Henryk Bardijewski is a playwright and prose author of the older generation. Like most Polish authors of fiction, he writes about the problems of modern life, but in his own special way. How? He avoids literal, realistic descriptions and a build-up of details, but is happy to use allegory, satire, or irony tempered with warm humour. His latest set of short stories, Wild Angels and Other Stories, includes almost forty stories of minimal length that could be defined as parables. Bardijewski relies on two tones of voice, a humorous one and a serious one. Some of the stories feature a satirical take on reality, as in The Foreigner, about a Pole who pretends to be foreign in order to gain his compatriots’ respect, or Little and Large, which describes the mixed fortunes of a political party that only has three members, or The Newspaper, in which the three main characters found a newspaper, publish made-up news in it and to their amazement achieve staggering success. Some of the other stories are more like philosophical parables, in which Bardijewski raises some traditional humanist themes, such as a man’s problems with building a lasting identity (Curriculum Vitae), the transience of life (Past Perfect Tense), or old age and death (The Welfare Salon). He describes the world from a distance, but there is no sense of malice towards reality in his writing, no passionate desire to expose the evils that we encounter on a daily basis, no violent emotions. Instead there is calm reflection on the things that happen to people – some funny, some tragic – that makes the reader stop and think.
- Robert Ostaszewski
The devil induced us to publish a newspaper. Not a proper one – just the sort that’s handed out free, left hanging by the gate, or thrust into people’s hands. At first it was a bit of fun, but now it has become hard to stop, because it has started to bring in some money. It’s not a serious newspaper, but it’s making serious income.
“Who’d have thought it?” said Kamil, our editor-in-chief. “The world has become unpredictable. It wasn’t like that before, not at all.”
Whether it was or not, we’re not entirely blameless either. In fact, Paweł did warn us not to get involved in the press, but we reckoned he was exaggerating as usual. “So many papers come out,” he tried to placate us, “we’ll drown in the morass and that’ll be the end of it.” But we didn’t drown – quite the opposite, and all because of Kamil. It was he who imposed the concept and profile on the paper. “No features,” he declared, “I can’t stand features. Just news – but all made up. Not a particle of truth.”
As it turned out, there’s no such thing as not a particle. It’s impossible to lie about everything. At the bottom of every lie there is a tiny drop of Truth. And when that drop is a little bigger, or even quite large, it makes an explosive mixture. None of us thought of that.
And now we three editors were sitting on a bench in the chilly park, while the world around us was going crazy, and our newspaper along with it. But not everything was going crazy – the squirrels were hopping about in the trees as if nothing were wrong, flicking their bushy red tails among the branches, and under the oaks where acorns lay, there were magpies walking about.
“Nature’s keeping its end up,” said Kamil to console us.
“That’s just the last remnants of its independence,” replied Paweł, “an outward show of self-reliance, but it hasn’t got much left to say.”
“Not much left to say?” countered Kamil. “If it wants to it can destroy us all. It only has to commit suicide. … Collide with some other frustrated celestial body, and that’d be the end. The end of mankind, the end of science, the end of all religions. Perhaps we should raise the subject in the paper?”
News to me too. Catastrophe theory is as old as the world, the most ancient tomes are full of sacred forebodings, and the predictions of prophets and seers are each worse than the one before. It’s hard to write anything new, especially in a newspaper that is aimed at everyone. But then a news item about the earth’s suicide sounds quite good. All we’d have to do is quote some source.
The source, obviously, is ourselves, but in this case we can’t quote our own correspondent, because where would he have to be sending the correspondence from? From beyond the planet? Few of us, people, have ever been outside the earth, and whenever someone does get away he soon comes back again. But we didn’t have to contradict ourselves, because we’d never made that sort of thing up before. However, to avoid excess fantasising, I started writing an article about a super-sensitive telescope that had secretly been built in the Peruvian Andes, without the world – or the universe – knowing. Through this telescope I had seen things the human eye had never seen before and would definitely never see again.
Kamil was thrilled and promised to put my piece on the front page. …
After the news about the super telescope we got a lot of new advertisers; suddenly everyone wanted to advertise in our paper. Like it or not, we had to start up a special office, or rather a chain of offices, and then employ an accountant, or rather a commercial manager, Dr Mara, who created a superbly functioning finance department in no time at all. Our paper stopped being free, it had a price, and not a small one, yet people bought it, and the circulation went on growing, until it had reached a level that threatened several respected dailies including the one regarded as the leading title. We were none too pleased about it, and Kamil, our editor-in-chief, was really upset.
“Let’s stop making things up,” he said. “That should minimalise success, which none of us needs.”
Unfortunately, the real news was no different from our made-up version. We couldn’t tell the difference, even though we were professionals, and nor could the readers – who kept on increasing in number. We began to feel something like responsibility, and it wasn’t a good feeling.
“Don’t people have anything better to do than read the papers?” lamented Paweł.
Such were the various stages of our success, but all that is in the past – the here and now is the park, the bench, and the three of us sitting there in a state of distress. We were well and truly sick and tired of our paper, of all papers; the only things we ever picked up these days were big fat books.
“Why don’t we have a chat with Dr Mara?” I said. “Perhaps he can think of something?” …
“Mr Mara,” said Kamil, looking him in the eye, “we are not happy with our newspaper. We don’t like it. We’re afraid it’s losing its way. Could you possibly cause us to go bust?”
Mara scratched his head. He wasn’t in the least surprised by the question.
“It’ll be hard to do, but we can try. Wouldn’t it be better to just sell the title? That’s exactly what the foreign corporations are waiting for. …
“Not long now and nothing in this country will be ours any more. What we want is to go bust.”
“Bankruptcy?” said Mara to make sure. “It’s not as easy as all that. We’ll be suspected of a major scam. Like it or not, we’ll earn a tidy sum for it.”
He was clearly making an effort to dissuade us. Maybe he didn’t know how to make the firm go bust. In truth, nor did we, but he was the expert and should have known a thing or two. …
“What about publishing an academic journal?” he suggested. “Then there’d be a chance of us collapsing. But no certainty either.”
“Better change the entire profile of the publication and take up pure politics,” said Paweł. “With a right-wing slant, of course.”
“There’s nothing more boring than politics,” I remarked.
“Exactly! We’ll go down at once.”
“Or we’ll make political careers,” said Mara. “Do you want to become government ministers? Better not take the risk.”
I gave him a look of disgust. We had summoned him to the park to give us advice, but he was just adding to our doubts. Is that what you employ experts for?
“Perhaps we should fire you,” I said.
“You could,” he replied, “but I can’t answer for the effect of that either. The readers have grown fond of the paper. The title is what matters, not the people.”
“In that case let’s change the title!” cried Kamil. “We absolutely have to change the title!”
We were filled with encouragement, and even Mara came to life and cheered up. We’ll change the title and it’ll collapse – there’s no other way, we decided.
Over the next three weeks we worked on the new title. When at last it came out, it proved better than the old one.
“It’s some sort of jinx,” said Kamil. “People have ceased to understand what they’re reading.”
“Do we understand what we’re writing?” I asked. “No one understands anything, and that’s the root of all success. Failure is quite another matter – only failure is rational. Unfortunately, rationality has gone out of fashion. And what’s worse it has gone out of people’s minds too.”
My colleagues frowned at me. There was just one conclusion to be drawn: of the three of us, I was the only rational one.
“If that’s so,” said Kamil slowly, “let’s change the editor-in-chief.”
That was how I became editor-in-chief. Unfortunately, the paper is still flourishing. And I’m afraid it will go on like that until we change the readers.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones