and thus, without having read the numerous interviews that the author has obsessively given to anyone who asks, without knowing the gossip he has spread about himself, without his "scandalizing" (inverted commas obligatory) appearances on gossip sites or in the tabloids. Undoubtedly Michał Witkowski's creative energy coupled with his unprecedented celebrity activities testify to a radical shift in how literature functions.
Translated by Soren Gauger
Saturday, 1 December 2012
On Saturday I was rudely awoken by the sharp, straight-laced sound of the entryphone. I haven’t bought anything on the Internet lately, so it didn’t even enter my head to answer it – probably just kids pressing all the buttons and then running away. But someone kept ringing with the persistence of a DHL courier, and soon after that the doorbell rang too. I dragged myself out of bed and peeped through the spyhole. It was the Student with some bird. In other words, the police.
“Just a moment!”
I glanced in the hall mirror and confirmed that I looked like a serial killer,just as I always do first thing in the morning, and also like one of his victimswho’s been lying in a pool of water for the past five months. But there was nothing to be done about it. I put on my dressing gown and decided to act the way they do in American films – when the police arrive, I’m in a turban made from a towel, on a rumpled bed, and I don’t offer them biscuits or coffee, nothing. As if the cops came to see me every day of the week in this awful dump of mine.
I’d never seen the Student looking so old before. Since we’d parted the day before at the taxi rank on Wystawowa Street he hadn’t changed his clothes, or been home, so he can’t have slept either. He hadn’t washed his face or brushed his teeth, which meant that he was exuding an odour of well-absorbed vodka. Since yesterday all the irony,all the jokes, had collapsed, the dazzling starlight in his eyes had gone out, the ironical wrinkles had changed into static senile furrows – all the fantasy was gone, all the gnomes, nothing was enchanted any more, now he was simply here in reality, he’d come on command to lock me away, here was the cold face of reality and no joking;it’s like in that movie, Krystyna Janda’s already waking up in prison, wondering where she is, looking for her handbag, a red one, and then the old woman tells her that here they take the handbags away.
Beside the Student stood the small, very thin woman who had flashed past me in an open door at the hostelthe day before. She treated me to a weary smile and introduced herself as Prosecutor Joanna Pospieszalska. (So she was the Joanna who’d called him yesterday when he was under the bridge). Despite my original idea of receiving them like a whore in a slum, instantly my mother awoke in me, I was my mother receiving guests –at once she had to apologise for the mess, say that under no circumstances were they to take off their shoes, sit them down, offer them tea, coffee, biscuits, dinner, permanent accommodation here for free, with full board and lodging… I did all that, and somewhere further down the line I furtively gave the Student ironical hints that it was just my mother-the-provider speaking through me, but I don’t know if he was in the right mood to pick up such nuances. He sank heavily onto the sofa and buried his face in his hands.
The prosecutor lady started reading the spines of the books, and examining the foreign translations of my fiction, which she leafed through and put back on the shelf. Then she looked at the photo of Elfriede Jelinek stuck to the pinboard, with the ever increasing circles drawn with a compass, and at the dart stuck in the great writer’s eye. She exchanged a knowing glance with the Studentas if to say: “We’re onto the right one, he’s the psychopath, the serial killer we’re after”. She was in no doubt whatsoever as soon as she saw the collection of announcements about missing boys put up on the wall with drawing pins. This is the one – there are his trophies.
But nothing of the kind. The Student at once reassured me that I’m not suspected of anything, because yesterday, at the time when the murderer was dumping a body outside the Bliźniak Hostel, I was with him under Zwierzyniecki Bridge. As a result they can tell me a little, not much, but a little, because they need to consult me…
“In a literary way, as it were…” he stammered.
“So on a professional matter?” I said, acting dumb.
“Don’t play the fool, Michaś, I know you went straight off there yesterday, I deliberately said the address out loud because knowing how nosey you… I mean, knowing it might come in handy for your fiction, and…” He faltered again, and then without asking, brazenly lit a cigarette.
“Why don’t you help yourselves to biscuits? They’re wholegrain, fructose-sweetened, with goji berries, eco, bio and organic”,urged my mother-within, and poured the coffee.
“Leave it for now, Misiek”, said the weary Student, blowing smoke at the ceiling, and he gave the coffee a look that immediately told how much of it he’d drunk that night. He set aside his cigarette on the ashtray I’d fetched for him, put his crumpled face in his hands, and stayed like that for a while, as if focusing, as if gathering the remains of his strength; then he wiped it, stretching the skin as he did so. The whites of his eyes were covered in little red veins. Whereas, fresh as a rose, the prosecutor dutifully ate her biscuits, with great relish too, and asked for tea instead of coffee.
“Listen. I’ll tell you a little, but if you talk to anyone about it, you’ll be in trouble, I’ll make sure of that. This isn’t to be used infiction,or as anecdotes for showing off in interviews, like saying the Viper lent you his taser and then had a spot of bother in the anti-terrorism squad…”
“All right, Jesus Christ, I get the picture…”
Speak, just get on and speak!
“It’s to do with yesterday’s murder outside the student hostel. What’s the quickest way to explain it?”
“Maybe you’ve heard of the ‘Pre-war Murderer’?” said the prosecutor,coming to the Student’s rescue.
“Well, of course you haven’t. But do you know why that is? Because so far we’ve managed to keep it a secret from the media. But we’ve been working on the case since May. So you see… If anything were to come out now, it’d be down to you. It’s totally forbidden. I’m deadly serious”.
I had noticed. The press’ll soon be onto it anyway, and I’ll get the blame.
“I’ve been working on it all summer and autumn, which may be why it’s been hard to get hold of me sometimes. Now I’ve had more free time, because I thought we’d caught him. Goodness, do you go about in ladies’ rings? Never mind. It all started in May…”
The Pre-war Murderer
It’s the long weekend of 1-4 May, 2012. Wrocław – the Meeting Place – is panting inextremely hotweather, it’s wilting, bathing in the Oder, in Morskie Oko Lake, in the clay ponds, or in thick smog preceding a storm. Above the city, white aeroplanes go flying across the searing sky, sharply lit by the merciless rays of the sun. They’re carrying defenceless post-human beingsutterly disarmed of nail scissors, nail files, liquids and penknives, and dazzled by the sun.
Down below, the forsythia has withered: everything that should be just coming into bloom is already dusty and wilted, coated in oily exhaust fumes. The place is deserted, with no traffic jams andlots of free parking spaces, because everyone’s away for the long weekend. Only the Marketplace is undergoing the ultimate siege. Crowds of drummers, people with dreadlocks, people with plaits, those guys who stand there in surreal costumes without moving, like Tower Man, German tourists, Swedish tourists, and everyone else who doesn’t feel like sitting at home or lying on the beach in Majorca, but absolutely has to tour the smaller, pretty much attraction-less cities, offering purchases at the same chains as they have at home. By the pride of the city council – the glass fountain – English, German, and indeterminate Swiss-Dutch burblings blend with the burble of the water and the smell of grass, cigarettes, beer, barbecues, and roasting-hotbuilding sites. Strachowice Airport, hurriedly constructed for the Euro soccer championship, has become a campsite for filthy dirty young people, covered in international grime carried from country to country, coated in global dust, dust from the entire Schengen area. They litter the whole place with paper coffee cups from Starbucks, Coffee Heaven, Green Coffee, McDonalds and so on. They play guitars, and set out those paper cups,in the hope that someone will toss a Euro intoone, because by now they’re not entirely sure which country they’re in at the moment. From Amsterdam to Rome, from Rome to Oslo, from Oslo to Zurich, from Zurich to Helsinki, from Helsinki – suddenly – to Wrocław. Hitchhiking by plane. Sneaking around by plane in Converse sneakers. The dusty youths undress and lie about in the sun on every lawn, in every park, and at once they get out the tobacco, start to make roll-ups and poke around in their smartphones. The smell of sun-baked grass, cigarettes, bottle caps and ozone, some remote memories of childhood, ofa trip tothe pool on a boiling hot afternoon, A-levels, your first glass of wine. […]
“At four in the morning there are already some runners in tight clothing jogging in Szczytnicki Park, when one of them wants to take a leak, so – here’s something for you, Misiek – he runs up to a pre-war toilet, the one you called the ‘Scorched Picket’ in Lovetown… as you know, the Scorched Pickethas been fenced off and slated for demolition – even the fence has started to collapse, and no one’sinterested in that ruin. So the runner goes past the fence, and is instantly knocked backwards by the dreadful stink and the swarms of flies and mosquitoes that attack him. But he’s already seen something he’ll be having nightmares about for the rest of his life – a decaying corpse, dressed as a pre-war youth, as if the world had gone back in time. We still haven’t identified him. Part of his face had been eaten away by birds, but the remaining, lower part also had a pre-war look, with a small moustache curled with brilliantine, a bowler hat and so on, a pre-war newspaper and some pre-war banknotes in the pockets. He didn’t have an ID card, but knowing this psychopath, if he had, it’d have beena genuine pre-war ID card, a German one, one of those Kennkarten they issued”.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones