Literature is the art of story-telling, claims Krakow-based author Łukasz Dębski, and proves the truth of this thesis in this tale, written in several different voices, about the Café Szafé, which is the focal point for the events he describes. Over a cup of coffee and a shot of alcohol the various eccentric customers who visit this establishment tell tales from somewhere on the borders of reality and fantasy. They represent themselves as better than they really are, and often quite simply invent things. Dębski’s book has obvious parallels with the genre of bar-room chat so typical of Czech fiction, which achieved its peak in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk or Bohumil Hrabal’s Automat Svět [“Automat World”].
Café Szafé is a brief novel containing a large number of short pieces, scenes and dialogues brought together by the narrator, who is the café’s joint owner. The habitués of the café confide in him as if in a confessor, and seek his understanding for their conduct. Together they create the magic of the place, because it is they who determine what it is, while the jazz, coffee and other comestibles are just props – important, but not the most important things there.
Dębski’s heroes are lonely people. The Café Szafé is their home – this is where they meet people and form friendships, and this is where they discuss the world’s most vital issues and the most mundane trivialities with equal gusto. And the fact that Sławomir Mrożek also appears in the book is no accident – all Dębski’s characters, including The Astronomer, The Local Constable, Mr Karol, The Senior Registrar and Łucjusz, are true scions of Mrożek.
- Krzysztof Masłoń
Łukasz Dębski (born 1975) writes fiction, screenplays and children’s books. His first book was The Squirrel’s Tale and Other Fables in Verse (2001). He lives and works in Krakow.
At midnight the host invited his guests into the shop’s main showroom, where he promised to improvise a small performance for them. In the showroom Mr Karol’s assistant was ready and waiting in an Arab costume; after all, improvisations prepared in advance usually come out the best. This Arab assistant with the ancient Arabic name of Monika (in private life a student of cosmetology), performed a belly dance to the rhythm of some Oriental music with incense burning in the background, a spectacular way of showing off a valuable rug hand-woven in Halvai (with 350 threads per inch). By a truly ironic twist of fate, instead of taking him to the heights of financial independence, this beautiful and valuable object had pushed Mr Karol into a suffocating abyss of hopeless debt. However, there was nothing wrong with that, as at least this nice gathering had come out of it, and there were some other advantages yet to follow.
With suitable awe, the guests gaped in wonder and began to touch the valuable threads, while the assistant twirled around as if she had lived in Teheran from birth, and Mr Karol began to relate how poetically it had all begun, how dramatically it had developed and how prosaically it had ended. He would surely have gone on with his story all night, filling his friends with admiration and firing up his female friends who were eager for international adventure, if not for an unforeseen, though annoyingly typical event, something that has barred the progress of more than one progressive party on more than one occasion – namely, the vodka ran out. The master of ceremonies was Mr Karol, so the quartermaster’s duties were his responsibility. His good friends (luckily still identifiable as such even after this) would not let him out into the night alone, which resulted in the host suggesting a very interesting way of continuing the celebrations – he had the bright idea of taking advantage of the warm June night, organising some extra intoxicants and heading off to Błonie Meadows with the whole party in tow. The company applauded, because they would be able to sing louder, breathe in the scent of freshly mown grass and maybe, as in their youth, there’d be a chance to run about in the altogether.
Mr Karol also decided to take the precious carpet to the Meadows, to have something to sit on – he didn’t fail to remember those of his friends who had rheumatism, or those of his lady friends with extremely sensitive backsides who might catch cold from sitting on the bare grass. So four of them threw it on their shoulders like a coffin, a rolled-up relic, then set off into the dark night in a group of at least a dozen, first of all for supplies, then to the Meadows for a late-night picnic.
* * *
“Next morning my head ached fit to burst,” said Mr Karol.
“Not surprising,” I admitted. “After that sort of irrigation…”
“Maybe that wasn’t really so strange – the strange bit was only just starting… Do you know what day it was?”
“How should I know?” I replied brusquely, because he had stopped in the middle of such an interesting story for no apparent reason.
“It was the eighth of June 1997 precisely, I’ll have you know, and you’re just about to find out why I remember that date so well. It wasn’t the pain in my head that woke me up, so much as a strange noise, people talking and singing. Though it was already light, I firmly told my mates to be quiet – I confess I may have done it rather rudely, but no one replied, because, as it soon turned out, none of them was actually with me, there was just a strange man tugging at my arm and saying: ‘Get up, brother, the father is just about to appear.’
“I was surprised someone was still threatening me at my age with a father – it really was a long time since mine had last beaten me for drinking, so I got up and bowed, rubbed my sleepy eyes and put on my glasses. My companions had gone long ago; I was kneeling on my carpet in the middle of the Meadows, absolutely dumbstruck, because there before me I saw a priest, lots of priests, dozens of nuns and a huge crowd of other people.
“Well, sir, I have often woken up with a larger number of people than I happened to go to bed with, but this many?! This was a gross exaggeration. Where had all these people come from? You won’t believe what had happened: I had woken up the morning after the apocalyptic party on my valuable Persian rug, on Kraków’s Błonie Meadows, on the eighth of June 1997, right in front of the altar built for the Holy Father, who was just about to start saying a mass to canonise the blessed Jadwiga, Queen of Poland.
“All these people, pilgrims from the world over, had gathered there during the night, the rest had come that morning, and at ten o’clock, when the Pope was due to begin a mass for which the Polish nation had been waiting almost six hundred years, there were almost one and a half million of them there with me.
“So there I was in the middle of all those people, kneeling on my rug among one and a half million believers, and before it had dawned on me what was happening, a nun had brought me a chair, probably thinking that as I had a place so near the altar and my own rug to boot, I must be a bigwig who only through some disgraceful oversight by the organisers had nothing to sit on. I did not disabuse her of this mistake.
“The whole time I sat on my own, thirty metres from the Pope, and I felt as if he were speaking to me alone, specially for me, as if he knew about all my bad behaviour, my ignoble deeds, the dozens of children that had no idea of my existence, the finance minister I had conned so many times, all the bad habits I had yielded to, and all the women who had yielded to me one by one. As the mass was approaching its finale, right at the very end I squinted and took a closer look at John Paul II, squinted even harder and got a warm feeling I’ve never felt before or since, as I became convinced (and I know a thing or two) that John Paul II was standing on exactly the same kind of rug as me, on an old Persian rug cascading down the steps from a several-centuries-old family workshop in Halvai, Bidjars region. It was impossible and possible all at once. I recognised the characteristic weave (over 350 threads per inch), the background the colour of ivory, the medallion and motif of Herat. I don’t know if it was the fault of the alcohol I had drunk or the sun hanging above the altar, or maybe both of them, but it occurred to me that this could not be a coincidence, because there were too many coincidences here at once, so all this must have been planned: my trade in rugs, the anonymous cousin, the Russian colonel… Hell, even the entire exodus of hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers from the territory of the former GDR might well have been carried out purely with a view to my conversion.
“Yes, sir, God does exist, and I’ll tell you more: if John Paul II really was standing on a carpet like mine, there is a strong, a very strong probability that God Almighty has a rug like that too – that means all three of us have exactly the same kind of rug, and that is far more than just a sign, if you please, it’s a true miracle.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones