There aren’t enough words to describe Anderman’s novel. It is superb, funny, daring, insolent, iconoclastic and perplexing. It will cause a commotion in Polish literature and once translated into the languages of the neighbouring countries it will re-open the debate on the independence of literature in the communist era and in the age of democracy.
Anderman tells the story of a con man who becomes an opposition writer. In the mid 1970s he publishes a book of verse in the genre known as concrete poetry – and this is his only genuine piece of writing. A few years later he steals a novel written by a patient in a mental hospital who has died, publishes it independently outside the censorship and wins fame as an opposition writer; later yet, while living with a woman who works for the state radio, he pinches the texts of her broadcasts, rewrites them and sends them abroad under his own name, thus becoming a representative of Polish independent literature for émigré Poles and the foreign public. After 1989, and thus in the era of freedom and democracy, he writes for the popular press, compiling texts from foreign newspapers, mixing them up and publishing them under his own name. He also earns a living by writing campaign material for various – often opposing – political parties.
So is this just the story of a cheat, a plagiarist and rogue? Yes and no. Yes, because the main character is undoubtedly a shady type, and nothing will change that. No, because if we were to end its description there, we would miss the crucial issue – the role of literature in public life over the past twenty-five years. In a nutshell, Anderman tells us that public myths about literature have wiped out originality. First, when society was battling against the regime, we expected literature to repeat the great words of humanity, requiring it to be grandiloquent rather than original. In the democratic era on the other hand we have pushed the writer into the role of expert at mixing cultures in his texts – like a juggler of familiar quotations, a compiler of golden thoughts and popular plots. Once a piece of literature was supposed to be copied from national allegories, and now it has become a mixture of well-known works.
What happens at this time, what occurred just now is nothing special or out of the ordinary; it could happen, and it did – it’s a cliché.
What happens at this time takes place on the highway from Gdańsk to Warsaw.
A moment ago he, A.Z., was leafing through today’s, current newspaper, describing facts from time gone by, events from two days ago, when his attention was caught by a report about the TriCity railway, the Rapid Intercity Line; two days ago a long-standing Gdynia councillor, an academic at Gdańsk Polytechnic, a man of advanced years with a good reputation as the model father of a Catholic family, a teetotaller and a non-smoker to boot – altogether a level-headed fellow, had stopped in front of a young woman travelling in the train carriage, eyed her up greedily, then hurriedly undone his clothing, flashed his nakedness and started to masturbate furiously.
This seems highly improbable, according to Mr Szczurek, the Mayor of Gdynia; he is holier than the Pope, as some people say of him – in his parish he carries the monstrance behind the priest, reads A.Z., and hands out the communion wafers in church. I find it very hard to believe – maybe someone was impersonating him, adds the Chairman of the City Council; I simply cannot believe this – perhaps it’s a mistake, insists a non-associate councillor. But no, A.Z. reads on, next day the hitherto highly regarded, well-respected offender made a statement resigning from his functions, aware of his responsibility for the good name of the city of Gdynia and its authorities, and also mindful of the need to restore spiritual equilibrium after such a deep shock.
At this moment A.Z. is thinking he should tell the actress what he’s reading about and express his mature amazement at the naïve amazement of the Gdynia councillors, who, as if they really knew very little about the darker side of everyday life, find the ensuing situation beyond belief, but the actress, who is driving, beats him to it and starts talking first.
So now he looks up and notices that the car they are travelling in is on a curve of the road; the actress is driving and is just turning towards him and starting to speak; he, A.Z., sees lots of passenger cars and delivery vans coming from the opposite direction, one after another, and suddenly he sees the great bulk of an enormous lorry emerging from around the bend, driving in their lane as it labours to overtake the whole caravan of passenger and delivery vehicles; the actress, who is driving, doesn’t notice this, because as she’s talking she’s looking at him, but that’s of no significance, because in any case this stretch of the highway has no hard shoulder – it is bounded by a high kerb and there is no question of swerving aside; even if she weren’t looking at him but were watching what was happening on the road there’d be no chance of swerving aside, into a field or a meadow; how simple it is, thinks A.Z., and has the distinct sensation of the whirl of time abruptly slowing down.
Now, this very moment, what time is that?, A.Z. is thinking. This instant – what day is that? which month? or year? By what calendar should this moment be defined? With what other events should it be pinned to a point in space? What else is happening at this moment, right here, beside us, what’s happening a kilometre away, ten kilometres, a thousand, or twenty thousand? Does everything that’s happening combine to form a whole? Does it affect itself? Does it play out according to some plan, or is it just chaos?
Why, at this second, on this highway from Gdańsk to Warsaw, on this particular bend has a container lorry appeared, why it and nothing else?
But it’s a cliché, thinks A.Z., and because of this cliché I’ll never find out what else was happening right now, if only in the town we’ve just passed, or what the policemen are doing now who stopped us for speeding just after we left it.
“This violation will cost you three hundred zlotys,” the traffic cop said to the actress, who was driving.
“But I already paid three hundred zlotys for the same thing just outside Gdańsk,” she protested.
“That’s great,” the traffic cop said gladly. “In that case I won’t have to write out a ticket. You pay two hundred zlotys, Madam, and I can even reduce the fine to a hundred, because that’s what I’m like, I’m easily touched and I don’t nurse grudges.”
It’s a pity not to know what's happening everywhere, thinks A.Z., because maybe something important is going on, something highly essential, a turning point in my life? Maybe a new chapter is just about to open? Of course it would be better if nothing important, highly essential or crucial were happening, because in that case the two of us, who tomorrow will be nothing but a two-sentence note in the newspaper, thanks to that note will continue to exist for at least the one-day life of those newspapers. But if some particular events I don’t know about are happening, this note will lose all its importance – it’ll be nothing but a mark on a flimsy piece of paper, and the special incidents will plunge it into deep shadow.
Though maybe not, he’s thinking at this moment; the actress, who is driving – her celebrity will demand far more than an ordinary note, she played the lead in a film, a major film that won a major award at the Venice festival, or it may have been San Sebastian or Berlin; it was decades ago, but they’ll remember all right; the newspaper writers will extract it, unearth it, so it might not be just a note, but a posthumous tribute with a carefully chosen photo; quite so, he thinks, but what if they write about her, and just add my initials incidentally, the way they usually do in that sort of note? Maybe they’ll add that he made his debut as a concrete poet? That later on he was well known for a single novel, which he published in the seventies? What if they don’t add that? Will I be just A.Z.? And that’s all?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones