Other Songs is the latest demonstration of Jacek Dukaj’s unusual and highly fertile imagination. This time he has invented a world where ancient Greek ideas about nature are in force, with the theory of the elements at the fore, despite which it is a reality dominated by advanced technology. Naturally, this world is nothing like ours, but has its own calendar; the information that the action takes place in the twelfth century after the fall of Rome does not tell the reader much, because we are not told when Rome fell. Some of the settings where events take place are more recognisable, including Europe, Africa, and the Moon, which people have colonised, and also what is loosely termed “cosmic space”. But the most tangible element in the book is the main hero, a valiant commander battling against the forces of evil, who is at the same time a subtle rational thinker. At ground level Other Songs belongs to the genre of science fiction, but you can also find elements of fantasy, political fiction and above all philosophical debate in it (including some successful paraphrasing of ancient Greek thought). This is one of the most ambitious, and also one of the longest (at over 600 pages of dense print) works of Polish fantasy literature to have appeared in the past decade.
Mist swirled around the droshky, as Mr Berbelek tried to decipher his destiny from the soft contours of the grey-and-white suspension. Mist. Water, smoke, leaves in the wind, loose sand and a human crowd – these are where one can see best.
His head hung heavily towards its reflection in leather. He drew the damp air deep into his lungs and defended himself against the morphe of the night, a tiny little man in an expensive overcoat with too smooth a face and too large a pair of eyes. He picked up a newspaper left on the seat by the previous passenger. In the grimy light of the passing pyrokine lamps he had trouble making out the Herdonic typeface: the letters were like runes, like the shreds of larger signs, thick and fat on the left-hand side, and fading to the right. The rigid paper crumpled and broke in his gloved hands. MOON WITCH IN LOVE. WHO’S THE LUCKY MAN? In the next column there was a drawing of a sea monster and the heading: AFRICAN COMPANY’S FIRST NIMROD LOST AT SEA. A political commentary by Ritter Dreug-von-Kohle: Was it really so hard to predict the alliance of Blackbeard John with Kratistos the Seven-Fingered? Now Rome, Gothland, Franconia and Neurgia will have to bend beneath the dream of the Black Prince. Let’s thank our diplomats for their brilliant work! The text was positively dripping with sarcasm. The Moon in its third quarter was reflected in the puddles on the black cobblestones, its cloudless sky revealing pink seas – the Kratista Illea must indeed have been in a good mood (maybe she really was in love?), or else was consciously spreading the range of her crown so powerfully. Mr Berbelek’s anthos rarely extended further than arm’s length, and only in mist or in smoke was it really possible to make any sort of guess at its shape – maybe it was indeed the future, a portent of Kismet, as popular superstition would have it. But hadn’t Mr Berbelek refused to bow to the will of Minister Bruge as well as Shulima this evening? Thus, lost in thought, he stared into the swirling mist.
Clip clop, clip clop, the driver wasn’t goading his horse, the night was warm and silent, the moment imposed quiet and reflection. Mr Berbelek remembered the heat of Shulima’s innocent breath and the scent of her Egyptian perfume. This season the reign of the ascetic style of Herdon had ended (a small victory over Kratistos Anaxegiros, in this field at least) and traditional European himatia had returned to the drawing rooms, London kaftans, buttonless shirts that revealed the torso, and for women, Kaftorian dresses, soforia and meidani, Arab shalvari, corsets that raised the bust, and garish nipple jewellery. Shulima’s forearms were encircled by long, spiral bracelets shaped like snakes, and when she gave Berbelek her hand to kiss (the touch of her skin almost scorched him), he looked the serpent straight in its emerald eye. “Esthle.” “Esthlos.” She had been smiling, a good sign; from their first meeting he had imposed a tone of goodwill and intimacy. Then from behind her sky-blue fan she had whispered ironic comments to him on the guests that passed by, including his uncle. Esthlos A.R. Bruge, Minister of Trade for the Duchy of Neurgia, had lately got himself entangled in a complicated love affair with a Gothic cavalrywoman, centurioness of Horror, who was most patently a powerful demiurgos – from every single encounter with her Bruge returned a little bit more handsome and a little bit more stupid, laughed Shulima. So maybe the Minister really had been worked on earlier? He had agreed to Berbelek’s proposal without any real objection, just a wave of the hand and a grimace; he hadn’t even wanted to think about it – and thus the Nyute Trading House, Ikita te Berbelek, had gained an actual monopoly over the import of furs from Northern Herdon. Mr Berbelek was celebrating. Between one toast and another, without a second thought, he had invited Shulima to his summer estate in Iberia. She had raised an eyebrow, snapped her fan shut, and the snake’s green eye had glittered. “Gladly.” But now, as he counted the burning Moons in the puddles or the beats of the horse’s hooves against the city cobblestones in the damp silence, Mr Berbelek was thinking: What if it was exactly the opposite, what if it was her anthos that was craftily consuming me, and her contrariness that pushed the invitation from my lips? In telling the story of the Gothic centurioness-demiurgos, wasn’t she trying to give me some sort of hint?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones