The Man in the Shadow is an appealing modern novel set in Warsaw in the early 1990s. The story also returns to much earlier times in flashbacks. The main character is a thirty-year-old Warsaw notary called Aleksander Rański. He is the grandson of a White Army Russian general, and the son of a Russian woman who is obsessed with Chekhov and has lived in Poland since the age of 13. The complicated history of Rański’s Russian ancestors forms a whole separate plot going back into the past. Eustachy Rylski is a writer whose special subject is Russia. This time he has developed it in an extremely interesting way. The Polish lawyer, who knows the Russian language and way of life extremely well, is approached by some Russian Mafiosi, in connection with a routine legal service to do with some more or less legal business matters. But soon the gangsters make the lawyer dependent on them and draw him into a circle of macabre, perverse attractions. A strange psychological game starts up between Rański and the gloomy Mafioso Paslavsky, leading to a mournful finale. And so the novel consists of three separate, superbly interwoven stories: the historical one about Russian émigrés who settled in Warsaw in the 1920s, the thriller, and the “novel of manners”, including a lot of valuable comments on the revival of capitalism in Poland after 1989.
He welcomed the change of regime in 1989 with great hopes, contributing to it to some extent like every honest man.
His restrained, cool nature did not predispose him to getting involved in anything radical or risky, but his intelligence, elegance and presence of mind kept him on the right side of decency, consistently forcing him, like it or not, to resist the government’s more ignoble and absurd actions.
He regarded the advance of the mob, the whole great tide of human rubbish that went surging forward in the front lines of change, as a childhood illness of the new order, and was waiting for the state to shake itself free of all that. When after two years of hoping he realised that the new system, not so much out of naivety and youth, but age-old prostitution, was sanctioning this state of affairs, becoming its depositary, not dealing with the rabble but encouraging it, elevating and all but beatifying it, that through its institutions it was itself becoming the corrupt, thoroughly unstable rabble, that the rampant mob, coated here and there in a Western veneer, was not this state’s misfortune but its brawn, its tough guys, he adopted some reservations towards the whole structure. And it was only one short step from reservations to contempt. And leaning against Sebek Paslavsky’s massive shoulder, he finally took that step.
When a few months ago in a rented Warsaw hotel suite, during one of their frequent raves with girls, there’d been a fierce clash between Sebek and Rański, the Russian had finally come out and said what he’d always, though fairly clumsily, kept under wraps until now:
“You don’t like my pot belly!” he screamed, spitting saliva. “You don’t like my big square shoulders! Or my fat, boozy face! My short, stubby fingers or my head all smeared in hair oil! Well I’m telling you, mister notary, that most of what’s here, and everything that’s going to be here comes from these hands! And this head!”
Then Sebek ran to the picture windows and with a swaggering, masterful gesture swept aside the curtains. Like on a stage, the gable wall of the next-door building appeared, lit up with a floodlight and plastered in an advertisement for some capitalist rubbish. Pointing to it, Paslavsky shouted:
“That’s telling him, Sebek,” said Gites at this point. “Don’t let them start putting on airs.”
Sebek turned away from the panoramic window, drenched in spring rain, and added more quietly, but with no less passion:
“Looks like you’ve overreached yourself, notary. You wanted to be clever, but there are smarter people than you around. You wanted to be crafty, but there are others who are craftier. You wanted to be far-sighted but you’ve come across people who see ahead better. You thought this’d be your backyard now, your little patch, your sand-pit, your Poland, but fuck me if it doesn’t belong to people like me! Like me and my mates! Whether you like it or not! Because it’s us who are founding the companies. We’re the ones pulling in the money. We’re giving you jobs. We’re paying the taxes. Those are my container lorries driving across Europe, all the way from Spain to the Urals. There aren’t many of them, you say? Sure, maybe there aren’t, but there are going to be more. When? In time, notary. In time.”
At that point Sebek came and stood an arm’s length from Rański and said calmly, in a friendly way: “So don’t get above yourself, dance with Marzenka like you should. Don’t show her your contempt, because she doesn’t deserve it. And nor do we.”
He was smiling, and his bold eyes were shining with sparks of the intelligence and charm that in certain situations Rański could not deny him.
“No offense, Rański,” said Gites, “but we can con you people as much as we like.”
Sebek half-embraced Rański and repeated: “Dance with Marzenka. Please do it.”
Some time later Lyubov Kirillovna had asked him if he’d danced.
Who might the old witch be thinking of?, Rański had asked himself and replied, hiding his face behind a raised arm: “Of course I did, Auntie.”
He’d been lying to his mother and his aunt for about a year or so.
He’d never danced with her. He’d never embraced her, hugged her or kissed her. He’d never whispered anything improper or intimate in her ear, no loving words, nothing. And of course he’d never danced with her.
He was dignified, kind and always properly behaved, but he had as much passion in him as a fence post.
However, no one was really bothered. The marriage was shaped behind his back, watching his indifference without concern, and indifferent to his concerns.
Apart from anything else he was afraid that in a more or less permanent relationship (the word “marriage” had never even passed his lips) he would repeat his father’s fate. His fear was not unfounded. As the years went by he was more and more like his father, and in Zosia Rennert he saw a resemblance to his mother. Just as flaccid, just as tossed about by an invisible wind, equally girlish and, whatever might happen, equally innocent. Too close to him for them to expect a life together. Any sort of a life together.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones