The passage from the first to the second millennium was a period of crucial transformations all across the Old Continent—of transformations involving the formation of individual Eastern European states, the introduction of Christianity, as well as the first attempt at supranational union by Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor. It is about these very times that Elżbieta Cherezińska, who specializes in this period, has written her novel Playing Dice.
The main characters of Playing Dice are a young Emperor Otto III and Bolesław, called Chrobry, prince of the Piast Dynasty in Poland. Also appearing in the novel, though only in people’s recollections of him, is Saint Wojciech-Adalbert, bishop of Prague, whose death as a martyr on a mission among the Prussians transforms him into much-desired capital in the politics playing out in Europe at the time. In the year 1000 AD an event absolutely without precedence takes place: there Otto III, heir of the Roman Empire, crosses—and is the first in history to do so—the borders of his own country with an aim other than waging war. He heads east, to the soon-to-be-rising star of the European Stage, Bolesław. His political aspirations encompass the entire continent. Will he manage to attain them in Gniezno, or will the political victor of the encounter be Bolesław?
It is during the preparations for the Emperor’s visit, during this visit itself, and a few years afterwards that the plot of this fascinating novel takes place. It is the story of a friendship between two seasoned politicians, of two visionary strategists, of two great men. One of them, Otto III, became a world-historical figure, while the other, Bolesław, ought to be granted a lasting place in world history, as well.
Cherezińska’s novel is especially powerful because it portrays very convincingly the early days of attempts at forming a kind of union in Europe, and it shows how our ancestors’ way of thinking was the same as ours, in many ways, as in the case of national and supernatural interests. The key element in her writing is the genuine passion, the ability to generate a clear and moving sense of the era, to present psychologically realistic characters, as well as her distance from the sentimentality that normally infuses talk about turn-of-the-millennium history. She shows how behind what becomes great history there are truly unusual, extraordinary people, but people who are also full of weaknesses and silly ideas. All in all, Cherezińska manages to create a story with the palpable atmosphere of a thousand years ago, told in the style of the twenty-first century.
- Marta Mizuro
Elżbieta Cherezińska (born 1972) is trained in theater. As a writer of fiction, she specializes in the Middle Ages. She is the author of The North Road, a novel set to the background of Norwegian history.
Since the envoys had brought news of the arrival of the Emperor, Bolesław’s kingdom had been overwhelmed by an all-encompassing state of commotion. Aside from the settlers living deep within the deepest forests, there was probably no one who did not, in some way or other, participate in the preparations. Workers slaved over the construction of the Gniezno Basilica day and night. The days were still short. As soon as dusk set in, the construction site was swarming with bonfires and torches. The prince did not allow even the slightest delays. It was good that the winter that year was unusually mild, so that the foundations could be dug as soon as the mandate had been issued. Although who knew whether it had really started to thaw or whether the earth had softened from the constant burning of those bonfires. Right now everything looked terrible, but there were four weeks left before the Emperor’s visit!
Among his other occupations, Unger had one particular—and unusually delicate—task to handle. He had issued an order for a pair of long tongs, a pair of shears, and a narrow but powerful saw to be made out of sterling silver.
“What do you want to cut with them, Sir?” asked the silversmith Unger had commissioned. Unger didn’t answer. When the tools were ready, he placed them inside a small box and took them to Poznań. There, during the Sunday mass, he silently consecrated them. And then he placed them back inside the box with great solemnity and took them back to Gniezno.
The pyx was put on Wojciech’s tomb three days before the Emperor came. Unger supervised the cleaning of the construction site. Pieces of mortar, broken stones, ashes from the workers’ bonfires... Unfortunately, after the rains of late the ground inside had softened a lot. Bolesław came at the last minute to look everything over. He made a face looking down at his feet.
“This cursed mud! It’s not going to try out in three days. Maybe four? I won’t bring Otto here until four days from now... But listen, if it hasn’t dried out by then, have this mud gotten rid of somehow. Use something, I don’t know, some grass, maybe calamus.”
“Or we could make a kind of platform out of boards.”
“Not bad. Not a bad idea! It’s just a shame that the trees around here aren’t very green. Maybe people would have time to plant a few bushes?” He gestured vaguely toward the stone foundations. “Alright then, Unger, let’s quickly get the body over to the new tomb, and then I’ll go get Otto!”
“I was just thinking, Bolesław... What if we didn’t transfer the body? What if we let him do it? How better could we show our respect to the Emperor than by leaving him the honor of the translation? If of course it will not hurt you to relinquish the privilege.”
“Oh, stop. I will have Wojciech forever. Let Otto translate him. You’re right, friend, let us give him this honor!”
A wet, unpleasant wind was blowing from the river. It was misty. Otto pulled the border of his coat in so that the cold wouldn’t get inside it in such an unbearable way. The procession paused. Ziazo’s people were searching for the ford where they were supposed to meet the prince. But clearly the place they had ended up was not a crossing place, because the horses were sinking into the boggy bed all the way up to their stomachs. Otto gave an impatient sigh. This was not the first time this trip that he had been unsatisfied with the efficacy of his Italian crew. If it hadn’t been so definitively settled in Rome that he was going to take Italians to Boleslaus’ country, he would have taken the Margrave Ekkehard’s people instead. He trusted them more.
Suddenly a fully armed man on a horse emerged from the forest. When he stopped in front of them, Otto thought for a moment that it might be Prince Boleslaus himself. But no. Boleslaus had eagle feathers in his helmet, and this guy, although he looked a bit like the prince, headgear that was decorated with a bunch of black hairs taken from a horse’s tail. Without dismounting, he shouted out some sort of question.
“What is he saying?” said the Emperor, looking around for Clemens, who was supposed to serve him as translator.
“His name is Zarad, and he is the envoy of Boleslaus. He came to pick us up because he was afraid we would not find the ford.”
“Let’s follow him, then!” shouted Otto, who was the first to spur on his horse.
“But wait, Emperor!” cried Ziazo, who had already ridden up beside him. “How do we know that he is really one of the prince’s men?”
“I recognize him,” said Otto to the Roman as he rode up next to Zarad. Zarad bowed to the Emperor with a smile.
They just had to cross a small forest, and soon they had reached the spot. A lazy pool in the middle of the river opened up before Otto’s eyes. On the other side he saw an army, banners, pennants, and not a single hierarch, no purple, no violet. Zarad spurred his horse down the shore and whistled into a small ivory fife. He was answered by matching fifes from the other side of the river. He turned to the emperor and leaned his head forward, indicating clearly that he could cross. Otto looked at him attentively and wasn’t sure, so Zarad asked with a hand gesture if he wanted him to go first. The emperor nodded. Everything happened so quickly that neither Ziazo nor Clemens had time to ride up to them and protest, and reject the emperor’s nonchalance!
Zarad entered the water first, quickly. He then pulled up his horse just as fast and looked around for Otto. When he saw that the emperor was keeping up with him, he sped up. The water was really quite shallow, but at a gallop a horse would spatter it pitilessly all over. Zarad loved when that happened, his eyes were laughing, but he wasn’t sure if the Emperor also enjoyed such games. He moved a little ways to the side so that his horse would not spray Otto in the face. Then across from them Bolesław entered into the river’s current. At a gallop.
Seeing this, Otto spurred his horse on. How quickly had he entered into this mad mood of this unusual greeting! He sped, looking back at Zarad. Zarad smiled at the emperor, the black trail of his headgear flew into his face as he turned! Otto had forgotten that he had never looked backwards, and now he glanced behind him, not slowing down, to see if his procession was following him. Ha! Just Ziazo and Clemens, he thought, the rest of them standing helplessly back there, not knowing what to do! Zarad saw this too, now, and smiled at the emperor again, as if they had established together earlier this break with majesty.
Now Otto was only looking in front of him. Prince Boleslaus was galloping straight for him, the clear streams of water coming from his horse’s hooves concealing his image somewhat. He was reminded then of how five years before at an encampment at Magdeburg the Slav prince had nearly galloped clear into his tent. Otto leaned a little bit forward into his horse’s neck and drove the animal on! Let’s go!
Bolesław restrained his horse and turned to him, the stallion turning on its hind legs. They were now face to face. The horses snorted at one another. How different did the prince feel today! This was not an encampment at Magdeburg; in fact it was only now that it really hit Bolesław that he was hosting the emperor on his own soil! He bowed and said, “Greetings, Otto!”
Translated by Jennifer Croft