Shadow at Day's End. An Autobiographical Novel, The

Filip Bajon
Shadow at Day's End. An Autobiographical Novel, The
  • Wydawnictwo Jeden Świat
    Warszawa 2006
    145 x 205
    326 pages
    ISBN 83-89632-28-4
    Translation rights: Jeden świat

Filip Bajon's The Shadow at Day's End is not strictly speaking an autobiography, as the author emphasizes in the sub-title, calling the book an "autobiographical novel”. He may have chosen this formula for fear of upsetting the people featured in the work, which may be either classified under non-fiction or fiction; it would be an exaggeration in this case to talk in terms of belles lettres.This is a travel book in the sense of travels described by an intellectual and spiritual searcher, but also the travels of the ordinary souls taking advantage of travel offices, waiting for those exceptionally favourable "last minute” offers. Bajon tells us about America and Russia, England and Albania, Turkey and Rumania, Bulgaria and Finland, but begins the novel with what was perhaps his most important trip, taken in childhood: the search with a group of boys his own age for the non-existent corridor allegedly connecting Poznan's Citadel with Hitler's Chancellery.The Shadow at Day's End is the artistic biography of a child in the second half of the 20th century, brought up in the particular middle-class atmosphere of European solidity, [whose fate was to pit itself against an invasion from the East, not only in the form of soldiers of an army considered hostile, but also settlers - repatriates from the lands annexed from Poland by the Soviet Union. This too was "Asia”, as it was called in abbreviated form by the population of central Poland, a land that only later would show its interesting, multi-cultured, true colours. Back then however, it only constituted a threat.This passage is hopelessly muddled]This is the story of a man rebelling: against communist oppression, the greyness of his everyday existence and the lack of any prospects. He likewise rebels against travel rationed out by the state, which decides whether citizens are granted or refused passports. No wonder then that Filip Bajon considerably prolonged his first visit to the west, landing as he did in the exact epicentre of the social revolution of the sixties. In London, his experiences were typical of the flower-child generation.The Shadow at Day's End is the story of a sensitive spirit, every inch the artist, whose life and works are one and the same. And since he was fortunate enough to get to know a considerable number of celebrities from the world of art, literature and film, his "autobiographical novel” sparkles with the kind of anecdotes that provide the "seasoning” for what we may call travel literature.

Krzysztof Masłoń

Filip Bajon  (1947 – ) Film director, scriptwriter, prose writer. The author of many prominent films, including Limuzyna Daimler Benz – Daimler Benz limousine (1981), Magnat – Magnate (1986), Poznań '56 (1996), Przedwiośnie – Early Spring (2001). His debut as a prose writer came in 1971 with the novel Białe niedźwiedzie nie lubią słonecznej pogody – White Bears Don't Like Sunny Weather.


Thus, after a whole raft of humiliations, at the beginning of a very frosty February I arrived in Finland to work as a lumberjack. I knew that tree felling paid well and I was in search of work that would provide a decent wage. Two days later, I found myself in Helsinki, where there was no forest to cut. Some ninety percent of Finland is covered in forest, yet despite this, it was hard for me to find a good forest to fell. All my legwork, going the rounds of the timber companies, came to nought. I had no work permit. One day, at a party given by a Finnish architect – and I ought to mention that at that time Finnish architects were the absolute national elite –, someone touched upon my difficulties in getting any lumbering done. Not wishing to lower the tone of the discussion, I refrained from telling those gathered that it was just a question of my banal need for lucre, namely cash; so I dressed the whole thing up in a fabulous story about wanting to work with Finnish lumberjacks for a month, in order later to make a film about them. A sort of participatory observation. I didn't know that Finnish architects were so obliging and such film lovers. My architect had a friend who was the personal adviser to President Kekkonen and using the presidential telephone, he rang up the Governor of Karelia, asking him to use all his influence to assist a promising young director from Poland in getting to grips with lumber.
When I got to the capital of Karelia, a high-ranking representative of this province's timber industry was waiting for me at the train station in Joensu. He took my suitcase and carried it to his car. We went to a large office building, where the director of the entire Karelia timber industry received me and acquainted me with his problems. He spoke for an hour in rather good English. Once I had acquainted myself with the problems related to the utilization of timber and the export of trees to all of Europe and had grasped the specifics of trade relations with Poland as he outlined them for me, based on the barter of wood for coal, he announced that a helicopter was waiting for us. We lifted off from the forecourt of his company's headquarters and flew off to look at forests in which felling was in progress. We flew for two hours over forests that all looked much the same to my eye, but the director explained the differences between particular tree cultures and talked about timber resource management and reclamation of cleared areas. He explained these matters and then looked me straight in the eye to see whether I was assimilating this data. I was ruminating that this was hardly how immigrant labour from Poland was usually received. I was thinking to myself that getting a job by the mediation of the president of the country in which one wants to work illegally was pushing one's luck a bit.
In the afternoon, I dined with the director and we drank some Polish vodka I had brought him, vodka renowned in Finland. I was handed a whole raft of brochures and advertising literature. Then I was put in a car driven by the same official who had picked me up at the station. It was explained to me that I was now going to a forest camp where, in accordance with my wishes, I would be staying for a month with the local lumberjacks, working alongside them and getting to know their way of life. After an hour we left the main road and took forest tracks, each of which was narrower than the last, until we finally arrived at a camp in the very centre of the forest where I was to spend the next four weeks. Waiting for me in the house was a lame old-timer and a woman with the trace of a horse's hoof on her brow. I looked at the thermometer. It was minus forty-four degrees outside.
The official talked with the old fellow, slapped me on the back, shook hands and disappeared. An hour later, three lumberjacks appeared, carrying Sandvik chainsaws and wearing hard hats. They had just come back from felling and immediately started preparing supper. No one here spoke anything but Finnish and it’s a language unlike any other. In Finnish, even a common word like "Centre” is "Keskus”. The occupants of the house were not in the least bothered that I didn’t understand anything and occasionally, rather economically, as is the Finnish way, they said something directly to me. Supper helped me understand why Finland has the highest rate of heart attacks in Europe. It was only later that I would understand why it has the highest suicide rate, after I had spent several months each year lecturing there. For the moment, the lumberjacks placed a pot on the table, just the one pot for all of us, filled to the brim with melted fat in which greasy lumps of bacon swam like whales. These one fished out with a wooden spoon, ate with pieces of bread dipped in the fat and washed down with sour milk. There were oranges and chocolate for dessert. Supposedly regular meals are the basis of good health. So I must have become very healthy, as for the next thirty days I ate those floating bits of bacon fished from their ocean of fat. When many years later I ordered lumberjack food in some wayside regional pub in Poland and was served lard sandwiches, pickled cucumber and something resembling beef stroganoff as a dip, I thought to myself that this cuisine was letting Polish lumberjacks off lightly.
In the morning we went off to fell trees. It was minus forty degrees and spit froze in mid-air. Once upon a time Jack London was my favourite writer and I knew by heart his adventures in Dawson on the frozen Yukon. Well-chosen reading in childhood helps in adult life. It allows you to imprint images from the books you read long before onto events in later life and thus feel more at home in new surroundings. When I took a yellow Sandvik chainsaw to the first tree that I was supposed to cut, all my heroes from the Yukon, led by Smoke Bellew, were backing me up and giving me courage. I had already practiced turning on the Sandvik by means of the pull start and had taught myself how to check the saw's petrol gauge and drop the visor over my eyes when sawing. I later noticed that some lumberjacks didn’t bother with these visors, which I took for swank. Probably rightly. A fortnight later one of these show-offs lost an eye from a flying wood chip.
I approached the first tree I was supposed to cut and was rather daunted by its size, shapeliness and majesty, which I was about to bring crashing to the ground so that it might begin its journey from naked trunk to matchsticks. It had calmly stood here for decades, bending to the pressure of Siberian winds, warming itself in the short-lived polar summers, attaching itself by powerful roots to the shallow soil covering this rocky ground, providing air for the birds, a habitat for insects and a surface for mosses. I looked up at the crown of the magnificent pine, which had grown there for dozens of years and was bewitched by its unique shape, because every tree is exceptional and unique and you will not meet the same shape twice, this being for me a tree's greatest secret and the reason for my fascination. I can gaze at a tree for the longest time and feel I am experiencing something singular and complete, because even if I come back to the same place some time later, I will see a completely different tree; and it is this changeability in the shape of trees and their unrepeatable beauty that teaches me respect, when I think of all the repetition, mimicry and similarity among my own species.

Translated by Richard Biały