The seven stories that make up Kazimierz Orłoś’ new collection are all set in Mazuria, Poland’s lakeland, terrain connected with the history of Germany as well as Poland, history that is shared, yet different, with one version often excluding the other. The story entitled “The Finest Time of Year” is symbolic of this fact. Its main characters are a Polish man and a German woman who meet by a Mazurian lake but cannot communicate, mainly because they do not know each other’s language. Yet they are united by their love for the same place and the same landscape that, though harrowed by the ravages of history, remains invariably beautiful. Introducing “The Girl from the Porch” and “Jerzyks’ Valley”, the longest and for various reasons the most important of the stories in the book, Orłoś claims he was fascinated by the idea of a relationship between a man and a woman that was doomed from the start. He explains that he was just as interested in their emotional as their physical relationship, and in the idea of people failing to come together because they refuse or are unable to take up a chance offered them by life. That is true, but (in the title story at least) Orłoś also describes the history of Mazuria and its inhabitants, who have frequently been wronged by history and politics. The heroine of the title story, Anna Gołębiowska, is a wonderful character who has had first-hand experience of all the changes that have taken place in the area, before, during and after the war. When most of her neighbours left for Germany she stayed put. She has never complained about her fate, and has remained in the same place, which, as it is painfully clear to see, is very much her home. Meanwhile she has been refused her right to this property – this spiritual property – by each successive local authority.
An unusual feature of Orłoś’ writing is apparent in these stories. Perhaps it is a latent quality of his concise language, but he knows how to stop the passage of time. As a result, whether they are set in the present day or many years ago, the reader finds himself unconsciously entering into the plot and becoming a witness to the events described. And Mazuria, a land that has many excellent writers among its devotees, will gain new admirers among those who read this book. Who wouldn’t want to set off for a place where time stands still?
Kazimierz Orłoś (born 1935) specialises in short prose pieces. For many years in communist Poland he was deprived of the right to publish, so his work appeared in the West and in samizdat. His novels include "The Magical Hideout "(1973), "The Third Lie" (1980) and volumes of short stories including "The Gobi Desert" (1983), "The Heavenly Glazier" (1996) and "Wooden Bridges" (2001).
It was 1950. Every other Sunday, as before the war, they went to the church service. The pastor would come in from Nida, and Mazurians gathered from remote villages, such as Gałkowo, Krutyń, Zgon, Iznota and Dobry Lasek. The Polish names, apparently old Mazurian ones that they had to learn, made Anna laugh. They were like the Mazurian language they spoke at home, light, as if drawn from the air. The surnames were also written differently, with all those strange Polish letters, “ą”, “ę”, “ć”, “sz” and “ł”. They made a rustling sound on the lips.
After the service in the Lutheran church she always lit a candle before the figure of Saint John the Evangelist, to pray for her son’s return. She prayed ardently from her old hymnal printed in Königsberg and dated 1815. She was given the Prussian Hymnal by her mother when she reached the age of fifteen, on the day of her confirmation. Erna had been given it by grandmother Marya, who got it from great-grandmother Augusta. The black cover smelled of the kitchen dresser. The letters were German but the words were Polish. Some of the pages were crumbling at the edges, and the holy pictures were falling out from in between the leaves.
“You give counsel and delight to the faithful day and night, O Lord, you will never leave those who truly believe,” read Anna, moving her lips. “O Jesus, there is no sadness that you cannot change into gladness! The sweetness of your name sweetens my bitterest pain…”
She spent a long time kneeling in front of the figure, until the sexton began rattling his keys at the door.
Her parents would be waiting by the cart. Sometimes when the weather was bad, especially in late autumn or winter, the Gołębiowskis would invite the neighbours round for some communal singing and prayers. In a small room behind the kitchen, they would set out a table laid with a white cloth under an icon of the Lord Jesus stepping down from the clouds. In the middle stood two candles and a metal crucifix. They brought chairs in from the kitchen for their guests to sit on, including the Dąbrowskis, the Cieślikows and the Olszewskis. Sometimes the Mazurians from Lipowo came too – Sitek and his wife, old Kopka and Fischer. The men wore suits and white shirts, and the women wore black sweaters if they gathered in winter, pleated skirts and shawls over their shoulders.
They sang from their hymnals, which they brought with them. Afterwards Horst would read the lesson, according to the day and time of year. He spoke of remaining steadfast in faith, of the suffering of Christ the Redeemer and of the trust we place in God, while the gathered assembly listened in silence and concentration. Last of all they repeated the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father”, some of them speaking in German, “Vater unser, der Du bist im Himmel…”. As the candles burned down there would be a smell of tallow, while Erna and Anna handed out mint tea in spotted mugs. The guests usually went home late, under the stars on frosty nights or in the rain in autumn.
These meetings took place more often as their visits to the Sunday services became rarer. Finally they stopped going entirely – in 1954 or 1955, when the Catholics took over the Lutheran church.
After that Anna used to walk to the now Catholic church on her own, four kilometres through the forest. After mass she always prayed for her son’s return in the empty church. The figure of Saint John the Evangelist was no longer in its old place in the side aisle, so she prayed to the Mother of God in her golden crown, with the little Lord Jesus in her arms. Through all those post-war years they lived on their own means, as before. Maybe they even lived better, they sometimes wondered, especially when electricity was installed in the village. Nowadays there were wires hanging above Krutyń that reached as far as the Gołębiowskis’ farm. They no longer burned oil lamps in the evenings – instead a lightbulb shone brightly above the table in the kitchen. The road through Green Wood was now coated in asphalt, and buses ran to Nida and Mrągowo twice a day. In those years Fryc Grodecki started visiting them, son of the miller from Chostka. He used to drive up in a cart pulled by two horses, brought flour and talked away at Anna. He was a big, burly man. “He looks like a sack of flour himself,” said the Gołębiowskis’ daughter, laughing. “What brings him here?”
Only when Erna began to chide her, saying she wasn’t being polite and should be nice to their guest did Anna realise that the man was coming to see her. “Can I still be attractive?” she asked. Now her mother started laughing. “You aren’t even fifty yet! And he’s not much older. That may be only half a life, my dear.”
Another time she said: “We’ll die soon and you’ll be left on your own. Better to live with someone else.”
Anna shrugged and said: “Mother, I don’t like him one bit.”
Fryc Godecki came a few times more. He went after Anna, wanting to invite her to a dance at the inn in Lipowo, but she just laughed, and gave him a hard push when he tried to put his arm round her.
“Your Fryc hasn’t been in evidence lately,” said Erna a month later.
“And a good thing too. I’m hardly sitting here waiting for him,” said Anna.
And in fact Grodecki never came again. People said the old man had been divested of the mill – maybe that had made him stop hoping Anna would agree to go dancing with him?
As long as he could, her father tilled the fields. They planted potatoes and sowed oats and buckwheat. As before, they kept a horse, a cow, hens and ducks. In the mornings the flock of geese went down to the river, in single file, one after another, as before. At noon Anna would go out onto the porch and watch the geese, like white spheres on the green river.
More and more of the duties fell to her. As the years went by she could see her parents ageing and getting weaker. Her father would have fits of cramp in the calves and his joints ached, so he began to walk on a stick. Erna had heart disease, but there wasn’t enough Polish money for medicine. Sometimes in autumn Anna would go to the market at Nida, where she sold apples, plums and cranberries, but only brought home a few zlotys, too little for the drugs.
In 1955 they hosted summer visitors from Warsaw for the first time, some old people with a boy who reminded Anna of her son. They lived “upstairs”, in Willi’s room, and Anna cooked them dinner. She didn’t want to talk to the holidaymakers in Polish, so they spoke in German. Perhaps she was ashamed of the old Mazurian speech, those words as light as dandelion seeds? The Poles spoke a different kind of Polish. It reminded Anna of a nightingale’s song: the same sort of warbling, little hammers tapping and whistling noises. Rustles and whispers. The German language was hard: loud and steady, like a march played by an orchestra during a parade.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones