Szczepan Twardoch has written more than just a typical war novel set against the history of Silesia. The reader flies through more than three hundred pages of war, sex and madness, but is ultimately left with an image of Silesia as a place where the threads of many languages and life stories connect up, or converge.
So the book’s first main character is Silesia in the twentieth century. The story is set within a small area between several localities in Upper Silesia. But just as important as Silesia is the earth. In the first scene, the author stands us in a muddy puddle in the yard. The voice that relates the entire scene does not come from the sky, but from underneath us. It is the earth talking, or rather the spirit of the earth – Drach (an Upper Silesian dialect word), the narrator who then follows the fortunes of two Silesian families, the Magnors and the Gemanders, through the twentieth century.
Drach is close to being an adventure story, but this view from the perspective of the earth gives it a sinister, mysterious quality, even if cut to the measure of an adventure story. Chapter by chapter, we descend deeper and deeper below the surface, and then look at the world from down there. We look at the people running across the earth, and those who dig in it, we are aware of the people who bore into it for coal, and the ones digging trenches in it.
From this point of view, the history of Silesia is no longer to do with shifting borders on a map or public comment in the newspapers, but is played out through basic human passions. In the dark. The central characters, Josef, Valeska, Nikodem and Caroline, are pulled this way and that by hatred and delight, and sometimes by both at once. In Drach we can see the literary skill that Twardoch has acquired in the course of his previous novels. He sketches portraits and events with a swift and decisive pen. He even allows foreign languages – German, and an archaic Silesian dialect called “Wasserpolski” – to go without footnotes or translation. He goes straight to the crux of the matter, without feeling the need to build up his narrative with excessive detail, or to fill in missing years with explanation. Instead he concentrates the fortunes of Silesia by focusing on moments of violence or pathos in the lives of successive generations of the Magnor and Gemander families (such as times of betrayal, weddings, or departure for war). Each of these incidents, shown in a flash, in cinematic images, serves to summarise many years in the characters’ lives.
This natural history of a region at the crossroads between Polish and German culture moves between extremes of naivety and cruelty. On the one hand, it has some of the features of a boyhood dream about war and romance. It is full of shiny toys for boys – cars, tanks, and weapons depicted in minute detail – and women’s bodies that prompt terror and fascination in the male characters. On the other hand, this dream soon changes into a nightmare that agonises a series of generations. The guns never stop firing, missing their target, or finishing someone off. Passion gives rise to violence. Page after page the Silesian earth moves before the reader’s eyes, with the beat of the night between Josef and the teenage Caroline, but also with the roar of engines and the rattle of rifle fire. This is compelling reading.
- Tomasz Surdykowski
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The girl eludes Nikodem. She’s like a small animal, a female of the human species, thinks Nikodem, and he finds it a beautiful metaphor. But I know it’s not a metaphor, because both she and Nikodem are like small animals and like stones, and like grass, and like water.
The girl is beautiful and awkward. She has a thin body that she doesn’t know how to carry,; small breasts as Cranach might have painted them if she had posed naked for him, and not for photographers contemporary to her; she has long limbs, as if El Greco had painted her, if she had posed for him, and not the photographers contemporary to her, and in fact her long, thin white arms and legs remind Nikodem of the limbs of a foal more than the white body of Christ from The Resurrection. The girl laces her arms and legs as she sits down. She walks with a stoop, and doesn’t know what to do with her hands. She doesn’t swing her hips, she doesn’t set one foot before the other in a straight line, she doesn’t sit in seductive poses. Nikodem is in love with those long legs and arms, the stooped shoulders, and the long fingers; he’s falling in love with this awkwardness so fast that he doesn’t even know it’s happening to him, he’s losing his virile strength and going limp inside.
A wild foal on anti-depressants, thinks the limp Nikodem Gemander to himself. Nikodem Gemander is the great-grandson of Josef Magnor, but that is of no significance.
They’re sitting by the hotel pool, Nikodem and the girl. There are palm trees growing next to it. Nikodem is sitting on a recliner, the girl is nearby with her feet in the water. Her slim, beautiful body in an expensive, skimpy bikini. Small breasts. Wet hair. She’s had a swim. Nikodem likes her in this bikini, long legged. Nikodem thinks other men envy him because of her.
Nikodem orders a bottle of wine. On his iPad, he’s drawing a conceptual sketch for a small, neo-modernist house, which two years from now will rise out of almost nothing on the slope of a mountain in the Silesian Beskid range. The house will cost almost six million zloty, although it’s meant to cost only four-and-a-half. Nikodem will get two hundred thousand zloty for the design, and the cover of Architecture Monthly. For now he’s sketching the initial concepts on his iPad, and thinking about the two hundred thousand agreed upon by contract. First he draws on the white screen. Then on the photos of the site that he took before leaving. Then on the white screen again.
The girl is playing with a five-year-old French girl by the pool. The French child’s mother, enjoying a moment’s rest, is reading a glossy magazine. The girl who will elude Nikodem is lying on a towel. The little French girl lies opposite
her, in the same position, repeating her gestures. They’re conversing in a language that doesn’t exist. Nikodem looks up from his iPad. He watches the girl and the French child. The girl gives the little girl her bracelet. The little French girl runs to ask her mother if she can accept the gift. Her mother agrees.
“I could have a daughter like that,” says the girl to Nikodem, as she sits on the recliner next to him.
Nikodem doesn’t answer.
People are divided into types, thinks Nikodem, but he doesn’t know that the girl who eludes him is the Caroline Ebersbach type, or that she had been an important person in the life of his great-grandfather, Josef Magnor. People usually miscalculate the degree of importance in their lives of the people close to them, but in the case of Josef Magnor and Caroline Ebersbach, their importance to each other was just as evident to them as it is to me.
The wild foal on anti-depressants is distantly related to Caroline Ebersbach, though that is of no significance: Caroline’s cousin, Anna-Marie Ochmann, was one of sixteen people whose sperm and egg cells in the fourth generation would produce the girl now eluding Nikodem, the girl doesn’t even know her grandmothers’ maiden names and has no idea that Anna-Marie Ochmann ever existed. And there’s a sort of refinement in this ignorance.
Nobody has the faintest idea any more that such a person as Anna-Marie Ochmann ever existed. She is remembered by large reference books lying in archives in Katowice and Gliwice, but nobody reads her name in them. […]
And only I remember that Anna-Marie Ochmann existed, lived and did everything you do when alive, because I’m the one who sees clearly. So she existed only in order to return to me.
Nikodem goes into a café in Gliwice, the café is on Wieczorek Street, which was once called Klosterstrasse, Convent Street, because it led from the Butcher’s Market to the Franciscan monastery, and many times they walked along Klosterstrasse to the court, which to begin with was called the Königliches Landsgericht, and later the Regional Court, which of course is of no significance. They also went to church, or for walks – all of them: Otto Magnor of Schönwald, Wilhelm Magnor of Deutsch Zernitz, Josef Magnor of Deutsch Zernitz, Ernst Magnor partly of Nieborowitz and partly Preiswitz, Stanisław Gemander of Przyszowice and Nikodem Gemander of Gliwice, and Caroline Ebersbach, and for instance Nikodem’s sister Ewa, who lives nearby, on Freundstrasse, now Sobieski Street, and the girl who eludes Nikodem, they have all walked along this street, there and back, they have scraped their soles against the cobbles, and the cobbles against their soles. They have all adhered to Wiecorek Street, once called Convent.
Some time ago Nikodem almost bought a flat on Wieczorek Street, almost, because the bank politely refused him a loan. In those days he hadn’t yet made a success of himself, but now Nikodem is standing at the bar in a café in Gliwice. I can feel the antlike weight of his brawny body. For Nikodem’s body is brawny by human standards, brawny and lumbering, it weighs as much as two foal-like girls, but there are bodies bigger than Nikodem’s, even human ones, and there are even bigger animal bodies, even bigger trees and shells, in which people hide like hermit crabs. Men in particular have grown fond of the shells of cars that merge with their bodies like a second, stronger skin, like armour, and like armour it strengthens them, protects them from the world – thanks to their four wheels, men become as if four-legged again. They’re like their remote ancestors, they think about their bodies not as being vertical, but horizontal, just as a wild boar or a bull senses its body.
Nikodem likes his armour too, but now he is stripped of it. As he shifts his weight from one leg to the other, he places his feet on me in suede brogues, and thinks about the girl in words that he has thought up specially for her. My little animal, he thinks, my wild foal on anti-depressants, grown-up child of an alcoholic, my borderline little woman, my little female, with whom men fall in love as quickly as they fall out of it, though he has not fallen out of love. And she does not exist beyond men, because it’s through them that she defines herself.
She is apparently a journalist for the Katowice supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza – that’s what she tells Nikodem, for the world demands of her that she should be someone. So apparently she is a journalist, and it comes to her with natural ease, because it doesn’t matter to her at all. She knows nothing about the world and nothing interests her apart from herself. Being a journalist doesn’t interest her either, nor does work, or the fashion magazines that she reads idly, or the clever books that she reads just as idly and unaffectedly as the fashion magazines. She’s not interested in the expensive handbags that she pretends to find exciting, or the expensive clothes that she wears carelessly, and that successive men have bought for her – she wasn’t all that interested in them either. She moves past the successive men in her life the way a river flows past stones.
“You are the love of my life,” she tells Nikodem, as she sits beside him on the recliner under the palm trees, and Nikodem thinks it isn’t true, but it is true in the sense that the girl believes what she’s saying. So she’s not lying, though Nikodem is convinced that she is.
She’s very wise, with the innate wisdom of Buddhist enlightenment, thinks Nikodem, but he doesn’t know, the fool, that it is my wisdom, not that of any sage. No sage could have this wisdom. It’s my wisdom. The indifferent wisdom of migrating birds. The wisdom of eels swimming to the Sargasso Sea. The wisdom of trout and gulls. Unconscious wisdom, the wisdom of the green-and-white god of glaciers, the animal wisdom of a girl who has calmly adopted herself as the limits of her world. She is not vain, she is simply alive. Not many are capable of living like this, a pure life, pure femininity, without an aim, not searching for meaning, simply living, but she can do it, though she suffers often and greatly. Despite the oblong tablets that she swallows each morning, and that slowly release a substance that’s meant to reduce this suffering, just as underarm deodorant is meant to stifle the natural smell of human animals.
So she suffers, and I couldn’t care less. They all suffer, I alone do not suffer. I can sense their suffering, just as I can sense their smell, their weight and the gentle touch of their feet.
I can sense the feet of Josef Magnor. I can sense the feet and hands of Josef Magnor’s son, as they scratch and tease me, and as they swell, growing up. I can sense the feet of Josef Magnor’s grandson and Josef Magnor’s great-grandson, the feet of Josef Magnor’s great-grandson shod in his nice leather shoes, stripped of his armour, at the bar in a café in Gliwice.
Something connects them, a thread that runs through me, inside me, is me.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones