A Footbridge Over Time is the latest volume by Michał Głowiński, eminent historian of literature and for almost ten years a popular writer of fiction too. His Black Seasons (1998), a memoir of the war years when as a Jewish child he was hidden in German-occupied Warsaw, was nominated for the Nike Award. A Footbridge Over Time contains stories about his native “Small Town”, in other words Pruszków, a place outside Warsaw on the “tiny, narrow, shallow River Utrata”, the miniature universe of his childhood and early post-war youth. These are stories of his family, friends and neighbours, the places in his personal geography and the events in his life. Like Asmodeus, Głowiński goes for sentimental strolls, lifts covers to peer into the well of time and recovers from memory images of the past life of the Small Town’s Polish and Jewish citizens. Yet the shadow of catastrophe hangs over the idyllic land of his childhood: the fate of those who were murdered and those who fled the Holocaust and left the Small Town for good often features in his stories. Głowiński often uses personal themes. “The autobiographical threads running through the book and all the events sourced from the history of my own family are fully in line with the truth,” he confirms. But, as he admits, he is also willing to combine the real and the unreal, fact and fiction, often stylises his account to suit the theme, and plays with literary allusions, producing as much a documentary as an almost fictionalised portrait of the Small-Town life that is now a thing of the past. The first part of his story about the Small Town, The Story of a Single Poplar, came out in 2003.
- Marek Zaleski
It was a winter’s evening, a biting frost of the kind that hasn’t occurred in Poland for a long time (well below minus twenty), known to younger generations only from legend and the tales of older people. It not only seized you in its grip and pierced you to the marrow, it also gave off sounds – it had its own music, though perhaps it was the music of silence, so you also experienced it – on the strength of a paradox – with the aid of your hearing. I do not know what it was about, I cannot say what it was playing, because it wasn’t an echo, but something was happening in the sphere of sound, of that I am sure. Perhaps the cruelly frosty air is a good conductor of the music of the spheres, those harmonies that are inaccessible even to most composers, that sound and are silent all at once. At the appointed time the droshky drove up. I can’t remember if there was one horse or two in harness, but I do recall that that was when the sound of horses’ hooves fixed itself forever in my mind as they struck the road surface, which in the Small Town of those days was made of cobblestones; however, I do not think the tone and quality of the sound changes radically when the horses are running not now on rare, old-fashioned stone roads but on asphalt. Nothing can compare with the poetry of the particular music produced by horses’ hooves, and other forms of locomotion cannot compete with it – trains and cars (not to mention aeroplanes) are only capable of making noises, though I do not rule out the idea that they too have every reason to expect admirers. In any case, of all the noises to do with travelling or with motion in general those very sounds fascinate me even now; whenever I hear them – rarely however – amid the city roar, they give me pleasure and bring back the memory of my early years, now so distant.
The hood was up in the droshky, although there wasn’t any wind and it wasn’t snowing, so we didn’t need protecting from them. On the contrary, there was perfect peace, and the crystal clear air was at a standstill, ensuring the warmth we carried inside us would not vanish into the blue yonder. I was sitting between my parents, so, like any child in that situation, I had a sense of total security. I was bundled up in a sheepskin, with a scarf wound round my neck and a woollen hat, with which I also associate some later memories, because it was one of those objects that, contrary to expectation, keep their owners company for many a long year, soaking up all sorts of content and meaning. It was a flying cap, or so it was called, which covered the ears and a good part of the cheeks, and fastened under the chin. Sometimes quite unimportant bits of trivia remain in our heads for years; I remember many years after the war Mother happening to tell me that she bought that flying cap of mine in Nalewki, at a children’s outfitters called “Franciszka’s”. I am writing at length about this essentially insignificant headgear because it escorted me for the next several years, surviving the Holocaust along with me, and prolonging its existence as if it wanted to serve me for as long as possible. When we escaped from the ghetto at the beginning of 1943, I was wearing that cap, which at that particular moment had an additional advantage – it shielded my face not only from the frost but also from any unwelcome glances. And a year later it was in that flying cap that I drove, also in a frost that assaulted you from all sides, to Turkowice, where it continued to keep me company. I realise that the history of that cap, acquired in Nalewki and good in harsh winters, is a tale about my childhood and its dramatically varied stages. As we went home on that frosty evening, a few months, or almost a year before the outbreak of war, my parents could not have appreciated what a wonderful purchase that children’s cap would prove, nor could they have imagined what a long life it would lead. I am not aware of the circumstances in which it met its final end.
Despite the bitter cold I was in an excellent mood, everything amused and pleased me, both the drive and the world around me. I must have found it extremely beautiful on that clear night, with the snow lying all about, the starry sky and the moon, which was, or maybe wasn’t full, but was undoubtedly visible the entire time. And I was especially thrilled when I heard Father pronounce the words: “Drive on far, Mister Star!” Of course I didn’t know it was a common expression, uttered in all sorts of situations and essentially devoid of any clearly defined meaning. Perhaps it was the very sound of it that struck me, because it was like a nursery rhyme, and I am sure I already knew some. But maybe I thought the driver was called Star, so Father was addressing him, encouraging him to drive faster. Either way, I picked up the catchphrase and started repeating it at various volumes, rising to a shout: “Drive on far, Mister Star!, Drive on far, Mister Star!”… Until then I had sat quietly, but now I began to fidget, I felt the need to move about and wave my arms. Perhaps I turned my gaze upwards again, to look at the sky so beautifully strewn with stars.
I knew the starry sky was above me, I could have no doubt about it, though I was not yet aware of what was – or rather should be – inside me. I watched it, and it must have prompted me to ask how it was that those little shining stars didn’t fall on our heads – how did they stay there, and why could we see them even though they were so small? I probably wanted Mister Star to take us to the place where the first stars in the sky were shining from. One thing is certain – on that winter’s night it all intrigued me, it all seemed strange and mysterious. We were going back to a house full of silence and warmth, we were driving to the edge of the Small Town. I cannot say how long that nocturnal outing lasted under the banner of Mister Star and under the starlit sky, half an hour perhaps, maybe a little less, maybe a little more. I feel no need to measure the time by the hands of the clock; to me it is important whatever they would say, because it was one of those moments when the world opens.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones