Conspiracies: Adventures in the Tatras

Wojciech Kuczok
Conspiracies: Adventures in the Tatras
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa 2010
    280 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-7414-687-6

Conspiracies is a set of five short stories all connected by the Tatra Mountains and by their main character. In the first story we see him as a ten-year-old boy who is disappointed by his father’s idea of going on a family trip to the mountains, because the World Cup soccer championships are on, and the television at their mountain chalet has poor reception. In the final story the hero is twenty-eight, an experienced mountaineer and potholer by now, and finally has a hope of reciprocity from the beautiful highland girl he has been in love with since childhood. It looks like there’s going to be a happy ending, but none of it is entirely problem-free.

Conspiracies is actually a paraphrase of Muck, Kuczok’s best known and most depressing novel, in which a father stands between his child and the world like a cruel sentry, forbidding any joy, interfering in his private life and destroying the child’s self-confidence.

Conspiracies repeats the entire structure – the father is still trying to mould his son, but gives way when he encounters resistance; he does not use violence, so there is no need to fight a Freudian domination battle against him. Moreover, during one of their later hikes the son manages to get through to his father. Both of them find a temporary homeland in the mountains, in other words a place where they can live by choice, not because they are doomed to. And at the end of the story the boy’s long-lasting love gets a chance of coming true in a permanent relationship – so perhaps the horror story had to be told first before he could win the right to a happy ending.

But the happiness comes from another plotline too, to do with the resistance put up by reality in the guise of the highland men, who are willing to host tourists, but who are aggressive towards anyone wanting to marry one of “their” women and settle permanently among them. They cannot be won round with gifts or dominated by force, so the main character has to trick them – partly by charming and partly by cheating them.

This kicks off a perverse tale about a city dweller who, thanks to commitment, knowledge of the mountains and a talent for pretending, manages to steal the local people’s most precious possession without disturbing their pride and without losing his own identity. He is also accepted as an outsider who is “one of us”. In this strange “adopted alien” the highlanders gain someone invaluable – an inventive fellow who revives their folklore, which is close to extinction, losing the battle against vodka and avarice. Into this world whose culture is dying, the main character brings life: by inventing a local beast, he upholds the legend of the region’s unique quality, and spins a yarn about good relations between people and nature.

- Przemysław Czapliński

Excerpt

Membership in the climbing club didn’t particularly appeal to me either; I hadn’t escaped to the mountains just to commune and associate, and I was all too familiar with the true nature of these gangs, who met in a hired basement every Thursday to witter on about things to do with statutes, discipline, training and so on. Climbing-club meetings are above all an opportunity to create rules, structures and hierarchies, and for the old boys to drone on about how their health, their obesity or their wives no longer let them achieve their climbing aims; unable to climb mountains, they seek respect and esteem for their position within the structures and hierarchies which they themselves create. They soon started to view me as a pest, because I wasn’t eager either to paint the club’s toilet door, or to swill beer on Thursday evenings, on top of which I went climbing in inaccessible terrain – I never recorded my climbs in the expeditions log to avoid leaving written evidence of having been in forbidden zones; to add insult to injury, by climbing without safety precautions, I was sowing corruption among the trainees.

So when my mother suggested that I take my father on one of my excursions, I thought it would be pointless, not because I didn’t believe in the power of the mountains to transform even the greatest of malcontents into people full of rapture, but because I had serious fears whether we would actually manage to get to any wild areas. Even if the weather let up, my father never would, and he’d poison me by fulminating against the townies for ruining and defiling the Tatras, for dropping litter and making noise, and then causing the mountain rescue servicemen to stress out the chamois and marmots while saving their arses, because a helicopter makes even more noise.

I had no trouble picturing my father walking the trail along the crest of Krzesanica and whining about it being so well trodden, but at the first attempt to turn off the beaten track he’d state that one mustn’t deviate from the trail, and what would happen if everyone did that? And if I wanted to take him along a path used by potholers, he’d ask if I had permission to deviate like that. And when for the hundredth time I’d tell him I did, that I’d got up specially that morning and sorted it out with the rangers at the set time for that, although he would in fact follow me, he’d never stop grumbling, asking for instance on what basis they actually issue that sort of permission. And when I told him it was on the basis of being shown a Tatra mountaineer’s pass, he’d ask on what basis a mountaineer’s pass is issued. And when I told him it was on the basis of having completed a mountaineering course that ended with a theoretical and a practical exam, he’d ask what exactly was required for the theoretical exam. And when I told him that above all knowledge of the topography of the Tatras, he’d go on to ask what else, and when I gave him a detailed programme of all the classes on a rock climbing and mountaineering course, and also a complete list of related topics, he’d ask about the ethics, the candidates’ potential, and how you checked whether they were capable of ethical behaviour in extreme situations. I’d tell him there was no way of verifying this capability in a situation that wasn’t extreme, and that on the course they were taught how to cope in extreme situations, and how to behave with regard to their partners in such situations, but no one can be sure of complying with this training when he has to save his own arse; that comes out in the wash. Then my father would offer his opinion – he’d stop asking questions and start soliloquising on ethics and morality; and when I pointed out to him that we were off the trail in a national park and that according to ethics, which he happened to be going on about, he shouldn’t be making noise, he would reply that he wasn’t making noise, he was just talking.

            And we’d go another fifty paces or so, until the path came close to a precipice, and then I’d say: “Dad, would you please stop soliloquising?”, and then he’d reply that he wasn’t soliloquising, he was just talking to me. At home too, whenever we asked him to stop, he never did, replying that he was only talking, he’s allowed to talk, isn’t he? Once again I’d say to him: “Dad, shut up or I’ll do you an injury. Mum told me to give you an extreme experience that will change your life; I reckon the only way to radically change your life is to toss you into the chasm. The probability of your surviving is slender, thanks to which, if you do actually manage to survive, the experience will radically change your life.”

So every attempt I made to imagine what it would be like when I took my father into the mountains ended in me flinging him over a precipice, and that’s why I wasn’t convinced of the wisdom of this idea; that’s also why I was already putting up with his blathering more patiently than usual in Aunt Niewcyrka’s kitchen, when through rain-spotted windowpanes we were looking out at the early-autumn gloom of fog creeping over the house. Auntie made some more tea, White Kuruc said he was going into the cottage, after which he didn’t move from the spot, and my father suffered another verbal haemorrhage, from which there was no escape, because this time I had come because of him, specially for his sake, to defrost him, and at the same time to inspire him with something positive, so as long as the ice-cold rain stripped us of any desire to stick our noses out of doors, I had to put up with his endless stream of philistine know-it-all piffle.

“There’s nothing to be found in the mountains in this sort of weather. There’s no point in being macho. The mountains don’t like daredevils. You have to treat the mountains with respect, or fear even. A man who’s not afraid of the mountains is not afraid of God. All those cretins tramp about in trainers, showing off to the girlies, and then the mountain rescue servicemen have to risk their lives saving their backsides. Hiking in the mountains is a summer activity; in the Tatras, as soon as summer ends, winter begins, everyone knows there are only two seasons here...”

This time my father was demonstrating his omniscience like an expert “from above the barrier” – that was the local term for tourists who, after “honourably” reaching the shelter at Morskie Oko lake with their families by way of the tarmac road, would lean on the barrier above the lake, and as they took in the view of the nearby peaks, would show off topographical knowledge limited to recognising the shapely spire of Mnich and the ridge of Mięgusza; after that, casting a resentful glance at the youthful calves of the lads who were off for a climb, they would roll out the theory of daredevilry. This involved making malicious comments about every robust-looking individual who went swiftly dashing past, uttered quietly to the family, of course, so they should know that despite appearances real masculinity was not embodied by these jaunty youths toying with death, but by sober-mindedness and reason. Along the way the same phrase would keep being repeated like a refrain: “Do you know what those young pups will look like at my age? They won’t look like anything because they won’t live that long.” My father’s great omniscience had a little more variety, because through the obtuse, philistine disgust for anything that was young, courageous, spontaneous or crazy, a deep-seated melancholy sometimes came to the surface; and sometimes, just briefly, some quite inspiring bits and pieces would appear in his verbal diarrhoea.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones