The long title story is the main feature of this collection. It is a synthesis of twentieth-century Polish-Ukrainian relations including their tragic culmination point – the massacre of the Polish population in Podolia and Volhynia in 1943. The fates of the two main characters, a Ukrainian and a Pole, and their friendship which started in their early youth in what before the war was Poland, illustrate the tangled history of the two nations, doomed as a result of many factors to constant confrontation, unable to live in harmony and enjoy what should have been natural neighbourly brotherhood. An interesting fact about this story is that the author places the Ukrainian character, Mikołaj Damiatycz, in the foreground: “…a totally upright man. Non-partisan, brave, incorruptible, truthful and just. A loyal friend. A good vagabond, raconteur and hunter, a sincere, godly man.”
The comment about hunting is not without significance. The narrator’s friendship with Mikołaj (who later becomes an Orthodox priest) develops while out hunting the silver fox. The unusual thing about the hunt is that all the participants are aware that shooting the fox would be an ignoble deed: the fox has to escape in one piece! And yet, confronted by the Second World War, the order of the agreed hunting terms and the entire old world both prove unimportant.
The cruelty of the events Odojewski describes, whether in the title story or in Crime Record, is shocking. It is hard to forget the image of the father in despair over the body of his daughter, killed by her own brothers who, for purely nationalist motives, have already murdered their own mother. Odojewski wants to stir the reader’s conscience by identifying nationalism as the greatest evil on earth, not just in yesterday’s world, but also today’s.
The collection includes a total of twelve stories. Some are short pieces that act as a counterpoint to the title story, which is one of Odojewski’s major works as he joins the chorus of those writing about the borderlands issue, which occupies a unique place in Polish literature.
- Krzysztof Masłoń
And afterwards? What happened after that? The months went by. That was when the tragedy occurred that changed Mikołaj’s entire life, but before I bring it up I must bring up another, truly important encounter with that lovely giggly girl from the autumn hunt, who let me in on the secret of the damned silver fox. It was the first or second of September; I had already registered with the Piarists in Tarnopol, though the school year was only due to start the following Monday, so I was hanging around in town, when I caught sight of Marusia walking down the street in a gang of girls her age. I bowed, and she detached herself from the others, ran up to me laughing and with her eyes shining, and then I invited her for an ice cream.
We sat down in a café near the parish church. Outside, along the street in full sunlight, people were heading for the nearby market or coming back from it; opposite, in a large area running off the gateway out of the courtyard some youths were playing a game, pitching coins against a wall, then spreading their fingers to measure the distances between the coins that had just bounced off the wall and the ones that were already lying on the cobbles; with stern looks on their faces they were totting up how many points they had won. The smile did not leave Marusia’s face as we talked about the school term ahead of us, then about the holidays (which I had spent at a scout camp in Polesie, while she had stayed with relatives near Zaleszczyki on the Dniester), but she grew serious when I asked what was going on in Soroczyski. “Oh, Mikołaj!” The words burst from her lips with a deep sigh, and then as if someone were eavesdropping on us, she quietly added: “You ought to go and see him in hospital.” “What do you mean?! What on earth happened?!” I shouted, and she replied: “I thought you knew, but just didn’t want to talk about it. He shot…” and she got stuck in mid sentence. “He’s in hospital? Shot?! Did he shoot himself while out hunting?” I seized her by the elbow and squeezed it hard, as if trying to force her to talk faster. She pulled her elbow free, grimacing, and said: “You’ve got a grip like a mangle”. “In hospital?!” “Yes, he shot himself in the chest,” she finished saying, and I seized her by the elbow again, but instantly remembered I have a grip like a mangle, so I let go and just shrieked: “What happened?! Jesus Christ! What on earth happened?!” And she said: “I’m trying to tell you! He shot himself in the chest.” And then she told me a tale that turned out to have started, as I see it, a year ago, on that late autumn day when, after sleeping the night in a bed that Mikołaj had given up for me, at dawn we had set off into the Pantalichy wilderness in pursuit of the infamous silver fox.
“Maybe you remember that beautiful black-eyed girl who was Stiopka Poliszczuk’s companion on that hunting trip?” asked Marusia. “The gentleman who was dressed in a rather military style, striking looking – a doctor from Lwów. Well, no, why should you remember him…” To which I said of course I did, very well even, and that at the time I had asked Mikołaj who he was once or twice; what distinguished that couple, whether it was their good looks, their clothing or bearing, I couldn’t now say, but I did remember the fact that they stood out a mile. “In reply Mikołaj treated me to a rather unusual story,” I said, laughing and shrugging my shoulders. “He told me she was the sister of a Cossack hetman…” “Korycki!” Marusia interrupted me. “Yes, maybe, I don’t remember the name,” I said, and after a brief pause for thought, I cautiously added: “Mikołaj… was moved… by the sight of her. Very much, I think.” “That makes sense,” she was quick to agree. “It’s because of her that he tried to end his life. He’s head over heels in love with her!” “What on earth… what on earth…” I whispered, unable to shake off my amazement, and then Marusia said: “Though it’s not an obvious choice, because Mikołaj is only just approaching his school certificate, and Iryna is twenty-two or three, she’ll be finishing her architectural studies in Lwów soon – what sort of a couple could they be?! Besides, they’re blood relatives. Yet he pumped a bullet straight into his own chest, because as soon as she noticed something like that was up with him, she did her best to keep her distance.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones