The time: the first decade of the twenty-first century. The place: Poland. Yet these are not fixed coordinates, because nothing in this novel is certain, aside from the moment when the narrator goes out on the eve of his 52nd birthday intending to meet a new woman. He does not achieve his goal, but instead finds himself at an immense party thrown by Benjamin Infamus, who under martial law was the reviled spokesman of the communist authorities, and is now immensely rich. The parties held at his mansion are the subject of legendary stories told all around Poland.
The attraction of Infamus’s home is an attraction to depravity. When people cross the threshold of his mansion they lose their identity. They are left with ritual disputes, which are all the fiercer for being utterly unproductive. The disputes take place above cellars in which the host has assembled a museum of the 20th century, including wax figures of Polish writers, world leaders and local communists. There are the skulls of victims of the Katyń massacre, the death masks of some famous people, women’s lingerie and soccer strips of all the teams in the world. The heart of the subterranean part of the mansion, the most closely guarded place, is a special room occupied by a secret martyr—an unidentified dead or half-dead victim of history. Whoever he is, he functions in everyone’s awareness as a reproach and at the same time as a human relic.
March, Polonia is a sort of diagnosis of groups that seek to monopolize the right to formulate communal ideas. In a phantasmagorical vision we see two camps at odds with one another: in one, all the old representatives of historical conflict are turned into museum exhibits; in the other, anachronistic nationalist-Catholic notions provide support for theatrical preparations for a massacre. Both sides “have stopped believing that there are normal people living in Poland, and so they manufacture artificial conflicts and make-believe solutions. Out of this confusion a perfidious apocalypse is born: the nationalists need Infamus’s debauchery in order to set up their holiness in opposition to it, while the postmodern side requires the moral outrage of the patriots, because without it they cannot attain the gratification that arises from transgressing national commandments.
It is no surprise, then, that in the closing scenes the narrator climbs into a carriage and leaves the country.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit of Storytelling, Amen. On the eve of my fifty-second birthday I decided that the following day I would meet a new woman. This thought had been rattling around in my brain for a long time, but it had only gradually been assuming its definitive key.
I was not undertaking a frivolity; this was neither a game not a wager. I was not giving myself an easy task—my serious and ambitious intention was, within the next twenty-four hours, to meet, get to know, and seduce an intelligent, slim girl just shy of thirty years old and at least six feet in height.
I wanted to offer myself an intensive birthday present and I wanted to test whether I could afford to offer myself an intensive birthday present. On the surface I was in good shape, but I felt that the monster dwelling inside of me was beginning to die. People still regarded me as a rogue, but in essence I was relying on reputation alone. Appearances to the contrary, cynicism was never my strong suit; the irony and instrumental nature of my stories about women had once served to conceal the wrongs I did them. Now, I used the remnants of cynicism, the remains of irony and a show of instrumentalism to mask my despair and my longing.
For at least a year I had been prey to evil forebodings; my heart palpitated, and transcendency made itself felt ever more distinctly. I sought respite in writing my memoirs and listening to music. The memoirs soothed my nerves temporarily, but without any side-effects; music provided lengthy and profound relief, but with horrendous side-effects: the emptiness after The Magic Flute can be unbearable, and the withdrawal symptoms after overdosing on a Gluck aria is beyond endurance. Despite this, I was irresistibly drawn to that highest of art forms, I was drawn to listen the way I was once drawn to drink. This attraction was reflected in my love life, in which musical muses predominated.
At the time I was torn between a ballet dancer entering on a great career, an opera singer already embarked on a great career, and a violinist with a colorful past who was giving up on a great career.
Aside from this, it goes without saying that I put in calls to all kinds of women, and seduced models and waitresses and high school students; on the pretext of learning foreign languages I organized perpetual auditions of female teachers; I was dangerously intimate with an appetizingly rounded medical student; I was fond of conversations with a petite specialist in English-language literature who was entirely not my type; I was unable to resist the magnetic charms of a raven-haired genius at punctuation I had met completely by chance; I was waiting for a certain ever so young hired worker to return from Dublin (to her I spent a fortune on telephone calls); a sprinter who had once been famous and with whom I had had a spicy romance in 1999 lived close by and still constituted a considerable temptation; my thoughts often returned to Majka (a tall, willowy brunette) and Magda (a large-boned, squat albino), both of whom had visited me the previous summer and were as hot for me as they were for each other; I was entirely seriously considering marriage with a certain Estonian millionairess; I did not eschew street sluts; and I still had the impulsive feeling, thus intensifying my sense of chaos, that the most important encounter of all was still ahead of me.
Nevertheless, the opera singer, the ballet dancer and the violinist were the three pillars of my confusion. My relationship with the singer (whom the critics dubbed the Angelic Larynx) was the longest lasting, the most intense, and the most complicated. The ballet dancer had only been around for a short time; aside from orgasm, she was closed off to all human emotions. The violinist had only just appeared on the scene and the charm she exuded was divine. She did not exactly belong in the realm of profound emotions, but the shadow between her breasts when she wore a low-cut dress had the might of a major social movement.
Of the three of them she was the oldest, the most beautiful, and the craziest. She was well over forty, with a sepia-hued complexion, crisp features, and the figure of a fitness trainer. At times she seemed most intelligent person on earth; at others it was plain as day that she didn’t get a thing.
She claimed she had the gift of the Holy Spirit and could read the minds of other people; she had a psychotherapist whom she exhausted mentally during excruciating sessions. Five days a week she would eat only wheat germ. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she went to the gym; on weekends she stayed in bed, drank Gorzka Żołądkowa vodka straight from the bottle and ate like a pig.
Over the telephone she would talk indescribable filth; she wrote shockingly pornographic text messages and sent e-mails filled with all kinds of depravity. Yet for weeks on end she wouldn’t even let herself be kissed.
To top it all she adored Japanese restaurants and would only meet me there. The simplest trip to the movies, the theater, a concert, or for a walk—in her case this was out of the question. She always wriggled out of it, saying she had no time, though when it came down to it, it wasn’t clear what she actually did. For at least a year she hadn’t performed and hadn’t practiced, she was not expanding her repertoire, she had no rehearsals and she didn’t give lessons. She was married, but had been separated for years; even if she had matters of common interest with her separated husband, they were not time-consuming ones. But one way or the other, I had limited options: It was a choice between text messages, e-mail, or Japanese restaurants.
I carried on our correspondence enthusiastically; Japanese restaurants I hated with every fiber of my being. Even if I’d known how to eat with chopsticks I still would not have been able to: My hands shake like John Paul II’s towards the end of his life.
With one trembling hand I would push things around on my plate, and with the other grope the violinist under the table. “What you’re doing is very nice, your excellency,” she would say, “but I’m not ready yet. My therapist says I’m not yet ready.” I would wipe my sushi-stained fingers gently on her thong and withdraw my hand.
We would part with a studied but not forced coolness; I would swear to myself I’d never go out with her again and would not get in touch. A few days later, my phone would light up with a text message dripping with every erotic bodily fluid imaginable; an hour later I’d write back, and a week later I’d be sitting in the Japanese restaurant, raw fish stuck in my craw.
Translated by Bill Johnston