According to Marek Kochan, “people like stories from real life”. And that’s the kind of tale he offers his readers in the short stories that make up The Ballad of the Good Delinquent. In his realistic, carefully composed narratives he mainly portrays contemporary Varsovians, focusing on people from very varied social backgrounds. He writes about people working for large companies who are trying to build a career at any cost, some rather sharp-witted bodyguards, the ‘blockies’ –kids from the block – a musician who composes background music for shops, a young academic who is maintained by his wife, and a delinquent who wants to change his own life against all the odds. He presents people who are caught up in a relentless rat race and have lost all sense of reason and moderation, because they are driven by one single principle: “If we don’t go up in the world we’ll fall”. From Kochan’s stories an image of today’s Poland emerges as a country in which it is becoming ever harder for people to find their own place and to fulfil their dreams. However, despite appearances, Kochan’s book is not a gloomy report on contemporary Poland and its people. He makes good use of humour (though this is sometimes a case of laughter through tears), irony and absurdity; he writes about problems and even tragedies with his tongue in his cheek. His jokes and his sense of detachment make his prose stand out among the novels and stories published in recent years.
She had to fight, because although she was the best legal trainee in her year and not long after became a partner in her chambers, it was still just a small Polish practice that only got really big commissions from corporations once in a while. She had to look after her image, because without it she could easily sink down, lose her good reputation and end up doing donkey work that yielded little profit: divorces, inheritances or clashes of the kind involving the owner of a small perfume shop against a shopping centre. So what if Mączyńska was good at those cases, if they didn’t make any money.
She met Mr Wasiak, a company director, at a ball at the American Embassy. There were usually lots of people from high society there, but most of them were businessmen from various American corporations, especially those who appreciated a sumptuous buffet with an unlimited supply of whisky. Mączyńska had been to the States on a six-month grant and was now eagerly taking advantage of her place on the guest list in order to engineer some bigger commission. The surname Kiryłło meant a lot in Warsaw, even when Marcel’s father was no longer a big shot on the District Lawyer’s Council, but to earn the real money she would have to be in the right place at the right time.
So she preferred going to this sort of party on her own. It was easier to manoeuvre around the crowd, to end one conversation and start another. Anyway, Marcel Kiryłło wasn’t at all bothered about it. He didn’t like noisy crowds and preferred to spend the time meeting up with a friend from Zamojski’s for a game of chess instead. He only ever went to banquets when he really had to.
She was on her own when someone introduced her to Wasiak. She already knew they were having trouble with a couple of the heirs of a man who owned the allotments in the middle of the piece of land where their logistics centre for Eastern Europe was due to be built. And that the problem had arisen when they could no longer get out of the deal. They still had to employ a small, smart legal firm – the big international law firms didn’t do so well with this sort of case.
But naturally she didn’t start off with business. They chatted about this and that, until the topic of holidays came up. Mączyńska wanted to be nice, and was keen to acquire a good contact, so when Wasiak said he was going to the Côte d’Azur, she impulsively hinted that she was going there too. She thought it would cost her nothing to say that. Then she tried to wriggle out of it, asking Wasiak where he was going so it would emerge that she would be right at the opposite end of the place. Wasiak was of Polish extraction from Ohio; after graduating he had decided to seek his fortune in the old country. He talked about a friend of his from MIT, who had a property in the mountains not far from Saint-Tropez and had invited him there for a week or two.
“That’s a pity, because I’m going to be in the Nice area,” she said, putting on a disappointed tone.
“Either way you could drop by. It’s only about an hour on the highway. Karl is a very hospitable guy. He loves Poles. His grandma was in love with an émigré Uhlan,” said Wasiak to persuade her, and in the end he got her to write this Karl guy’s address on the back of his business card.
Then they moved on to business talk, and it emerged that the job would be from mid-August, straight after the putative holiday on the Côte d’Azur.
The conversation with her husband Marcel was tough. Mączyńska pestered him for two hours, but this time he remained unyielding.
“Stop going on about the Côte d’Azur, will you? I’d never go there in the high season – think of the crowds, the stench, the traffic jams and the French rap. It’s all too much for me. Besides, we’re supposed to be going to Mierzeja in August.”
“But Marcel, you’ve got to understand the guy is really important to me. I told him I was going to France, so I can’t not go now.”
“You shouldn’t have said it. You didn’t discuss it with me first. We can go to France nearer the end of August. But let’s go to the Baltic first. And I can tell you straight up, I’m busy through July.”
“Then maybe we could spend a week apart?”
Marcel gave her a strange look. Yes, there was a price to pay for joining a family with a well-known name. There were some things that were just out of the question. There were some things you just had to do. Women did not go on holiday on their own. Since time immemorial the Kiryłło family had gone to Mierzeja for two weeks every year. Not to Jurata, not to Łeba, not to Władysławowo. That was their style. Marcel couldn’t understand arguments like “what am I going to say at the office?”.
“You’re going to say ‘I went to a small fishing village on the Vistula Spit.”
“But Marcel, try to understand, that’s not the point,” she said.
“Darling, does your professional standing really depend on where you go on holiday? Besides, it’s a great place. Peace and quiet, a beautiful beach and relatively few people.”
She stopped trying to explain, because it was impossible. People like the Kiryłłos could talk like that, but other people had to swank about the Mediterranean or some exotic place, and even then you had to be careful where and when you went. Mączyńska could remember how, before she had started her training, someone had tried to boast about Tunisia, but her boss, later her colleague, had just pulled a face.
“Tunisia?” he had said. “That’s where sociologists from Bremen University go.”
“Bremen?” asked the guy who’d been on holiday in Tunisia.
“Yes, because it’s the best place to do research on East German plumbers. There’s nowhere else you can find as many of them all in one place.”
From then on Mączyńska had listened carefully first to find out which were the right places to go, and only betrayed her holiday plans once she was absolutely sure it was a good choice. And so she felt she couldn’t say: “I went to the Vistula Spit,” because that would weaken her position. It really wasn’t appropriate to mention a place like that. For all she knew, even France was too banal. And now the whole thing was a wash-out. Marcel Kiryłło wasunyielding, she had said she was going to be in France, and they were to spend their holiday together at Mierzeja. Normally she’d have stuck to her guns confidently, but the present situation was further complicated by the fact that Marcel was pressing her to have a second child. He wanted a son, but she needed just one more year, maybe two, to strengthen her position. And in order not to give in there, she would have to give ground here.
So she said she’d go along with her husband’s wishes, like a good wife. She decided she’d simply lie about the holiday. They had actually been to France a couple of times, and after all that it wouldn’t be so hard to make a few well-rounded remarks about it. What about having a different colour tan? So what – she could always go to the solarium.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones