Balladynas and Romances

Ignacy Karpowicz
Balladynas and Romances
  • Wydawnictwo Literackie
    Kraków 2010
    123 × 197
    580 pp
    ISBN 978-83-08-04494-0

The title of Ignacy Karpowicz’s novel is made up of the titles of two masterpieces of Polish Romanticism. Adam Mickiewicz’s book of epic poems, Ballads and Romances, is regarded as the collection that initiated this era in Polish literature, and Balladyna is one of Juliusz Słowacki’s best dramas. Knowing the sources of this pun, it is easy to see what it means, but it’s not quite so easy to explain what exactly this mish-mash is. Explaining the concept of “Poland” is no less tricky a task.
Yet what we have here is Poland, “on special offer”, so a small group of gods makes its way there, above all Olympian gods, supported by divinities from some other religions, including Jesus, Osiris and Lucifer. What are they appearing on earth for? To confirm the existence of transcendental beings, and to restore the values which are ignored by the religion that unites the inhabitants of the global village – pop culture. However, their noble intention comes to nothing, as the only difference between the gods and people is that the gods are immortal – what’s more, only in the physical (or metaphysical) sense of the word, and only up to a point.
The novel opens with the monologue of a Chinese fortune cookie as the carrier of existential principles, by which several of the earthly heroes seem to be guided. These characters are connected by family relationships and friendships, and include: a nurse called Olga, a 50-year-old single woman burdened with the stigma of killing on demand; her niece Anka, the living incarnation of “CosmoGirl”; teenage Janek, a typical demoralised social orphan with no future; and Bartek and Rafał, two university lecturers who question the point of their own research. Each of them is suffering, so each of them could do with a radical change. Or a miracle. Can they count on the heavenly invasion to make it happen?
All I shall betray is that in preparing his ironical treatise on the modern human condition, Karpowicz does not fall into the pop-culture trap. He adeptly avoids formulaic plots and steers the fates of his human and non-human characters in perhaps the most unexpected direction. Philosophical thought finds full expression in the form of this book, via its tragi-comic tone, its way of juggling narrative methods and its mixed composition. The result could be an extremely interesting story (as far as Polish creativity goes) about what post-modernity is in a post-communist country.

- Marta Mizuro

Excerpt

Jesus

My name is Jesus. Jesus Christ, and my tag’s Ichthys. I’m very popular, right at the top for two thousand years. I mainly appear in the Bible, which next to Hair is the biggest musical of all time.
I am a god, the one and only god. I am the gate and the way. I am the light and salvation. I am the shepherd. For real.
I am the one and only god in the Trinity. That means the one and only god is also my Father and the Holy Spirit. We are a unity, although we are also separate. Not a bad idea, just a bit complicated. From the start I told Father and the Dove that people wouldn’t get it. The subtle, well-fed minds will understand, of course they will, but the stupider, underfed remainder will be confused about who’s who. I said we should wait with the Three in One and vice versa until people discover that the world has more than three dimensions and that quantum physics is only the start of the road to understanding it. But they said no. No, because concealing the triple nature of unity and the unity of the Trinity would be a lie, and building a religion on a lie is risky in the long run – we’ve had plenty of examples from earlier eras. No, because the only road to salvation is via the truth. The truth, by the way, is me.
Of course I was right. I’m sort of omniscient. Not that I was pleased about being right. It’s simply that every god should adapt to the level of his (potential) believers, to the historical moment. After all, I’m not going to proclaim in the Stone Age that every person has the right to spam and a broadband connection. There’d already been some friction over editing the Ten Commandments. To my mind the Ten Commandments weren’t very developmental and too long from the start – after all, not everyone has a good memory. But they said no, there had to be ten points. If there are ten points, you can’t insist on the text being coherent or effective. Firstly, you can observe the Ten Commandments and still be a bad person. Secondly, the commandments linked morality and law too strongly with the family, and as everyone knows, families only ever come out well in photos, apart from which the family is a historical concept, subject to time and susceptible to change.
The next problem is language. I said to the other two thirds of me: listen, let’s not do this in Hebrew or Aramaic, those languages will die out – look at the forecasts and simulations; let’s wait a few hundred years, I said. I am the god of love, my manifesto should be expressed in the language of love, best of all in French. But they (that is I) said no. We’re not waiting. Well then, I say, how about English? There won’t be any problems with mistakes in the translation. But I (that is they) also said no to that.
The next problem, and it’s an important one, came out of the constitution of me myself. So I’m a god and a man. Two separate natures, but in one single body – that’s what the Council of Chalcedon ruled, and I went along with this decision; it reached me exactly approximately four hundred years after my death, at a benefit for my activities. The idea of two natures isn’t bad, and the implementation isn’t bad, but once again something didn’t go quite according to my way of thinking. In my view, the resurrection turned out to be a cardinal error. We should have dropped all that Egyptian heavy stuff. For people to be good, they have to understand that there’s nothing waiting for them after death, there’s no heaven and no judgement. And even if someone does get into heaven, it’ll be a bonus, a real prize for those who weren’t expecting anything.
Except that I was saying my thing, and my other two thirds were saying theirs – that without heaven and hell people wouldn’t be good, there’d be no salvation and the whole thing’ll be a flop and a bore. And once again it turned out I was right. I’m a god, and even if two thirds of me are in disagreement with me, I do know how the world’s going to end.
That’s why I’m planning to come down and die. Nothing spectacular – no cross, no agony. That didn’t work out. The crucifixion turned out to be premature. This time I’m going for cataracts, rheumatism and senile dementia. I’m planning to descend with Nike, my sweetheart, I’m planning to give up the omnipotence, do the shopping and catch the flu. I’m planning to do minor good deeds. Miracles are out of the question. I’m planning to pay the rent and spend eight hours a day at work.
I’m an anthropophile. I love people. Maybe because I have a sense of humour. There’s no love without a sense of humour. I suggested replacing one of the commandments with this one: “Thou shalt laugh every day, and even more on the holy day. Laughter is a good gateway, balsam for the heart and the eye of salvation”. It didn’t fly.
Salvation is the central point of all the dimensions, and it’s where I plan to lead people, to a point within matter, because apart from matter in all its various planes there is nothing – just the ultimate dimension. I believe in apocatastatis: universal salvation. Without hell, limbo or the abyss. In this belief I am in the minority. Two thirds of me insist on the Last Judgement. I argue that Creation is a good thing, and so on every, even the most despicable being, you can see the stamp of good. It’s hard talking to a majority, especially in unity.
I admit that over the past few centuries I have had doubts about apocatastasis, and in general, about myself, or actually about one third of myself. After the show in the Red Sea I really hit rock bottom. Nike told me about Zeus’ plan. I didn’t like it much. Later, when Nike had gone off, I was sitting there, head drooping, in despair and in a dilemma, when I had a revelation. The Olympians’ plan doesn’t go against my own plans, but works in their favour. Please understand that I’ve never been a fan of the idea that there’s only one god: I was outvoted, which in itself is a paradox. I’ve always thought it’s better to cooperate with other gods than to fight them. It looks to me as though the Greek plan gives all of us one more chance. This time I won’t make the old mistakes again: the resurrection, as I said, is out; hell, heaven, purgatory – out; and the Ten Commandments are suspended. I need something simpler. One point will be enough, maybe with footnotes, such as: Everyone has the right to happiness. To laughter. To make a mistake. To love. We can draw lots on it.
This time I’m going to pull it off. I am the Pantocrator, alpha and omega, omnipotence and eternal light. I am the gate and the church. I know that’s nothing to get worked up about, but sometimes it’s worth reminding yourself who you are.
I’m filled with hope. Hope, as it so awkwardly happens, is the only one of the plagues that didn’t leave Pandora’s Box. Or actually, Barrel, by the way.
I freshened up, got changed, and rushed off to see Nike. I told her everything, and while I was there I met Aphrodite. She’s even more beautiful than they say. Nike declared her love for me. We’re going down together, right after Athena and Osiris’ festival.
Osiris is my pal from way back, before the crucifixion. He was the first god to rise from the dead. And not far from Golgotha either – by plane it’d be an hour, a little shorter on angel’s wings.
So we’re going down. The veil of heaven will part for the very last time. The curtain will rise. Hallelujah.
I’m off to the jeweller’s – I’d like to propose to Nike..  I need a ring; perhaps something made of adamant?