Nothing makes the market happier than the customers’ uninhibited ambitions to climb, climb and climb. To feel better than the others. Apart from tons of stuff– clothes, watches, cars and apartments, – the market offers something else as well to treat this universal fever. It’s cocaine, the white powder offering cynical clarity for one’s desires and aims. It can turn you into a superhuman for a brief while. This social and socially beneficial powder promises to associate you with the elite.
Cocaine – this peculiar type of gold which cannot be owned – plays an important role in Jakub Żulczyk’s In Blinding Lights, one of the best novels from last year. Żulczyk is a young writer (born 1983) but already with a considerable output. He has tried many different popular literary genres: young adult fiction, horror, fantasy. This time he has turned to writing noir. In Blinding Lights might have not been designed as an urban noir crime novel, but it fulfils all the genre’s criteria and also offers something else: poignant vision of Warsaw as a burning hell filled to the brim with sinners.
Jacek, a drug dealer who specialises in cocaine, plays the role of Virgil. Jacek – at least in his own eyes – is not some shady dealer working for the mafia, but a proper businessman. He is proud of being hardworking and professional; he is a perfectionist. Never mind the fact that he has never been caught by the law. Something else seems more important: Jacek runs an honest business, he doesn’t wallow in the filth which pulls in his desperate clients, he doesn’t share their status ambitions, doesn’t fall victim to their spectacular defeats. Like hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of contemporary Warsaw, he comes from the backwoods, but he doesn’t throw himself into the whirlwind of metropolitan life; he remains a detached observer.
However, the ironclad rules of the plot are relentless – this kind of illusion cannot be sustained. And won’t be sustained. The axis of Żulczyk’s novel is the story of the narrator slumping into the abyss. Essentially we know from the beginning that the city has to devour him, has to break his back. The only thing we don’t know is when and how this is going to happen. The author deals with it by constructing an efficient and suggestive criminal plot, yet it never takes the limelight. The mafia turf war (Jacek is only the ever oblivious pawn in this war) takes place somewhere in the background.
Żulczyk feels very comfortable in the world of noir aesthetics – his dialogues sparkle with ironic bon mots, female portraits oscillate between images of street girls and saints, policemen are tired and criminals unruly. Pathos tends to be toned down with unexpected grotesqueness, but the night pretty much never ends. And anyway, the whole story takes place in a wintry, freezing, inhospitable landscape due in large part to nightmares one cannot wake up from.
Still, In Blinding Lights is not art for art’s sake, it is a sophisticated novel about various alternatives to happiness. In this time and place, in this city, amongst these people, happiness is unachievable, but if one has a thick wallet, one can try to find its substitutes. Some find it in compulsive eating and drinking, others in sex, and others still make cocaine lines all the way to the horizon. And then there are some, like Jacek, who only want to be in control. All of them will be sacrificed to the insatiable dragon, Warsaw.
- Piotr Kofta
Translated by Anna Hyde
It’s true about those bars with Chinese grub. They sit there non-stop, from morning till evening, taking shifts. That’s all they eat, as if their stomachs were only able to digest soggy rice and stinky old meat swimming in sweet sauce. This particular bar is located not far from the Marymont metro station, at the back of the covered market, squeezed between blocks of flats. No bigger than a small room. White panelling on the wall. XIANG BAO in self-adhesive letters. A calendar with an Asian tiger and some vases from a Chinese supermarket. Enough to launder money made on heroin, mephedrone, whorehouses, arms trade and what not. It stinks inside; I have to cover my nose. It stinks of grease and sugar, old and congealed, covering the walls with thick coating. He sits inside, eating spring rolls. Smacks his lips. Outwardly he doesn’t look like a pig. Bearded, wearing a hoodie, a cap and colourful tracksuit bottoms – he looks like an alimony payer dressed up as a slightly mouldy teenager. He might as well be a TV cameraman. He eats slowly. He drinks coke. The stench doesn’t bother him, but guys from the police, especially from the criminal police, are generally immune to bad smells.
“Sit down,” he says.
They always command, even when it is not needed. It’s in their blood. They can’t say anything that is not imperative.
He is 40 years old. His name is Marek. He lives not far from here, at Stary Żoliborz. He married well; his wife comes from a doctor family. He works in the crime division, he is an Assistant Commissioner and that is probably it for him. He met a glass ceiling. He’s got two kids. He drives a 10-year-old Volvo. He smokes a lot and drinks a lot, more than he tells his wife, less than an average pig. I know practically everything about him. Otherwise I would never speak to him.
Our arrangement is simple. He knows certain things and he needs cash. He has his little secret hobby and this hobby requires alternative sources of financing. He likes to play roulette and the slot machines. So much so that he is in the red with some boys already and they are not afraid to make a late-night courtesy phone call. He tries his best to keep it away from his children and wife. If she found out, she would probably kick his things out the door within five minutes.
And anyway he’s not stupid. He likes his booze, but still drinks less than his colleagues from work. He stays in the shadows, he’s careful. That’s probably why he doesn’t try fighting the glass ceiling. He knows he would most likely have his head cut off if he attempted to break through.“You eating?” he asks.
He mops the rest of the spring roll sauce off his plate. I shake my head.
“What’s up?” he asks again.
“My client has a problem. I need to know to what extent it is also my problem,” I reply.
He bursts out laughing. He wipes his mouth thoroughly with a tissue. He looks at me, amused in an infuriating way, like a footballer who realises the ball is all his and there is only a goalkeeper between him and the net.
“How are the kids?” I ask.
“Well,” he replies. “Very well. We had a problem with our boy a couple of weeks ago. Hospital, fever, septicaemia suspected. But everything went back to normal. Thanks for asking.”
“That’s good,” I respond.
“You don’t look well,” he points out.
“I’m not sleeping,” I say and add: “It smells in here.”
“It doesn’t smell, it reeks of shit,” he comes back.
He takes a swig of coke, sucking up the liquid into his mouth. He smacks his lips. A young, thin Vietnamese woman approaches him and grabs his plate. He keeps smacking his lips quietly, as if on purpose, to annoy me. He wipes his nose. He looks at me attentively.
“I can’t tell you much,” he says. I put my hand in my pocket and he adds: “This is the moment when you give me a gift. I will thank you for it. But that doesn’t mean I will tell you much more, you understand?”
“Septicaemia, did you say? That’s very serious, isn’t it?” I observe. I put ten grand on the table and push it towards him. He clears his throat, puts it in the pocket of his hoodie, trying not to look at the money.
“I told you it’s all good,” he replies.
Funny test that was. He seems to think of himself as even more intelligent and funnier than he really is, but that’s understandable since he operates amongst people suffering from spongy brains. He needs to manage them; he needs to listen to their commands. Drink vodka with them. And type out incoherent reports on a computer much older than his own kids.
Nobody knows I’m talking to him.
“Let’s go to my car,” he says.
I nod. We get up, leave, go to the parking lot. He keeps his hand in his hoodie pocket, on the money. He lights a cigarette. We get into the car. He smokes inside too and you can tell. The car stinks even worse than that shithole we were in. And it’s a pigsty. Leatherette upholstery. Radio with a tape player. Empty cans of energy drinks everywhere, McDonald’s food wrappings, folders. A dirty pink child seat in the back, strapped with a seat belt.
“We spend all our lives in our cars, don’t we?” he announces.
“Don’t talk about us in the plural,” I reply.
“Come on. We’re in it together. We roll about in the same vehicle. People above me and people above you have been acquaintances for years, they’re like buddies from the same street,” he says. “They come to each other’s kid’s weddings.”
I don’t know why he’s saying that at all. I’m getting impatient. I’m starting to suspect that he’ll blab such trivialities for an hour and finally tell me something I already know.
“The problems start when a drought comes. There’s no rain for a month or two,” he goes on, chain smoking. “Somebody needs to be sacrificed. A virgin.”
“I paid you for something,” I remind him.
“Don’t think I treat us like a partnership,” he replies. “But we help each other, there’s no doubt about it.”
“Then help me,” I demand.
He puts the music on, some ruddy old rock like Red Hot Chili Peppers. He turns his phone off.
I watch him carefully.
“I’m on this case,” he says. “Many guys are on this case, for obvious reasons. A camera likes a crowd. I don’t know what he agreed to, I don’t know what his lawyer offered. These are not the questions for me. I know that the goods were in our custody and I know that they will at least pretend to try to find out who took it.”
“I want to know if he grassed me up,” I say.
“You want to know if he knows where to look for you?”
“From what I can see, you’re smart,” he says. “And if you’re smart, nothing you own is in your name.”
“Indeed, not in my name,” I reply, truthfully.
I’m registered in Olsztyn, in my Nan’s flat, where my cousin on my mother’s side actually lives. I’m officially unemployed. I live in a flat I bought for cash; it’s owned by a person who doesn’t exist. The poky place where I keep my goods is in Pazina’s sister’s name. The car I drive is leased by my wholesaler’s company, which sells mobile phone accessories over the Internet. All my phones have prepaid cards. I have several different IDs, several different national ID numbers. Nobody knows my real name, because my real name doesn’t mean anything anymore. It got lost, diluted. Money can displace you. If you want, money can erase you. I have invested a lot into it and this was the best possible investment.
“They will need a bit of time to find you,” he says.
“So they’ve already started looking for me?” I want to know.
“Aren’t you going away somewhere?” he comes back with another question.
“Stay there twice as long as you were planning to,” he says. “The sacrifice will be necessary. God wants blood. And I can tell you that this star of yours is very well connected. Now it may seem that everybody is turning away from him, but they are only doing it for the cameras. He’s got friends whom he helped immensely. They will return the favour.”
“So he tried ratting on me already?” I ask.
“Nobody will search further than you. Nobody will look higher than your head,” he says. “Nobody will be interested. You know how it is. For your average Tom, Dick or Harry in front of the TV, you are the one who produced the goods, distributed them and then forced everybody to buy from you. This is not a criminal matter at all, remember that. This is fodder for television.”
“Is that it?” I want to know.
“After all you have shitloads of money,” he says. “Stay where you’re going, I’m telling you.”
Two uniformed bobbies come into the bar we have just left. They breathe heavily, move slowly as if carrying invisible backpacks full of bricks. They don’t even look in our direction. The sun breaks through the clouds. It lights up what was hidden before and what is the main ingredient of reality: the greyish slush, which is inside and outside everything, covering the paving, rotten grass and stacks of rubbish.
- Translated by Anna Hyde