In the 1960s and 1970s Krzysztof Niemczyk was a famous, extremely distinct figure among the artists in Krakow, a creative maverick and dissenter who broke many social conventions and adamantly refused to cooperate with any official outlets for literary or artistic life. He painted and printed stories, but mainly made himself into a work of art using masks and costumes, organised scandalous public performances, and also wrote a legendary novel that no official publisher was willing to publish. Only in 1999 did it finally appear, but in French, in Paris, where it stirred great interest and got positive reviews.
The Courtesan and the Little Chicks is the semi-fantastical story of a professor who wants to use his works and inventions to create a new reality, so he cooperates with the communist regime; however, he cannot cope with his petty bourgeois family, greedy for material goods, who are waiting to grab all his money. Out of vengeance he decides to deprave and destroy some boys who are the offspring of his loathsome relatives, to which end he tries to employ the charms of his now ageing former lover. Rejuvenated by cosmetic surgery and make-up, she turns up at the professor’s house and gets down to work, though the results go much further than the original intentions.
The novel is largely based on ideas drawn from Faust, and there are also lots of references to other classic works of nineteenth and twentieth-century literature. Niemczyk builds up large, glittering, often monumental scenes of pictorial as well as symbolic merit, using his characters’ adventures to depict modern times as fallow ground for conflict between traditional values and the corruption of a new type to which the boys are subjected, and to which the courtesan, defender of Love and Beauty, ultimately falls victim. In this modern version of Faust the leitmotifs taken from Goethe undergo a disturbing relocation and reinterpretation, which means the reader has to make quite an effort to identify the devil in this particular world. In the tale of the courtesan and the little chick-boys, Niemczyk is evidently mythologising his own life story: the history of a maverick rebelling against the modern decline in moral values.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
Krzysztof Niemczyk (1938-1994) was a writer, painter, performance artist and dissenter.
As she looked at herself in the mirror, for the first time the courtesan noticed, to her horror, the highly distinct changes made to the architecture of her face by the feature-updating, rejuvenating plastic surgery. Her nose was no longer the one she had before; it seemed to have been greatly flattened. Now it was being saved by some exaggerated eye make-up: both one and the other eye had something like black wings attached, which as a pair lifted up her vulgarised nose and held it at the centre of the oval composition. Someone would also have to carry something as wide as a cornet or a swan’s wing ahead of her during the funeral, treading very cautiously as if on a tightrope, to avoid leaning too far to left or right, which would disturb the balance of the eye arrangement, and at the same time shatter the symmetrical positioning of the breasts, which were vertically bisected by a line drawn into the décolletage as if with the use of measuring instruments. That someone would have to be very tiny, best of all a little lad. At once the courtesan clapped her hands together. The brothers! The brothers and their ears! Or rather the youngest of the brothers! Anyway, all three could solemnly walk ahead of her, one behind the other, at regular intervals. Only the colour of their ears would not harmonise impressively with the black of her dress emerging from the depths behind them, because either they were chalky white, or they suddenly went red with irritation or embarrassment, but it was not a red with the beauty of drapery or roses. It was more the sort of blush that colours the ears of a criminal, an onanist or a fanatic. They would have to be painted, avoiding red, a colour that the community was bound to regard as an expression of tasteless, insincere hypocrisy. Anyway, the courtesan was enough of a woman to indulge her impulse for some egotistical over-aestheticising and connoisseurship in this instance! So she’d have to seek out a noble, vital enough colour, a green, for example, to aggravate the black of the mourning outfit even more! The boys’ ears would have to change into a wonderful, triple, symmetrically fanned green flame, borne as if on three levels by the smallest brother, the middle brother and the tallest brother… And from the back her white bust would approach, with floaty, black gauze draped over it, as if being rolled along on wheels veiled by a pall. And above it all, on either side of the invisible perpendicular held up before the tip of her nose, a pair of black wings would arise, closing the picture: those eyes, painted with such panache, like a mourning flag split by the wind at the very top of a mast. Her plan was to animate nothing but her pupils amid all the virtually immobile pacing as they moved towards the graveyard. Well-practised in monotonous motion, they were to run from left to right and right to left, rhythmically reflecting a cold, disdainful, penetrating, provocative look from the very corners of her eyes.
She broke free of the emergency tailor’s hold, and with her dress rustling, ran down to the dining room, as the hem of the mourning veil chased her down the stairs in a series of flat leaps.
The boys had finished being tested now, and were hurriedly eating a meal in the company of their parents. This was an occasional arrangement sponsored by Małgosia, who, also dressed in black, was chatting cordially with Lucjan’s mother. Having magnanimously forgiven her sons for their sister’s death, she wanted to have in them at least temporary allies to add some perfunctory cheer at the reading of the will. The boys were trying not to look at their father; the whole family were solemnly chewing the chunks they had voraciously torn off the sandwiches, which were being grabbed in quick succession, as if refined eating depended on having as many cubic centimetres of food as possible crammed into the mouth. They all turned to look at the courtesan, who clapped her hands and in a brisk tone that heralded a nice surprise, cried out:
“You’re sure to have some green lacquer in the house… Come along, one, two three! Chop chop! Up from the table quickly and get looking! The first one to find it will be kissed as a reward. We need a brush too, the kind you paint, er, walls with... But hurry up, look lively! I’m going to paint your ears green right away!”
They had pushed back their chairs, but now they slowly sat down again. They were all staring at the courtesan with such a steady, bitter look, showing such a total lack of understanding and such rising severity that she was startled, so she stammered “Pardon me!”, and withdrew, closing the door very gently behind her. There were tears in her eyes… Was she always going to be running around in ever decreasing circles, constantly coming up against obstacles like that look? Multiplied by several hundred pairs of eyes it was capable of creating an impassable wall of dumbness and insensitivity to beauty that threatened the very existence of a sensitive individual.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones