Route S7, the book’s title, is Highway No. 7, a road which runs from Gdańsk in the north to Poland’s border with Slovakia, in the south – one of Poland’s major roads. Paweł, the protagonist of Ziemowit Szczerek’s novel, travels this route in the opposite direction: he’s driving from Krakow, where he lives and works as a journalist, and is headed north, towards Warsaw, because he’s got “a very important meeting” there. He sets out on this fantastical, adventure-filled trip on the 1st of November, the Day of the Dead – as the author writes, “the prettiest Polish holiday,” “aesthetically well-suited to this period of gloom that lasts half a year.” It’s such a thoroughly Polish holiday that it’s surprising it hasn’t yet been declared a national holiday. Everything here, in general – including Route S7, the “queen of Polish highways” – is extremely Polish. It is, of course, a caricature-like depiction of Polishness, since this is about the Poland which Polish liberals truly despise – ugly and trashy Poland, populated by louts who protect themselves against modernity, dimwits asphyxiated by their own history. The worst version of Polishness can be found, of course, in the countryside, in the villages and small towns the protagonist of this novel passes through. This “worstness” is inherent in the ugly architecture as well as the unbearable mentality of the people living there.
Paweł points out “the seven wonders of Route S7,” hellish places which, in his opinion, best represent the local flavor and which symbolically express present-day aspirations and dreams. One of them is a building made of plaster and concrete blocks called the Old Polish Fortress. It’s the fulfilment of a sick dream of power of a local businessman, a great patriot in love with Sarmatism. The Akropol Restaurant near the exit to Radom is also a bizarre product of provincial design – with one wing stylized as a Greek temple and the other like an aristocratic manor house. Szczerek’s protagonist catalogues with masochistic passion not only the most diverse, monstrous structures in the Polish landscape, but also the various types of people he encounters during his trip: thugs and hipsters, thick-skulled xenophobes and Korwin-supporters, village mystics and truck drivers, and even a Lithuanian and a German who speak Polish.
Route S7 is a spectacular fantasy, full of demonic signs and figures derived from a few different spheres, but predominantly those belonging to the pop-culture imaginarium (with Hollywood films playing a primary role). Most of the novel’s events have a fantastical aspect; we quickly lose our bearings as a result of hallucination or a narcotic trance (the protagonist is constantly sipping on mysterious elixirs), and it’s not completely clear what “really” happens to Paweł. But all the same, the most significant thing remains that which deals with the collective unconscious and makes up the sum of Polish fears and aspirations. In this last aspect, Szczerek’s novel makes an extremely relevant statement. It suffices to say that echoes of the most recent anxieties appear in the book – about war with Russia. The author of Route S7 goes even further – in the final sections of the book, the protagonist attempts to imagine how his country will be under Russian rule and how guerilla warfare will be organized “skinheads, metalheads and a few hipsters with stolen rifles will wander through forests in sweatshirts from shopping malls, in hiking boots, in puffy winter jackets and will shoot down Russian drones flying over the trees”).
Paweł doesn’t manage to reach the “seventh wonder of Route S7” (Hotel Lordzisko in Warsaw). If he reached the capital, he would have to treat it as critically as the towns and villages he had previously passed. After all, Warsaw is the “Radom of Europe,” the largest city of the “Catholic Taliban and Tartary,” the capital of “a country which will never accept itself.” It’s worth finishing the quotation: “...not because it has high demands, but only because it isn’t what it would like to be – namely, just a normal country like all the rest.”
- Dariusz Nowacki
Translated by Scotia Gilroy
And so, Paweł, you’re sitting in your Opel Vectra, you’re sitting and driving through hungover, exhausted Kraków, you’re also hungover and exhausted, you’re leaving Kraków, you’re driving to Warsaw and you’re crawling along in a traffic jam headed towards Route S7, the queen of Polish highways, tomorrow morning you’ve got an important meeting in Warsaw, so you have to be there, nothing can be done about it.
You pass Rakowicki Cemetery, ah, how you love Rakowicki Cemetery, it’s the quintessence of Kraków, on every grave, before every surname, there’s a title – this master, this councilman, this doctor, this lawyer – and if they had no idea what to put down, there’s “Citizen of the City of Krakow,” and that’s also fine. You sniff and catch a whiff of stearin, and you see the glow of grave candles over the cemetery, and with delight, Paweł, you draw it in through your nostrils because you like the smell of stearin wafting over the cemetery, in general you like the Day of the Dead, for today is the Day of the Dead. Ghosts and spirits of ancestors creep out of their holes, they leave their planes of existence and take possession of Poland for half a year.
Personally, Paweł, you like this gloom and ghastly dampness, this time when bedraggled Slavic gods and haggard Slavic demons are the closest to the earth, and Poland, your homeland, is, you will admit, incapable of taming the gloom and dampness. “The fucking riff-raff squelches in perpetual darkness,” to quote someone who’s nearly a classic. For Poland has never managed to tame itself. It has never, you think to yourself, managed to give itself any kind of shape or form.
And that’s why, Paweł, you like the Polish Day of the Dead, for it’s one of the very few products of Polish culture that’s aesthetically well-suited to this period of gloom that lasts half a year, and which has now just begun in Poland. The prettiest Polish holiday.
Meanwhile you open your window in order to breathe in the smell of stearin more deeply, and a news broadcast comes over the radio. The announcer speaks in a frantic voice about how Russia is gathering troops on the Polish border, in Kaliningrad Oblast, and you look at your reflection in the rear-view mirror, you see your hungover eyes, because if today is the Day of the Dead, then yesterday was Hallowe’en, and all of Krakow – where you live, because you hid yourself there from Poland, because Krakow is one of the few places in Poland where one can hide from Poland – went out to get wasted. There was a good occasion for it: Hallowe’en. Jack-o’-lanterns, horror movies on TV, Soul Dracula heard in every bar, and Dziady performed in every theater in ever new arrangements. But generally everyone just drinks. Not that Kraków needed a special occasion to get wasted, but it happened.
And so you’re sitting behind the steering wheel, tapping your fingers on it, tap, tap, your Vectra is stuck in traffic, and you go over in your mind what happened yesterday for Hallowe’en, because you went out with your colleagues from work, from the web portal Worldpol.pl where you work as an editor and for which you edit the homepage and think up clickable headlines. So that a unique user will click, so that it’ll score, so that there’s clickability (Lat. clicalitas). There are, let’s say, Polish-German NATO maneuvers near Szczecin and soldiers are being drilled on how to cross the river, and you, the editors, think up a headline: The German Army Has Crossed the Oder River on Floating Bridges. Straight onto the homepage. It scores. Or there’s news that some totally unknown member of parliament belonging to a nearly-dead political party took a piss while drunk beneath a statue of Adam Mickiewicz, and you rub your hands together and declare: A Famous Politician Urinated on a Great Pole. How it scores! How many clicks! Clicalitas explodes! Incidentally, if some headline contains the words “famous politician,” “famous actor” or “famous musician,” this politician, musician or actor isn’t famous at all, because if he really were famous, then his name would be mentioned on the homepage, his full name. Grzegorz, let’s say, Schetyna was caught on film slipping precious tableware into his pocket during a dinner at the Elysée Palace. Jarosław, let’s say, Kaczyński, totally sloshed, was hopping on car roofs like a mountain gorilla on Nowowiejska Street in Warsaw. That’s how it would be. Or let’s say it’s a national holiday in the Czech Republic and there’s a military parade – take it, man, peddle it like it’s news. The Czech Republic: A Military Parade on the National Holiday? Forget it, there would be two clicks, two pathetic, measly clicks, but you spring into action – and a headline: Armed Soldiers on the Streets of Prague. A commotion, it scores, it gets lapped up voraciously. And it’s also important to note that it’s not clear whether it’s Prague, the Czech city, or perhaps the one closer to home, the “Praga” district of Warsaw, and so the unique user will be more inclined to click in order to check. If the government collapses in Slovakia, you don’t write that the government collapsed in Slovakia but rather Poland’s Neighbor on the Brink, because if you wrote that this neighbor is Slovakia, not a soul would be interested, because what’s happening in Slovakia is interesting solely for students of Slovak Studies and some Czechophiles whose Czechophilia extends to Slovakia. But Poland’s Neighbor – there you go! Maybe it’s Germany? wonders the unique user. My oh my, Krautland in distress, such a nice country, heh, those even streets, everything so nicely painted, what a shame. Or maybe it’s Russia? thinks the unique user. Well well, the Russkis have come to a bad end, they got what was coming to them. Or maybe the Czech Republic? the user continues to wonder. That wouldn’t be bad, either, stuck-up Czechs, give back the lands beyond the Olza River instead of drinking foamy beer in taverns.
Oh, it’s very delicate and nuanced work, thinking up these headlines.
Of course what sells best is the apocalypse, annihilation, the end of the world with particular focus on Poland, oh, the end of Poland is heaven for clicalitas, of course, asteroids hurtling towards Poland score, all types of plagues score, Godzillas score, when Mars attacks it’s a score, viruses, Putin – they score.
Putin scores, particularly in recent times. It’s not even necessary to twist the headlines very dramatically. Just a little bit – it never hurts.
Russia Threatens Poland: If You Don’t Give Back the Corridor, We’ll ....
Dangerous Russian Rockets on Poland’s Border
Putin Rants: Poland Needs to Calm Down, Otherwise...
Surprise Russian Maneuvers Right Next to the Polish Border
Shocking Reports From a NATO Interview: Russia Is Readying Itself Against Poland....
Those were, for example, the headlines from the past few days.
So yesterday evening it was Hallowe’en.
Some sort of drifters were wandering around the city painted with skulls and crossbones, dressed up as vampires and demonic witches, goths and emos could finally emerge from their homes in full glory and nobody looked at them like they were freaks. A lot of black metal fans came out with black-and-white faces painted in evil-looking makeup. A lot of normal metalheads also came out, the common ones, just manes, typical faces, badges. You met some of them outside the Asmodeus bar on Starowiślna Street, they were standing in a circle tossing their long manes of hair like windmills, and on the ground between them lay a small mp3 player with a portable speaker which was roaring like a bear.
– The city of Warsaw at war, it roared.
– Voices from underground, roared the metalheads. Whispers of freedom!
– Help that never came!
Then they broke into a hysterical scream verging on falsetto:
– Warsaw, fiiiiiiiiight!!!
They had tattoos on their hands. Iron Maiden and Sepultura patches were mixed with badges of the cursed soldiers and the Polish Underground State.
Some variants of Addams Family members were trudging around the city, and at the corner where Szewska Street meets the Planty stood a madman holding a cross with a face that resembled a Fiat Multipla – which apparently sometimes happens. There was a crossed-out jack-o’-lantern attached to his crucifix and he was yelling at people that they shouldn’t worship jack-o’-lanterns and American culture, that Satan dwells in these jack-o’-lanterns, that Satan lurks in Harry Potter too, but more so in jack-o’-lanterns, and how it was necessary to stop immediately because one must cultivate one’s own traditions rather than copy foreign ones. Some guy dressed up as a werewolf was walking down Szewska Street: he was wearing a wolf’s mask that covered the upper part of his face and a fur coat that looked like it probably belonged to his grandmother, and he had pinned a fox stole (with the head, paws and so forth) onto his backside as a tail. He was wearing slippers on his feet to resemble dog paws. He was very drunk. He went up to the madman with the cross, looked him in the face and said:
– You’ve got a mug like a Fiat Multipla.
Translated by Scotia Gilroy