City of Woes

Jerzy Pilch
City of Woes
  • Świat Książki
    Warszawa 2004
    130 x 250
    ISBN 83-7391-370-X

One hot day in the summer of 2000 a young man called Patryk Wojewoda, who reckons he “can’t cope with the world”, discovers that he possesses the gift of hearing PINs – the personal identity numbers other people tap into automatic telling machines. He’s a law student. He lives in Warsaw – city of a thousand ATMs and beautiful women. One of them, Konstancja Wybryk (literally “Constance Frolic”) is his current girlfriend. Has Patryk already won? The opening of Jerzy Pilch’s novel heralds a romantic thriller about an undeserved victory, carried off at the very start, in life’s race for money and love. Regardless of the surprising and unexpected way the story continues, what matters is that by equipping his hero with what one might call a purely capitalist gift, the author is posing the serious question: is it possible to triumph in the modern world? Is it possible to “cope with the world” these days? The answer is no, it’s not. The money goes round in a mysterious cycle of over indulgence and crime, men and women team up in ill-matched couples, and the metropolis, though full of attractions, draws its inhabitants into an unreal life that is reflected in the produce of the media. The city – this particular one, but any other in Europe too – is a city of woes: the more suggestive, the less real it is, the more tempting, the more powerfully deceptive it becomes. At the opposite extreme from the post-modern city in Pilch’s novel is the distant province – the small town of Granatowe Góry where Patryk was born. In the great big world political systems change, governments fall and a new map of Europe comes into being, but there, in Granatowe Góry, life continues in the same old way: there’s one shop, one priest, and one circle of acquaintances; the women take care of the home and the men hold long conversations over bottles of vodka, the young people leave and the old people die. Thus Pilch shows that there are two worlds nowadays: the small town, where everything is real, but nothing ever changes, and the big city, where everything keeps changing, but nothing is real. Life in the former is absurd, and in the latter it’s awful. In the former there’s nothing to fight for, and in the latter you should never start the fight or you’ll be condemned to a life among semblances of reality. As it’s impossible to “cope with the modern world”, then maybe, as the end of the novel suggests, there’s hope in literature that’s what allows us to live in between both worlds with getting involved in either, and that’s the key to the art of walking down the post-modern highway.

- Przemysław Czapliński

Excerpt

Returning to the unexplored question of the Muses, precursors and patrons of my name, for some time I suspected that it might have come from the black man who fought for the independence of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered in the early sixties by pro-colonial forces. I imagined my eight-year-old father hearing the news of Lumumba’s death on the radio, being terribly upset and not being able to get over it for ages. But when I asked him about this particular source, or rather source-of-a-source of inspiration, he categorically and credibly denied it.
“I don’t know why you’re called Patryk, but definitely not after Lumumba. Ask your mother, it was her idea, her fancy.”
“I liked the name Patryk and that’s all there is to it,” said my mother coldly, putting an end to my pestering without a trace of emotion. “It was 1976, I was 23, life was beautiful, the world was beautiful, I gave birth to a beautiful child and I wanted him to have a beautiful name. That’s all. I chose Patryk, because I liked it best. I liked the name Patryk, end of story.”
I liked the name Patryk too, but I liked the name Pius even more. The brilliance of the name chosen by the earliest of the popes I’d heard of – of course I mean the ones I’d heard of in those days; nowadays I’ve got the history of the papacy, especially the biographies of all twelve Piuses at my fingertips  but in those days, in the early eighties, the brilliance of the name of the primaeval Polish pope made such an impression on me that I firmly resolved, “as soon as I become pope I’ll choose an even more brilliant name for myself”.
“What are you going to be when you grow up, Patryk?” the adults used to ask me. Especially Granddad Wojewoda, when he’d got himself well tanked up, liked to ask me that: “What are you going to be when you grow up, Patryk?”
“The Pope,” I’d invariably answer, and my reply was invariably met by gales of laughter.
“My little Holy Father!” Granddad Jan Nepomucen would roar at the top of his voice, snatching me up in his arms, and for a good long while he was sincerely delighted. “O Patryk! Saint Peter’s successor!” he’d cry, lifting me as high as he could and throwing me up at the ceiling. “Patryk! Bishop of Rome! Patryk! Head of the Church!”
With each successive throw his enthusiastic smile would gradually fade away and an odd note of wilfulness would appear in his triumphant shouts as he hurled me up more and more furiously.
“No! No! Patryk, a thousand times no!” By now the lunatic was flinging me up time and again, and the terrified women were running to my rescue. “You’re not going to be Pope, Patryk!” Luckily Granddad was losing his strength. “You’re not going to be Pope! You’re going to be a lawyer! I won’t let you go to the seminary, I won’t let you study theology, it won’t get you any money! And if you haven’t got any money, God doesn’t love you! Don’t forget that! You can study theology, but if you haven’t got any money you still won’t find any mercy in the eyes of the Lord! Even if you were Pope! Even if you’re made Pope you still won’t get rich! And besides! And besides, in our family, not just in our family, but in our whole area, there’s no tradition of that kind! And the fact that in his time, in his dim distant pre-war youth Karol Wojtyła went skiing in Granatowe Góry once or twice doesn’t mean the next pope has to come from Granatowe Góry, for goodness sake! Patryk! You’re not going to study theology! You’re going to study law! You’re going to study law and finish it, then you’re going to be an excellent lawyer, and as an excellent lawyer you’ll defend our interests professionally! That’ll get you money, and that’ll get us money too! And even if! Even if you succeeded! Even if you disobeyed and became Pope against your family’s wishes, then what? Answer me this: what would happen then? I’m not asking myself, am I? because I know perfectly well what would happen then! You’d never last an hour in the Eternal City, Patryk! You’d miss us all so much you’d die there! So please, please, for once and for all get the papacy out of your head! And don’t forget: if you haven’t got any money, God doesn’t love you! It wasn’t me who thought of that, was it? I didn’t think of it myself, not because I’m too stupid, but because I’m too young! That’s been the basic lesson of the Wojewoda clan for centuries! And by taking a lot of care, and never tiring of it, our great-grandfathers passed it down to our grandfathers, who passed it down to our fathers, who passed it down to us.”
Meanwhile I was flying close to the ceiling, I was growing wings, I was a small, winged, Polish pope and I knew everything there was to know. I had the gift of the Holy Ghost, I could speak in tongues, I even knew Latin. But I couldn’t express what I knew; if I’d been stood up on the kitchen table I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words, though I was full of perfectly formulated arguments and I could hear them very well.
“Can’t you see, Granddad, I’m going to achieve and do far more important things than that? Don’t you realise what opportunities are open to me, what plans, what fields and skies? If you haven’t got any money, God doesn’t love you, you say – but why don’t you consider the fact that in my case that basic lesson of the Wojewoda clan will one day gain a whole new dimension? If you haven’t got any money, God doesn’t love you – perhaps it’ll be the title or the opening line of one of my encyclicals? ‘Domus Deus carentem pecunia non delegit’. What do you say to that? How do you like it? It’s not too bad, is it? I reckon it’s not too bad.”

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones