If I were to write that Łukasz Orbitowski's superlative The Soul of Another has opened a fresh chapter in his oeuvre I would very much need to qualify this statement. For things are somewhat more complex. We ought to begin with the genesis of the book: the “Na F/Aktach” [On F/Acts] series, of which The Soul of Another is one of the first titles. According to the publishers, the series publishes “fictionalized stories of highly publicized crimes committed over the course of the past decades (...) based on documents, judicial reports, and press articles.” We are not far here from using blood to shock the audience in a rather questionable fashion, but Orbitowski has taken this premise as an artistic challenge – and has come out on top. The Soul of Another tells the story of a young murderer, a boy from a decent home who was meant to be a pastry chef; in the mid 1990s, in dreary Bydgoszcz, he murdered a cousin, and several years later, a young female neighbor. He committed these murders with no clear motive – Orbitowski stresses that this was decisive in his choosing this case. In one of the statements by the killer, who is named “Jędrek” in the novel, he claimed that he was consumed by “the soul of another,” and that he had to do what he did.
The action of Orbitowski's novel stretches over several years, but is entirely written in the present tense – a brilliant stylistic maneuver that dynamizes the tale and saturates it with suspense. This is no easy feat, as there is no criminal investigation, we know who the killer is, and the culprit has been sitting a jail term for many long years. Because the motives of Jędrek's actions are a mystery, Orbitowski reconstructs their circumstances, background, topography, the presumed family life of the killer, and the mental landscape of those years in a grim neighborhood of a grim town. He does this, I believe, in a masterful way, rendering a picture of an ordinary hopeless life out of which a crime is born, for no conceivable reason. Reading Orbitowski we wonder – this too adds suspense to the book – which events are based on fact, and which the author invented. One of the book's narrators, Krzysiek, is probably a creation; he is Jędrek's close friend, who puts the pieces together to figure out who committed the crime. Another invention is probably his revolting family, in which the father, an alcoholic and a pathological liar, rendered in life-like detail, plays first fiddle. Once again Orbitowski takes on his major theme: this is a story of young boys growing up, coming of age in early capitalist Poland. And – we repeat – he does it in superlative fashion.
I believe that The Soul of Another is an outstanding book, and one that lingers in the memory long afterward. I also believe that it is another piece of evidence that Łukasz Orbitowski's writerly craft is only growing stronger.
– Marcin Sendecki
Translated by Soren Gauger
Malwina's ghost evaporates well before ten o'clock, leaving a different sort of ghoul in its wake – tedium. Even Jędrek doesn't sit on the monitor, he flops himself down cross-legged and sifts through the trash on the floor, he scoops up the discs, the binders, the broken pens and dumps them in a heap next to the wall. Darek had chosen right, but for a different reason. This place is dead. We get onto the first bus, our jackets hiked up to our noses. There's no heating in the house, the windows give a draft, it'll only get worse. I ask Jędrek how he knew about the woman strangled with the iron cable.
“They talk about it, that's all.” Jędrek had found some bubble-wrap and was popping it between his fingers. I would have asked him to give me a piece, but I felt stupid. “People say all kinds of things when they're bored. I heard it went a bit different, that the girl just vanished. Her boyfriend said that she ran off with someone, but in fact he bumped her off with the cord and then walled her up in the basement. After that the ghost drove him nuts. And he's in no jail, he was packed off to Świecie in a straightjacket.”
He slides onto the next bit of floor, toward the tangle of cords. He takes them out one after another. I ask him if he's serious or if he's just trying to give me the creeps. He doesn't answer me right away. I repeat the question. Jędrek lays aside the cables and stares at the floor. Every word is an effort:
“I'm too stupid for these things. I'm not saying I'm stupid as such, I'm just no good at thinking about such things. There's no way there are ghosts walking around cemeteries. Somebody would have filmed them, right? But maybe there are other ghosts, you know, ones that live in a person, next to our regular souls. And they want something. Some are quiet, others loud. They holler and make a ruckus. It's more than you can bear. I mean, it's got to be really hard to live with a ghost like that inside of you, especially if it wants something you're not interested in.”
He comes back to his trash. Now he looks like a man going through the possessions of a loved one who's recently died. I want to ask him if vodka is a ghost like that. Jędrek violently jerks forward. He's holding a steel rod half a meter long. Probably part of a fence. Before I know what's going on, Jędrek is on his feet and barreling toward the door with the padlock. He returns only to get his backpack.
I go past the smashed padlock as if avoiding a bad smell and follow Jędrek into the locked room. It's stuffy but clean. There's a desk with a lamp by the window, nearby there's an accumulator and a swivel chair. The bookshelves are bare, not counting a few photo albums so high up that I would have had to stand on my toes to reach them. A fold-up couch has a blanket and a pillow without a case. The walls smell fresh.
I light a lamp, Jędrek slides over to the loggia, wrestling the door. When it gives he paces the room, trying to figure out what it's for. In a desk drawer I find a file of papers with a loan contract on top. The Fortuna loan agency entrusts seven thousand zloty to one Wacław Korczyński and explains the payment conditions in a row of long paragraphs. They make mafia threats look like a love letter. Meanwhile, Jędrek is scoping out the loggia. He leans on a column and stares out into the night. He seems strangely frail, as if he could dissolve into the air.
I replace the contract. Otherwise the drawers are bare. The floor around the bed is scattered with tissue wrappers, there's a whole mass of them in the wastebasket, old and gluey. Under the blanket, down in a crack, there's some aloe oil in a soft plastic bottle. I can't figure out what to do with it, I call Jędrek, he doesn't even twitch. All that's left are the photo albums. I take one down and open it. This time Jędrek comes running.
Boys. Our age, often younger, crammed in under the plastic. Half-naked for PE class or in the bath. Clipped out of Western newspapers. At the end I find a lone photograph taken with a Polaroid camera in the mountains. My classmate is there lying on some pillows, wrapped in colorful sheets. His eyes are the color of drain water, his smile is taut. That's the last page. Jędrek takes the album, sits down on the couch, and flips through it. He gets his face up close to the pictures and narrows his eyes as if wanting to soak in every detail: the protruding ribs and the little abdominal hairs. The room begins to spin, soon the walls will be pressing in on me. There are footsteps on the stairs.
I would swear it was a giant. Those steps. I make for the balcony door. Jędrek lazily lifts his head. He puts the album on the couch. He picks up the backpack and rummages about. He's standing with his back to me, so I can't know what he's taken out – I mean, I do know, but I would prefer not to. I rush to the loggia and judge its height. Bushes down below. The footsteps grow louder. Whoever's here has come to the first floor and in a moment he'll see the door to his lair is wide open. I hiss at Jędrek. I whistle for us to get a move on, to make tracks, he stays stock still. I'm not about to leave the guy. But I don't want to see what comes next.
I dash into the room and tug Jędrek by the sleeve. He makes a sharp turn. He bares his teeth, for a second he looks like he doesn't recognize me. He hefts his backpack, straps it on, and then together we jump off the balcony, just when a guy in a leather jacket appears in the doorway with a cigarette and a bulging plastic bag. I leap straight into the undergrowth without looking back, Jędrek takes off for the gate. I'm hot on his heels. I almost fly over the fence. Not until I hit the road do I let myself look over my shoulder. Mr. Korczyński has dropped his bag. His fingers clutch at the loggia railing, he's shaking his other fist in helpless rage, but his face remains invisible, melting into the haunted house.
We don't stop running even when we hit the bus loop, only when we get a few kilometers further. The foliage affords us some shelter. I grab a trunk, I'm short of breath, Jędrek is panting as well. I don't know what to say, so I just start talking. Get to the police right away. Let them deal with it. Jędrek doesn't even want to talk, he just shakes his head, spits, bends over, propping himself up on his thighs. We spend a few minutes that way, our breaths forming condensation. We hear the hum of an engine, car lights flash on the road. Whoever is driving by is going easy on the gas pedal. We plaster ourselves to the ground, the lights pass slowly overhead. I can't make out the driver, I don't recognize the make of car. Then we spend long minutes squatting there, shielded behind trees, until Jędrek gives the signal to go. He doesn't even look back.
We head toward Bydgoszcz in darkness and silence. Whenever we hear a car we duck in some bushes or into a courtyard. We swap glances, we listen to our breathing. I'd like to hide behind Jędrek. I'd vanish behind his mass, but I'd defend him if it came down to that. At first Jędrek is walking all hunched, his legs are soft. When the glow of the city scatters into a swarm of points of light, into night buses, gas stations, and the windows of all-night markets, Jędrek gets some spring in his step. There'll be no more hiding on roadsides; Jędrek is strong, and there's no strength that could knock him off the road.
It's going on three a.m. Jędrek says goodbye, hops off the night bus and hustles off through Fordon, not looking where he's stepping. The silence of the haunted house has reached even here. Jędrek drops his head and walks even faster. He gets to Fordon at a trot, only to crash on a bench. He sets his gaze on the window to his room. Buttons up his jacket. He tries to pull the collar up over his frozen ears, but that just bares his stomach. He tucks his shirt into his pants.
Instead of going up to his room Jędrek takes the stairs down to the basement. He's blocked from going in by some steel doors that he can't open. He yanks at the handle. Then he sits in the entrance way under a tall window. He sets the alarm on his electronic watch for seven o'clock. He rests his head on one hand and immediately falls asleep.
All I think about is sleep, but Daddy's got other dreams. He's sitting on the bedside, barefoot, in jeans, buckling his belt. He's not at all surprised to see me, on the contrary, he's glad I came. He tells me to sit down for a talk. I tell him I'm really very tired, and start unfolding the sofa bed. My father thinks five minutes won't hurt me. He says we've been growing further apart, that what with my studies and my friends we barely see each other. I'm always out somewhere, leaving him to take care of all the problems. How is mother supposed to deal with it all? Mommy makes off for the kitchen, looking not the slightest bit oppressed by her duties.
I've got nothing to say to him. I tell him I want to sleep it off, I'm a bit afraid that Daddy might ask why I came back in the middle of the night, that Jędrek's folks said something about me. But Daddy evidently doesn't give a you-know-what, he just sits there staring at his bottle with an astonished look on his face, as if the contents vanished in an instant, all on their own. Anyway, that's how I find him when I come out of the bathroom.
- Translated by Soren Gauger