The characters in this story do not have names. Instead they are the “father”, “grandfather”, “older brother” or “younger son”, which means they are detached from any specific identity and from the social and political realities vividly depicted in The Book, which focus on the post-war situation of Polish Jews in particular. However, the anonymity of the main characters entirely explains the non-personalised title, The Book. In choosing this title, Mikołaj Łoziński reminds us that the first story that comes up in any writer’s head is his own family history, and even if (as in this case) it does not end up being his first published work, it will still remain in his mind. It will still be “Book Number One”, the source of his world outlook and values, the set of tools he uses to organise reality.
Although his or her own family history is extremely close to an author, it does not submit to the process of rationalisation at all easily, even if he or she contains it within the tried-and-tested saga genre. But Łoziński does not do this: instead he builds his story out of short episodes, mixes up their chronology, conceals more than he reveals and does not even pretend to have told us everything. He constructs each episode around key words, and these point up randomly chosen objects, concepts or family members. Even the latter can be replaced by somebody else, because families do go in for rotation: thus in these stories another, alternative grandmother or mother appears, who has to be worked in, even if that means making the story more complex. It is already complicated anyway, because of the background it is set against, because of the mixed-up chronology and the large spatial range. And also because of the large cast of characters, as well as the interference of the main ones in what can or cannot be made public, or what absolutely has to be said in order to get to the heart of the twists and turns in their lives or to show changes in their nature.
In this short book there is more going on between the lines, but what there is forms a picture that is meaningful and moving enough. It is proof that a first story does not need many words, just the right choice of them.
The phones are always going wrong, so my parents aren’t upset when there’s no dialling tone. They’re at the fortieth birthday party of a female friend from their class at high school. They say they’re going downstairs to the phone booth for a moment. They throw on warm jackets. They just want to check if my brother was home, as agreed, before midnight. And if everything’s all right with me, because it’s the first time they’ve left me on my own.
But the payphone in the booth is dead too.
Meanwhile my brother is staggering his way home from his first party ever. On the way he’s not at all surprised to see soldiers and an armoured car.
Apparently I didn’t even wake up when my parents and my brother got home and came into my room, still in their jackets.
Following my parents’ separation in 1983, my grandfather stops calling my dad. He also forbids him to phone him at home.
That’s because once a week the editors of the underground Solidarity movement’s biggest journal meet at my grandfather’s place, and now Dad is living with a French diplomat, whose house is sure to be bugged.
My grandfather’s wife makes dinners for the girls on the editorial team. She also prepares food for them to take away in precisely inventoried plastic containers: Chinese soup with jelly mushrooms and soya noodles, ham in dill sauce, peas with baby carrots, meat loaf with kidneys, boiled beef in horseradish sauce, lentils with bacon, apple puree, and yeast cake. She sticks a little card on each container, for example on the beef sirloin coated in mustard: place in the oven at 175ºC for 30 mins.
The editorial team are sent food ration coupons by their readers.
Grandfather takes a lively part in the conversations at table. He only sticks to one rule: not to give advice.
“You people know better nowadays,” he often says.
Anyway, the editor-in-chief is the daughter of an old comrade of his from the war in Spain.
“I’m sorry,” says my grandfather, whenever he inadvertently knocks over a glass of wine, or a sauce boat.
During one the dinners he has a stroke and is taken away in an ambulance. A few days later he can already walk about and call from a payphone fixed to a shabby wall in the hospital corridor.
“I’m glad we can have a quiet chat at last, son,” he says into the receiver.
He’s not even bothered by the nice lady’s voice that keeps repeating: “Conversation monitored, conversation monitored”.
At night we drive up to a grocery shop. My older brother is driving the Volkswagen Beetle that Dad left him when he went away. I’m sitting in the back with my black-and-white trainers on the seat. I’m not allowed to put them on the floor – it’s so rusty the street is showing through it. Nor am I allowed to sit in the front yet.
On my knees I’m holding a specially prepared telephone.
My brother gets out, but he doesn’t switch off the engine. He goes up to the padlocked door and is reflected in the dark shop window. He looks around – there’s no one coming. At his signal I roll down the window and carefully pass him the phone cable, at the end of which, instead of a jack, there are two pins inserted. He takes it and with great precision he sticks the pins into the wires running down the wall of the building.
Then he comes back to the car. He rolls up the window until the cable is trapped in it, so we can drive off with it at any moment.
“Dial away,” he says.
Besides ours, we can also hear the shop’s phone as I dial the long, thirteen-figure number from memory.
After four rings my dad picks up the receiver. I tell him that Mum has gone to a feminist camp, and that for a week I’m living at my brother’s place. On the eighth floor, in our grandmother’s old flat, from where you can see the sweet factory. I tell him how my brother takes me to school on his motorbike each morning. How at breakfast and supper we drink green grape juice and eat toast with Kiri cheese squares. No, don’t worry, Dad. We’re not paying a fortune for this conversation. When are you flying over from France? You’ve just got to see where we’re phoning you from.
Dad’s phone is cut off a month after his return to Poland. Two weeks before the first free presidential election in 1990.
He has come back to do a television campaign for the incumbent Prime Minister of the first democratic government.
That same week his car is broken into as well. The video cassettes with all the film material are gone from the boot, including the tape ready for tomorrow’s broadcast.
He knows they won’t have time to film or edit anything else now. On top of that, the next day is a public holiday, the eleventh of November. Around midnight they come up with the idea of replacing the stolen fifteen-minute programme with a message saying: “Some days are solemn enough to call a halt in the political fight. The most dignified way to celebrate them is in silence. National Independence Day is just this kind of holiday.”
After one in the morning they drive to the Prime Minister’s office to record material for the twelfth and thirteenth of November. During a long election address the Prime Minister keeps taking off his glasses and putting them on again. A few times Dad begs him not to do that, because later on he’ll have trouble with the editing.
But that doesn’t help at all. Finally Dad loses patience.
“Do you actually want to be president or not?” he asks.
“But you know I don’t,” says the Prime Minister.
“So why are you standing in the election?”
“You know perfectly well my friends have asked me to.”
After the election defeat, my dad’s wife and my younger brother arrive. Now they have the same phone number that my grandfather used to have. They throw out my grandfather’s old phone with the long, twisted cord and buy a new one – a white, wireless one with an automatic answering machine.
“Son, could you call us? I deliberately won’t pick up, and you don’t have leave a message. Just listen to my recording and tell me if it’s OK.”
I call. The answerphone comes on. Dad’s voice. Hello, this is telephone number 22 05 07. Please leave a message after the beeping tone. Thank you. Vous êtes bien au 22 05 07, laissez-nous un message après le bip sonore. Merci.
I don’t leave a message. Shortly after, Dad calls me back.
“Well, son? How do you like it?”
“OK, it’s fine.”
“But it wasn’t quite right, was it? Call again now. Listen to how I’ve changed it. It doesn’t say “after the beeping tone” any more. It just says “after the tone”, because everyone knows it’s a beeping tone, so you don’t have to say that. The same goes for “telephone number” – you don’t need that either. Hello, this is 22 05 07, please leave a message after the beeping tone, without beeping, I mean.”
A minute later I call again.
“Better, isn’t it?”
“Yes, much better.”
“You’re a lovely boy to help your father. Call just one more time. The last time. The final version. Instead of the number at the beginning, I’ve recorded our names.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones