In Jacek Dukaj’s highly varied and copious output we can see two main trends: alternative histories, which includes books where Dukaj creates variations on the theme of historical events (such as his well-known novel "Ice"), and futurology. The novella "The Plunderer’s Daughter" belongs to this second trend. In it Dukaj has gone a few decades into the future, but envisages a reality completely different from our own. Krakow, where the action begins, is nothing like its present self. Thanks to a technological leap forward it is now possible to erect gigantic buildings in a very short time, and genetic manipulation means that people can shape their own bodies at will; the development of virtual computer space (which is hard to define without going into lengthy explanations) means that human consciousnesses can function within it both before birth and after death. And that’s not all, because in his customary way Dukaj has designed a complete world of the future with great attention to detail.
The main heroine is eighteen-year-old Zuzanna Klajn, who lives in peace and comfort until the day she receives “a package from beyond the grave”, a legacy from her long deceased father. The things she inherits and the information she gets imply that her father did not die at all, but went missing, and it has to do with the mysterious activities of the scientific institute he worked for. As she tries to explain the riddle of her father’s disappearance, Zuzanna discovers that the institute has found a way to reach a place full of the relics of some ancient cosmic civilisations, from where it gets new technologies. Risking her life, Zuzanna finds her way there…
In "The Plunderer’s Daughter" Dukaj sets a slightly different tone compared with most of his other books. The plot is not packed with events (he might even seem to be just toying with the conventions of the thriller or of sci-fi); what seems to matter more to him is to wonder which way our civilisation is heading. Could a sudden leap forward lead to its destruction? Could a human being who “rewrites” his own consciousness into a virtual world still remain human? These are some of the questions Dukaj poses in this story.
It turned out Kamil had bought an allotment in one of the new residential areas, and suddenly they started discussing architecture and the design of the house he was planning to put up there. It was already standing in an L-dream, so they walked through it, changing one detail after another – a door here, this wall at more of an angle, a fireplace there, or maybe better not, maybe an alcove… He had never proposed to her, he had never asked, there hadn’t been a conversation of that kind – but now there was a House. Admittedly, KRONic technology made it possible to put it up on a fully equipped site in a single weekend at a lower cost than the price of any car, so a house like that meant less than it used to, just as everything now meant less than in times past – life, death, marriage, a child, all measurable in fractions, a bit of a yes and a bit of a no, it’s always reversible, we can give it a try and we can pull out, it’s a fractal instead of a straight line, and it doesn’t really begin or ever entirely end – but anyway: a House. Zuzanna should have taken fright – she actually expected herself to feel fear and quivering uncertainty, but all she felt was quiet satisfaction. … She started thinking of withdrawing the savings she had been keeping for a flat.
Meanwhile, with May came the summer, a Mediterranean climate and Iberian temperatures. Krakow was overrun with half-naked youth, girls with ample breasts and muscular, suntanned boys; like most cities in the EU and America, it was hard to spot a body over forty years old; nor was anyone trying to. On Thursday afternoons, when the weekend had barely begun, Zuzanna and Kamil would leave the city in Kamil’s white BMW Arafat. Half an hour on the motorway and they’re in another world; a strong odour of warm straw and fresh manure hangs over the country roads as the BMW jolts along old tarmac and sandy tracks; crooked fences run round grass-covered farmyards and every other cottage is uninhabited – entire villages have died out, there are hens running wild along the roadside verges, and huge butterflies whirling in multicoloured clouds over meadows where storks used to stroll, a by-product of the Carpathian Gene Kabbalists. Very old, very ugly people sit hunched on the steps of little shops and outside small churches; it’s too hot for them, they weren’t born for such high temperatures, such a sun. A hundred-year-old granny in dark glasses leads a cow on a rusty chain, as the Arafat slowly passes her – “God bless”, “God bless” – but God no longer has anyone to bless here, and even if He wanted to, there’d only be a single way to do it – by speeding up their death. But He doesn’t; time in the country has fallen out of synch with time in the city, and the countryside isn’t real at all any more – it’s a May L-dream, into which they’re laboriously plunging in second gear, as waves of shuddering air go hazy along with the road travelled; all this has no right to be real anyway – there’s no hard reality about it, all you can do here is sleep, eat, laze around like an animal, make love in a leisurely way and chat about trivia – and that’s just what they’re going to do, from Thursday to Sunday, at Kamil’s granddad’s villa with its red tiled roof. When it was built, in Jaruzelski’s day, an effort that took the whole clan many years, this two-storey villa was supposed to provide luxury for a large family; now, coarse and squat compared with the elven architecture of the cities, it provides a shady empty space in which to shelter from the sunny empty space. Kamil’s granddad emerges from the gloom like an ogre from a cave. He grunts and growls that they’ve dragged him away from the TV, yet these visits of his grandson’s are the old man’s only variety, and there’s nothing he won’t do for Kamil and his “fiancée”. In actual fact they have the entire upstairs to themselves – and the entire area, the fields, woods, streams and rivers, pure as springs and full of fish, the ruins of old communist farms overgrown with picturesque birch trees; they can wander for hours and never meet a living soul, that is, no one with a body under fifty. This is a deserted land, waiting to be discovered again by the next generation – the children of Generation T will run about naked here under the Moon, through the elven woods, orange groves and quiet vineyards, and KRONic tents, lighter than a swallow’s nest, will stand on the green hills…
With these whispered words on his lips he undressed Zuzanna as she leaned against a tree at the edge of a shady pine wood. The damp trunk held her spine straight as she narrowed her eyes and raised her head; the fiery blue sky was blazing down on her through her speechless open mouth as well now. She had to grab onto something, so she dug her fingers into his shoulders, into his sides, pulling him towards her in short jerks between fits of noiseless laughter. …
In fact the pine tree’s rough bark was scratching her back painfully, but Zuzanna was also worried about her necklace – the delicate piece of jewellery could break, caught between their bodies, so she drew it aside, but it kept falling back into place, constantly turning on all its axes, as if seeking a suitable shape to reflect the nature of their passion. She pushed Kamil away and they stepped into the sunlight. Blinking, she glanced over his shoulder, where a new shadow was forming. In the brilliance of midday in May she couldn’t see clearly, but now she was sure, so she stopped Kamil, who was pulling her to the ground; with her other hand she seized the amulet swinging between her breasts.
The City had wedged its way in between the woods and the boggy fallow fields left from the communist farm, pushing their space aside and adding its own. Somewhere in the depths of the City a bell was ringing – one mighty beat for dozens of beats of the human heart, and at the first thunderclap Kamil jumped up as if scalded.
“Holy shit!” …
Without waiting, Zuzanna ran across the meadow towards the City. She was barefoot, and felt the change of surface physically: she was no longer stepping on the warm earth of Małopolska, she had crossed into an alien world. Drrruummmmm! The bell rang for the fifth time. Where was it ringing? She craned her neck. Ten metres above her an airborne stream was flowing by, with red-and-gold creatures shining in the arched current of water – were they fish? She shaded her eyes again. Drrruummmmm! The air trembled, sending waves across the surface of the water bridge, though it made no impression on the creatures.
She did not look back.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones