Stories about businessmen – that’s how you might describe the sub-genre of contemporary literature that’s all about rich, mostly young people who are heavily overworked and heavily addicted to their jobs. There are two general patterns for stories of this kind. The first shows that it’s possible to retain a job and a sense of meaning in life – but only under certain conditions. Thus we see how a break-through comes in the central characters’ lives, to do with love or realising how absurd it is to work all the hours that God made, which prompts them to get out of the situation of slave to the computer, money and power, and become a human being again. According to the second pattern, it is impossible to reconcile work and a meaningful existence. You have to leave the job in order to do some thinking about life, or you have to go underground to recover your true emotions.
Adam Kaczanowski’s tale lies in between these two alternatives. It portrays some successful people who have had enough of success, but cannot find the way back. They have gained wealth, and only now have they realised that their life stories have no meaningful end. Young and superbly educated, they have achieved too much at work early on – good positions, power over other people, high salaries – and now they are furiously seeking an answer to the question of what was the real point of it all.
However – luckily – it is not just a consoling tale for the poor, who will read this story of burned-out rich people, then breathe easy and start boasting about their indigence. Its value lies in the fact that, firstly, in portraying yuppies, it shows how basically they are very like the rest of us. Secondly, the book has an ironical go at literature. Kaczanowski suggests (and this applies to his own book too) that today’s writer has become an “advertising agency” employee: he is for hire by the rich (to show what a terribly tough time they have with all their money) or the poor (to show them what an awful life rich people have). It’s neither a service, nor a mission, nor an assignment. It’s work with no end, at risk of losing all sense of life’s meaning. How are we to get out of this trap? By becoming aware of it – naming this trap is a good start in a world that fools us into thinking there really are things with no end.
Adam Kaczanowski (b. 1976) writes poetry and fiction, and has published four volumes of verse (including one about Batman). No End is his first novel.
When Andrzej was little, he once saw an accident at this roundabout. An enormous crane on its way to a building site suddenly came off the road, smashed the barriers and came to a stop on the pavement. Apparently the driver had had a heart attack. As he sat in his car waiting for the lights to change, he looked in that direction. What a bloody heatwave, he thought. Bloody high summer. His attention was halted by the driver of the car in the next lane. The guy was saying something, or rather shouting and gesticulating into thin air. He was waving his hands about, though there was no one facing him, and the crossing was deserted at this time of day. So was his car. Andrzej had the air conditioning on, but now, as he watched the man’s performance, he opened the side window. The man turned towards him, without stopping talking. He was speaking into a microphone. Their eyes met. This heat is enough to drive you mad, the thought crossed Andrzej’s mind.
His office door opened a crack.
“Miss Butny’s here, she has an appointment about the report,” said the secretary to Andrzej, sending the President a smile.
“Please apologise and tell her I haven’t forgotten, but she’ll have to wait a while…”
“Right.” The woman began to withdraw. She went on smiling as she shut the door behind her.
“Tell her the President himself is here to give me a talking to!” Andrzej called after her.
“You never let anyone off,” remarked the tubby, older man, also smiling.
“That’s my charm… Not everyone likes it…”
“Quite so,” said the President, avoiding Andrzej’s gaze.
“Sod this awful weather.”
“It’s boiling hot,” agreed the President.
“Thank God for air conditioning.”
“You know what I think…”
Andrzej didn’t answer, he just nodded.
“The people who don’t like your sense of humour are mediocrities. Nonentities who twitter around the top brass.”
Andrzej threw up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “They’re so dumb they think you’re making dumbos of them. That you’re making fun of them.” At this point Andrzej wanted to interject, but the President raised his hand to be allowed to finish. “We work with these people… I’ve experienced your caustic wit for myself… But I like intelligent jokes…”
“They don’t. You’re making enemies for yourself. They’re fretting about it, coming crawling to me with their complaints…”
“So?” repeated Andrzej.
“So please take it into consideration. They’ve been coming and asking me to stop you. Because you’re embarrassing them in front of outsiders.”
“I’m embarrassing them? Is that how they put it?”
“It’s nonsense. But we must calm them down a bit.”
“Me or them?”
“Them. I have a favour to ask you…”
“A favour. Not an order.”
“I’d like to say you’ve signed up for psychotherapy…”
“What?!” Andrzej stood up feeling agitated and went over to the window.
“That you’re fighting this feature of your character, that you’re going for therapy, and afterwards you won’t clown around so much…”
The President broke off, waiting for Andrzej’s reaction. He just stood there without speaking.
“That’s all we’ll say about it. You won’t sign up for anything…”
“Dreadful heatwave,” she said, passing the President in the doorway as he left.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting, Agnieszka,” he cast her way.
“Agata. My name’s Agata.”
“Now I’ve really put my foot in it!” cried the boss as he closed the door.
They were left alone. Andrzej was sitting at his desk, and Agata turned her back towards him.
“Have I got any marks?”
“That’s good. You know how much I sweat in this weather.”
Despite complaining about the heat, she didn’t look tired. Her movements were energetic and relaxed. She sat down facing Andrzej and put a document in front of him.
Andrzej didn’t react.
“Take a look at it.” She opened it under his nose.
“An analysis of advertising expenses for 2002 in comparison with our competitors’ costs,” he read the title, dispassionately, without the least interest.
The woman tugged gently at the neck of her blouse, blew down it and shook the material. Andrzej turned the pages to the last one.
“What’s the conclusion?”
“That we can make some changes, but generally it’s OK…”
“All right…” He closed the report and pushed it away from him.
“Should I go now?”
“As you wish…” she remarked drily.
“Perhaps I will sign up for therapy…”
Agata had already stood up and taken the document from his desk. Now she stopped in mid step.
“Should I leave you a copy?”
He shook his head. She turned towards the door.
“Are you sure I haven’t got any marks?”
Once Andrzej had stuck some stickers on the lift buttons, the kind that get put on children’s lockers at nursery school – a chestnut on the sweets floor, a bee for the floor with honey, and a toadstool for the board level. Marketing was higher up. When he got into the lift he was alone, but one floor below three young managers got in. One nodded to greet him, but none of them said anything.
“Swine,” said Andrzej very loud.
They were disconcerted, and one of them instinctively checked to see if his flies were undone.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he went on, without looking at any of the passengers in the lift. “Can you explain yourself?”
“I don’t know what it’s about…” gasped the man with the flies in a voice of terror.
“Why don’t you say something?” Andrzej went on, staring into space.
The manager realised it wasn’t addressed to him. He looked round at his colleagues, who kept silent.
“I haven’t time today, but we’ll talk tomorrow. It’s going to be a serious conversation…”
Suddenly one of them pressed a button, making the lift stop immediately at the nearest floor. All three got out.
“It’s not serious…” Andrzej broke off the moment the doors shut behind them. He examined his reflection in the mirror wall. He crossed his eyes and smiled.
The atrium was teeming with people. Everyone was going home.
Translated by Anotonia Lloyd-Jones