Black Heart features a number of returns – both within the plot, and also more broadly speaking. Two of these returns seem particularly significant, as well as intriguing: firstly, to an old book, and secondly to events that occurred in April 2010. The first is to do with the fact that Anderman has incorporated an old story into this novel. Rewritten in the form of a film script, it is called Prison Disease, and was originally published twenty-three years ago. The second return involves public reactions to the Smolensk air crash – the most extreme ones, dating from the first few days and weeks. And so, rather than taking advantage of the five-year distance between those events and now, Anderman has chosen not to reinterpret them, by providing an as it were belated report on an extraordinary state of affairs.
And so, the day after the Polish president’s Tupolev crashes near Smolensk, the representative of a French newspaper arrives in Warsaw, not a Frenchman, but a Pole, who twenty years earlier emigrated from Poland, or rather fled abroad under a cloud of infamy – he had been accused of murdering his girlfriend, and spent six months in custody while his case was investigated and his trial conducted. Ultimately he had been exonerated by a court of appeal. The important point is that he was in the same jail in Białołęka where he had been interned after the declaration of martial law. During his second imprisonment, to fill in his idle time, he started to write a screenplay entitled Prison Disease; he dreamed of making a fictional documentary about the internees of the past that would win him renown and dispel the infamy burdening him (his friends and acquaintances were convinced of his guilt). And here, by rights of extensive self-quotation, Anderman’s old work appears, equipped with a new context. The French journalist turns out to be Antoni Marek, the reconfigured hero of the story from 1992, while his girlfriend is a reshaped version of Wanda, a young radio journalist who also appeared in Prison Disease.
To recap: the hero of Black Heart comes to Warsaw to write a series of reports on the Poles as they undergo national mourning. Every day he turns up on Krakowskie Przedmieście (where the traumatized public gathered to mourn the president’s death) and notes down in detail what he sees and hears. The latter is more important (which is why he always has his Dictaphone switched on) – the mourning rituals, and all sorts of behaviour, most of it hysterical and aberrational, are above all spoken; the writer’s main interest is in the voice of the “people of Smolensk”, which is actually not so much a voice as an inconceivable cacophony of lamentations, accusations, and crazy religious and patriotic declarations. In his free time from his professional, journalistic duties, our hero considers the mystery of Wanda’s death. He has never found out what happened on that fateful night, nor can he find a way to solve the enigma in the present world, because all the ties linking him with the past have been irrevocably broken. He becomes aware of a sort of continuum as he realizes that he is just as helpless with regard to the more distant past (the days of martial law) as to the more recent (the start of the new Poland); nor does he understand the present (spring 2010). It all starts to resemble a horrific nightmare, or the tale of a madman. But it is not about isolated excess; the black hearts didn’t start to beat outside the Presidential Palace in April 2010, but in the early 1980s at least. A blurb on the cover says that Anderman has come up with “a diagnosis for the Polish trauma ongoing from martial law to the Smolensk disaster”.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones