Eccentrics, The

Włodzimierz Kowalewski
Eccentrics, The
  • W.A.B.
    Warsaw, 2007
    125 x 195
    324 pages
    hardcover
    ISBN: 978-83-7414-036-2

It’s 1957 and we’re in Ciechocinek, a run-down Polish spa. The local dentist, Wanda, receives two pieces of news, one bad and one good. She finds out that she is terminally ill and, at the same time, that her beloved brother, Fabian, is returning from Britain, where he ended up after serving in General Anders’ army. Fabian comes back home at the height of the thaw, the political détente that ensued after Stalin’s death. The decision to return isn’t a happy one, as seeing his sister means facing up to the recent past and the loss of his loved ones during the war. Only brother and sister survived. Wanda is still in mourning, but Fabian fends it off. A king of swing, he seeks consolation in what he has always loved – music. And in Wanda, to whom he had been close and who had been the star of her brother’s band before the war. One would have thought it impossible to put a band together in this small town, so devoid of any hope. But a miracle occurs and a number of musicians offer their services to Fabian. They include the local policeman, Stypa; the doctor at the sanatorium, Vogt; and the beautiful English teacher, Modesta. When even Wanda overcomes her scepticism, it really looks as though a miracle can happen. And continue – as long as the authorities allow it to.
For Kowalewski, the story of setting up a jazz band isn’t only an opportunity to reconstruct the Polish reality of the late 1950s, but also to recall the atmosphere of the pre-war period. Reichmann, the former lodger at the Ciechocinek boarding house and a writer of song lyrics, becomes the chief representative of this era. He appears in the book thanks to a diary Fabian finds. But the living protagonists also recall the spirit of their own youth. These ‘exorcisms’ allow them to forget what they’ve been through and rediscover their zest for life.
"The Eccentrics" gives us an unusually stylish and excellently documented picture of the era it describes. It doesn’t only convey the state of mind at the time, but also everyday reality, from language through to clothing. Above all, though, it pays homage to art as the best medicine for trauma and a sense of hopelessness.

- Marta Mizuro

Excerpt

The further they went inland, the more snow lay around. They sped down a narrow and nearly empty road flanked by leafless trees, only occasionally passing a cart with a driver bundled up in a sheepskin coat perched on top, a cumbersome lorry or a blue ‘Krasula’ bus, grey in the gloom of the day and trailing clouds of exhaust fumes like a curtain. The Vauxhall bounded forward through the sparse, rural landscape. The ponds were not yet frozen over; around them there were clusters of willow, fields covered by a thin layer of snow, and the odd peasant cottage. In the villages they saw pigs in rack wagons and kids biting into huge loaves of bread as they walked along; in the small towns there was mud and cobble stones, with queues before the shops selling meat and kielbasa. Between news bulletins and ‘Farming Today’, the radio played folk dances and then Ciukszy, a mandolin ensemble, Wichar’s dance orchestra and singers – Hanna Rek, Kurtycz, Koterbska.
“Last night must have cost you a packet, mister. Especially after you ordered that champagne. As sour as gherkin juice”, said Modesta, grimacing.
“Champagne?! That was sparkling wine, that’s all. I’d never even heard of the brand”. “You must have forked out a thousand, for sure”.
“It might be more soon. Look”.
In a neighbourhood completely devoid of life, two police officers stood next to a motorcycle with a sidecar that was stuck in a snowbank. The first looked like one of those church wardens responsible for snuffing out the candles, tall and with a hooked nose, while the other had a bandaged throat. Both waved their stop signs. Fabian pulled over. The one with the hooked nose walked around the car and knocked on Modesta’s window.
“Driving licence, identity card, car documents, travel permit!” he recited as she wound down the window. He bent over and attempted to put his head into the car, catching his helmet on the roof in the process. He started, his features contorting with amazement.
“Err, where’s the steering wheel then? How are you driving this car, citizen?”
“Hey Zygmuś, it’s an English car – everything’s back to front”, croaked out the one with the bandages, before Modesta had even got as far as opening her mouth.
“English? English? In that case, get out, at once!” he commanded, straightening his shoulder bag. He took another turn around the car, mincing like a geisha, and came to a stop in front of Fabian. Gesticulating, he began talking slowly and loudly, enunciating each syllable and almost shouting:
“ Pl-ease ge-et o-ut of the…”
Fabian got out.
“Do you speak Polish?” asked the policeman, relieved.
“Pretty well. After all, it would be stupid to go into action from scratch in a foreign language…”
The policeman forgot about the documents, absorbed by the Vauxhall. He looked around inside, flicked the switches, checked to see if the seats were comfortable, and then whistled in admiration.
“Look, Winiek”, he said excitedly to his bandaged-up colleague, as he tugged at the gear lever. “Even the gear stick is on the left. Hey mister, how do you manage on our Polish roads? Can’t be easy, huh?”
“It’s child’s play”, said Fabian. “You just have to get used to the fact that left is right and right is left”.
“Right is left and left is right. Child’s play”, repeated the policeman, as if he understood.
Then they stopped even trying to check anything. They told one joke after the other and enquired about the engine, how powerful it was, its maximum speed, about driving in England and where he’d been. Then they advised him to switch on his lights, on account of the weather, handed back his documents and saluted politely.
When the Vauxhall’s red rear lights had faded at the point where the road ran together with the sky, both men lifted their helmets, wiped the sweat from their foreheads, and flung their stop signs, shoulder bags and belts together with their holsters into the side car.
“Okay, the cabaret’s over. Now write me up a detailed account. I want the report on my desk at 8.15 tomorrow, before the morning briefing”, barked out the bandaged one tersely.

They pulled up directly before the villa ‘Konstancja’, where Modesta was renting a room. It was a boarding house with a bizarre glass pyramid in the middle of its flat roof that stood opposite the Sosnowy park, which was enveloped now by great layers of snow, cotton-wool like. She told him to stop the car some way from the house and wouldn’t let him get out, struggling with the suitcase by herself.
“I owe you half of what you spent yesterday”, she shouted in farewell.
He took out a squeaky pram from Mrs Bayerowa’s shed, where they had kept the cart that used to take guests around the town. He wheeled out two rusty bicycles, and threw a rotting hose and some forks, spades and rakes to one side. He drove the car in and then levered up the bonnet. Groaning and panting, he crawled underneath, turning on a torch. The cover to the oil sump he had ordered from Callender, a metalsmith in Willersley, was still there. Welded to it was the cocoa tin, invisible from beneath, that he had hastily checked for that morning, feeling around under the bonnet in front of the Grand Hotel. He undid six screws and took off the tin cover, dirtying his hands on the oil with which he’d disguised it. Then he straightened up, wiping the metal that looked similar to a turtle shell with some bundled rags, and was finally able to open the tin. He breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing had gone wrong. The contents, wrapped in several plastic bags and fastened with tape, had made the journey unscathed.
Wanda came back from work earlier than usual.
“No! Is that for real?! You didn’t even tell me! What a wonderful colour! Beautiful! Sand-coloured! It’s absolutely beautiful!” She ran her hand over the Vauxhall’s chrome handles. “Two or three years ago they’d have taken it straight away from you. And you didn’t even tell me – you’re so mean! How could you have kept quiet about it?”
“It was supposed to be a surprise”.
“A surprise! And is the young lady you brought here with it a surprise too, little brother?” she asked, winking.
“You already know?”
“Uh huh”.
“It’s nothing like that. I met her in Gdańsk. Should I have left her behind? Said I wouldn’t take her? Why should I? She was on a course, she teaches English at the high school here”.
“Aha, that’s interesting. I know all the teachers here. They haven’t taught English in our school at all for a couple of years. But that must be changing now. Such a young addition to the teaching staff, and, it seems, quite a looker, at least from a distance. Well, well”.

Translated by Katya Andrusz