The action of Jacek Dukaj’s sprawling new novel starts off in Warsaw, moves to the first-class luxury cars of the Trans-Siberian railroad, then finally to Siberia in the vicinity of Irkutsk. Events are set in 1924, but this is an alternative history, a fantastic history. The Tungus meteorite impact of 1908 has caused the bulk of Russian territory to be covered in ice, as a result of which the First World War did not break out, there was no October Revolution, Czar Nicholas II still reigns, and Poland is still under the partitions. Customs, fashion, orthography, – none of these have changed since the beginning of the century. The czar, however, would like to push back the ice and for this reason his officials send a Pole, Benedykt Gierosławski, to Siberia. Gierosławski’s father, in exile in Siberia, has succumbed to an extraordinary metamorphosis and – himself turned to ice – is apparently able to communicate with the mysterious quasi-beings who are causing the abnormal drop in temperature. Benedict is to seek out his father and secure his cooperation in getting rid of the ice. This project meets with strong resistance from those who have made fortunes on the freezing- over of Siberia – the low temperatures are conducive to the formation of numerous new materials upon which new branches of industry are based. Thanks to this, Siberia is growing into an economic superpower, and religious sects for whom the frost heralds a new renaissance of the spirit are also flourishing.
The fierce battle between the novel’s factions is fought on political, economic, mythological, and religious terrain. Dukaj adds to this a reflection on philosophical logic. The world of “winter” is – according to him – a world ruled by a logic of duality, in other words, the sharp opposition between truth and falsehood, but also some well-defined ideologies, and – what inevitably follows from this – historical necessities. The world of “summer,” on the other hand –recently discovered and developed by Polish logicians such as Łukasiewicz, Kotarbiński, and Tarski (Tajtelbaum) – is governed by a logic of multiplicity, here the law of the excluded middle no longer holds true, clarity of ideas dissolves, and so do all manner of determinisms, which had previously held the randomness inextricably associated with biological life at bay. It is the opposition between these two worlds that is the basis of the fundamental ideological debates of the early twentieth century.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
Passed a lone hackney cab waiting for the next crowd of passengers from the delayed Express; the hackney driver sipped from a bottle concealed in a shapeless glove. The gendarme on duty watched the peasant with envy from beneath the station’s eaves.
“It comes and goes here, one month’s warm, the next one’s cold – and this place is a lot closer to ice country than your Warsaw. What is it that draws them to some cities, but drives them away from others?”
Two roads led off here at an angle from the wide road that ran parallel to the tracks, the one on the left led straight to the sparse lights in the windows of the third and fourth stories of the buildings of downtown Yekaterinburg. All the houses visible from the street near the station were built of wood and based on a long, rectangular design. They resembled oversized peasant cottages more than they did noble manor houses, not to speak of Warsaw townhouses; low, sloping, they looked as if they were half-buried in snow drifts. Their wide windows were tightly shuttered, snow clung to them in cracks and niches, piled itself on the slanted roofs in smooth, step-like patterns, a weak wind blew the snow into the side-streets and walkways between the houses.
Walked on in silence.
“Mr. Gierosławski? Why do you keep looking around like that? Are you supposed to meet someone?” Fessar’s face held an ironic smile. “I’m intruding, go ahead and say it, I’m intruding.”
A sudden thought: it’s him! him, him, damn Turk, of course! he left, waited, attached himself without asking, he could be carrying two hunting rifles beneath that fur coat, a dozen bayonets, and the way he smiles, him, him!
“You don’t look very well to me,” Fessar stopped. “It’s not that cold out.” He looked more carefully. “You’re very pale. Your hand is shaking.”
Lowered the hand with the cigar immediately. Look away – there: a small group of men with coarse faces, probably workers from some foundry, they’re walking along the side of the road, exchanging comments loudly, raw material for a quaint painting – look at them, don’t look at the Turk, don’t let anything be known.
And he trailed on:
“There’s a quite decent restaurant here in a hotel right on the Isetska and if you would permit me to invite you to a very early breakfast, we’d have the chance to speak in private, which is of course impossible on a train.”
“About what?” it was asked sharply.
The Turk grimaced, the tendons beneath the skin of his face stood out as if with great effort, his cigar slid over to the other side of his mouth, he rubbed the nape of his neck with his hand.
“They can babble on all they want about spirits and other sorts of delusions, but I’ve been in this business for years, I’ve seen the Black Shining and the lights of the Church of Christ the Savior, […] uff, hey, where are you off to in such a hurry?”
A cry cut through the Yekaterinburg frost – the broken wheezing of a dying man – a cry and wheezing; someone was dying in the midst of this snowy night.
Looked between the houses. Movement in the shadows there – a human figure – low – a black shape rising and falling. Took a step. For an instant, the countenance of a dark-eyed youth emerged into the snowy luminescence. “Keep and protect us!” with his mouth wide open, a streak of dirt on his cheek, very pale. And his arm continued to rise and fall, a rock in his fist, with which rock he was smashing the skull of a man stretched out on the ground.
A piercing whistle rang out. There was a crack of wood. Turned around. Ünal Tayyib Fessar, drawn as tight as a bowstring, his cigar clenched in his teeth and his fur coat gaping, was raising his heavy cane with both hands over his head in preparation for a blow. He’ll hit, crush bones. A machine-gun round burst through the frost: one of the workers collapsed in the middle of the street, his face in the ice. A second worker just dodged the Turk’s cane. They had knives. Another shot rang out. Whirled in place like a puppet clown, always just one turn behind. The knife-wielders made off, stumbling into the darkness of a side-street; the last one glanced back in fear and fury – behind himself, at the entrance to a house on the other side of the street.
Feet flew from the ground, ran towards that gate. A man in a yellow coat turned to run.
The street was wide, empty, snow fell softly on snow. Ran through this foreign city, shrouded in darkness, its doors shut, windows tightly shuttered, not a living soul, a single lantern at an intersection, the intersection empty, too, just the rustle of the wind, the crunch of ice beneath one’s shoes, the hoarseness of one’s breath, chased after the man in the yellow coat.
The street ran straight as an arrow, though it stretched out a bit at the top of each low rise, undulated like a ribbon, up and down, he would appear then disappear behind the summit of each rise. Was afraid that he might turn off to the side at one point, hide in the shadows – but no, he flew on ahead, not even looking back too often, he had a concrete goal, he wasn’t fleeing blindly.
Understood when the air temperature dropped enough to change hoarse breathing into a choking cough, frost twisted its way into the throat like a threaded icicle – and the man in the yellow coat kept on running, straight into the embrace of the Ice.
A few lanterns shone along the riverbank boulevard, a yellow glow floated out of the depths of a cross-street, too; the ice gleamed through the frozen snow in the twilight of the wintery summer dawn.
Translated by Christopher Caes