Just like Michalski’s first novel, his second, The Lake of Radicals, has much in common with an essay in the form of fiction. The most important element in it is discursive, with the story as a non-committal pretext for it. The main character is a Pole of almost forty who is sent on a grant to Switzerland as a reward for his work on behalf of the Middle Class Party. The setting for the novel’s events is actually an allusion; it is the area around Lake Geneva, a place greatly loved by the Polish Romantics who were disenchanted with themselves and with the world of “lovers of ideas”. One such is our hero, who comes to terms with his own life-story on the shores of Lake Leman, known in the novel as “The Lake of Radicals”. He is assisted in this by Rosa and Karl, his contemporaries, who are the heirs to a great fortune, representatives of the Swiss-German elite. Michalski questions the similarities and differences between the experiences (both spiritual and intellectual) of people from the same generation, on a European scale. One the one hand there is the Pole, born in 1963, whose life story has the advantage of being typical, and on the other there are the Swiss, temperamental and spoiled, despite having read the same books and reflected on more or less the same cultural issues of the modern West. The Lake of Radicals is full of confrontational discussions about politics and people’s attitudes to the world. They lead to some not very edifying conclusions: everyone, regardless of their origins or environment, is actually in an ideological void; no one is really able to live in a world whose shape they have no power to influence.
Cezary Michalski (b. 1963) writes fiction, essays and journalism. He has previously published three collections of essays and a novel, The Force of Repulsion. He is well known as one of the most expressive and brilliant social pundits of his generation.
It’s hard for me to stop myself from telling yet another story from the city of T. It will help us get a better understanding of the genius loci. It was 1987, and in Poland the reformers within the Party were getting the upper hand again. They were trying to teach us democracy by organising a referendum, the first for forty years. Teaching us democracy was no easy task for them, we weren’t keen to learn, as if we could never stop believing they’d keep letting us take the class again for however long it took. Towards the end of that year a girl who was her parents’ only daughter decided to leave for Germany. Earlier on she’d been arrested for counting the people going into the polling station to vote in the referendum. That entire day, the school where the state commission was housed only had about eleven visitors. That most definitely didn’t tally with the data on the turn-out of voters issued by the authorities.
Baśka (let’s call her that, because I never did manage to ask if I could tell her story) conducted her anti-reform activity in response to an appeal sent out by the leader of the underground himself. Later on this leader sold his union badge for charity in an auction organised by the wife of the secret police general who had hounded him earlier. The hero of the underground quite simply took offence, as he was entitled to. But that happened a few years later, during the so-called “war upstairs”. By then everyone was entitled to do whatever they liked, especially to take offence: intellectuals, priests, workers, even heroes.
The day after the action Baśka ended up at the police station. She was interrogated by two men in plain clothes. They didn’t like students and threatened to rape her, not even threatened, they made it very clear to her that they would. After leaving she had no one to complain to, her boyfriend, the victim of chronic opposition depression, was trying to soothe the pain of this incurable disease in the arms of another girl from the underground. That was when Baśka came to the conclusion that she was sick of playing at conspirators, and even more sick of continuing to live in Poland.
She left her studies uncompleted, good studies too (earlier on she’d passed her school matriculation with distinction). After weeks of tears and scenes her parents finally agreed to the inevitable. On the very last day, a few hours before her train left, her mother took her into the other room. Her father had gone out for the umpteenth packet of cigarettes that day.
Her mother asked her to sit down, and opened a drawer she’d never looked into in her daughter’s presence before. She took out an old identity card and gave it to Baśka, saying: “This’ll be useful if you must go there”. Baśka cautiously took hold of her mother’s Hitler Youth membership card. She looked at the photo of a smiling young girl and ran her fingertips over the imprint of the eagle holding a swastika in its talons; she knew that emblem well from shows on TV.
“We were in the second group,” said her mother. “Not the third, like everyone else here, we weren’t regular Volksdeutsch. We were Tivoli Deutsch, that’s what they called us, because the Germans enrolled volunteers for the second group at the Tivoli cinema. Your grandparents went and queued up there. If you show them that they might give you citizenship sooner, if you really have to go….”
It’s a means to an end like any other; my French political asylum, granted me the day Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government was sworn in, wasn’t all that different from Baśka’s German citizenship. The same qualifications, a few months on benefits, a work permit, and most importantly the guarantee that you’ll never be forced to go back. If you ever wanted to go back, you could make your own decision about it, at your own risk. And afterwards you had only yourself to complain to, not some God or Lord of Destiny. What is there to be ashamed of anyway? Whose honour are you fighting for, whose independence? Don’t we all live in the age of globalisation, didn’t our grandparents live in it, our great-grandparents and all the Poles from the first partition onwards too?
Now I’m not sure which of the Rohan siblings I told this story to. It seems appropriate for Karl, it’s so nihilistic. Though I might also have told it to Rosa by mistake. She always knew how to find some moral, even after hearing the most immoral of my stories. But I can’t remember what she said when I got to the end of the story about Baśka.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones