Recently Polish writers have been keen to try their hand at the crime genre, and to take advantage of the ever improving status of this form of fiction. Some of them take a serious approach to the crime novel, while other add a large pinch of salt to it, as does Michał Witkowski in his latest book. The Lumberjack is a very loose variation on the crime novel, and takes the writer’s point of view. In late autumn, the main character and narrator, Michał Witkowski (who else?), goes to a forestry lodge situated near the popular seaside resort of Międzydroje, to write a crime novel there in peace and quiet. The book is meant to bring him fame and money, but the writing goes badly, because most of his attention is focused on his host, an eccentric, mysterious man. Michał hits upon the trail of a sinister affair from years ago, which changed the life not only of the owner of the forestry lodge, but also other people whom Michał has met (as in fact he is a regular visitor to this resort), inhabitants of Międzyzdroje. This is the start of an investigation, conducted in a manner that is not so much eccentric, as simply bizarre and apparently nonsensical...
However, the crime plot is not actually the most important thing in this book, but just a sort of catalyst for the story, a trigger for the narrative. Witkowski’s new novel can be regarded as a sort of anthology of themes and motifs typical of this author, who wrote the best seller Lovetown. And so in The Lumberjack there is gay fiction (in the sub-plot about the narrator’s obsession with a local ‘grunt’, a common bloke in a shellsuit), and there is an element of social comment (the juxtaposition of ‘beautiful’ Poland, i.e. Międzyzdroje in the summer season, and ‘ugly’ Poland, i.e. exactly the same place in the autumn). The novel also includes some reminders of the dreary, but in their own way picturesque days of communist Poland. Is this just tired old stuff? Far from it! Witkowski has given a face lift to topics he has often covered before, re-mastering them, turning up the volume and adding a touch of (rather special) crime fiction, as well as a large dose of humour, and then dousing the whole thing in a thick layer of camp. Witkowski has confirmed (finally, perhaps) that he is better than any other Polish novelist at telling a story and casting a spell with his narrative. Not to mention the crime-story verisimilitude!
Finally the semi-conscious lumberjack opened the door to me, wearing a tatty, checked flannel shirt and long johns. He clearly didn’t hold with pyjamas, but followed the example of the heroes of Soviet dramas, and slept in his undies. What a contrast with his motley pseudo-elegance during the holiday season! Now he was decidedly more real. He had white, week-old stubble and ruffled eyebrows. There was hair peeping out of his nose and ears – he plainly had no use for a trimmer. Unlike during the season, now no one would have believed his claim to be forty-five. Well over fifty!
From the room came the sound of pre-war Polish hits. In the summer he had already mentioned he had rather retro taste; that was how we got acquainted, in as much as you could call it an acquaintance. You’ll never be able to fathom a guy who lives in a small cottage. At the pub, by some miracle, the pre-war singer Ordonka was being played. He was sitting at the bar, staring into his beer, and I was trying to tell my fortune from the dregs of my dregless coffee. ‘Great,’ he remarked.
‘Yeah,’ I replied, ‘I like retro too.’ I like it. User Michał likes it. From one word to another, the conversation began to develop. I wasn’t lying – I did like those old songs, the old poses and facial expressions and all that mannered stuff. Though it was easy to overdose on it and get bored, get stifled by it. But I was from the Facebook generation, I could download, or be made to click on a link to something retro, I’ll look at it and forget it. Or maybe not – maybe all that stuff actually stays inside us, the anthology keeps getting bigger and bursting at the seams? Maybe we remember every single link, every stupid song?
So here I was, standing in the doorway with a suitcase, and he was gawping as if he’d seen a ghost, although he had been warned of my arrival. I had brought him an original ebonite record of Zarah Leander singing in Swedish, recorded before Hitler carried out his purges at the German film studio, Universum, and they had to do their recruitment in the colonies. That was when Zarah was brought to Nazi Germany to be the top diva, who had her own castles and travelled with suitcases full of money (she didn’t approve of banks). Powerful stuff, such as you’ll never find on youtube.
Instinctively he looked out at the garden, or rather clearing, behind my back. He put out the light above the door and the clearing vanished. He hurriedly padlocked a grille behind me, and then a solid, anti-burglary door as well, to stop the cold from getting in. With three locks. I felt imprisoned.
He had evidently made the entrance hall into a refrigerator – it was cold in there, and smelled of damp, old gateways and food. The crowning feature of it was a hare hanging on the wall. (My immediate thoughts were: a shotgun, hunting, poaching, is he armed? I’m not touching that carcass for anything in the world. No one’s suggesting you have to. Are there wolves around here? I’ve got a knife, I’ll have to charge up my Taser!) It was hanging upside down, strung up like a bunch of herbs, and its little pink tongue was sticking out of its open snout. Like a dried-up leaf.
Without a word he took the record, turned his back on me, told me to take off my shoes and jacket and leave them in the entrance hall, and then went into the main room, from where the sound of the pre-war song was coming; I cast a final glance at the hare with its little tongue lolling, shut the door tight, picked up my mud-stained suitcase and followed him into the room.
It was belting hot, about fifteen degrees warmer than in the entrance hall. Inside it was another world. I felt as if I were in a miniature manor house. It was like a manor house, but a bit like in the period between the wars, which isn’t an impossible combination, of course. Like in the period between the wars, and yet a bit like in an antique shop, because there were old cups from Ćmielów and porcelain figurines carefully arranged behind the glass in some old cabinets. There were modernist lamps in the Bauhaus style, an evidently original wind-up gramophone, there were rugs hanging everywhere, and above it all, up on the wall hung a Turkish sabre! Some sort of sword, at any rate. And, unfortunately, a cuckoo clock – all of a sudden, amid all this good taste, something so... German, or even Swiss, as a battery-powered cuckoo clock! The fire had gone out in the stove. There was no television, no computer, and no telephone. But there was a case with a golden trumpet! And the smell! Did you know fire could have such a strong smell? Those of you who are lumberjacks at heart are perfectly aware of it. Being a lumberjack is not a profession, it’s a state of mind. You know the smell of heated stones in a sauna. A nasal bass complained that
as the orchestra strikes up a heart-breaking tango
this man and that asks the hostess to dance,
poor girl, I must dance with this phalanx of fools,
and hear all their pressing demands...
So that’s the sort of problem we have in this home! But anyway, how faggoty the interwar period was, if guys like Faliszewski sang in the feminine gender about being hostesses and having to dance with fools...
So that was the first cat out of the bag, but beyond that there were plenty more black cats to come. I felt awkward as I sat at the table and started to drink the coffee that was placed in front of me, saying things like: ‘Far out! There’s such a good smell in here, of fire, old furniture and something else. How cosy it is in here.’ But he didn’t say a thing, and his silence was getting more and more pointed. So I shut up, to stop looking like an idiot. And we were both silent. Finally he asked if I wouldn’t mind if he went upstairs to lie down for a while.
But before going to bed, he put some more twigs into the dying stove, tore up some newspapers and pornographic magazines (he was shut up here all on his own, with his lumberjack’s sexuality too), threw them on top and asked me to keep an eye on it, because he didn’t like to sleep with the fire burning but unsupervised.
‘I don’t think anyone likes that,’ I said through a yawn, because by now I had realised no one was going to demand any complex sentences, flowery language or eloquence from me here. No one would want to listen to me here, so I should rein in the ego. I’m just the stoker, I work here in the boiler room. And that’s all right. My duties include lighting the kitchen stove, switching on the soot-blackened boiler and burning porn mags full of naked ladies on the fire.
Outside a pig was being slaughtered. Robert muttered that it was pheasants – they’ve been making a racket for an exceptionally long time this year. But the deer are worse. Because there’s a clearing near here (where is there not a clearing near here?), and those bastards have turned it into a rutting ground. It’s enough to drive you mad. It’s an auditory Armageddon. They must once have had a rutting ground in the clearing which now passes as his garden. You have to use the ear plugs which he left on the little table by my bed under the stairs, along with a clean towel. And I’d actually thought it was a lovely thing – so people generally assume, that deer at their rutting ground is all kitsch and lovely. I’ll judge that for myself. The ear plugs turned out to be a sort of putty wrapped like a condom, rather plasticiney.
But he hadn’t got all the way upstairs before I was fast asleep on my little ottoman under the stairs. I didn’t mean to nod off, but I flopped in my clothes, just for a moment, to let the stresses of Warsaw flow off me, the long, almost ten-hour journey, the student taking his muscles exam in prison, the 365 Sudoku puzzles, the crows outside the window flying off to cold countries, the request stops, and Golden Hits Radio. It was rather stupid to arrive at someone’s house and promise to tend the stove, only to fall asleep. But I couldn’t have that thought until I’d woken up again.
Translatad by Antonia Lloyd-Jones