My Wehrmacht is Janusz Rudnicki’s fifth prose work to date. Only his first book, a collection of short stories, can be defined by genre, as the rest elude categorisation. Rudnicki has devised his own, unusually original form of prose narrative. It most resembles a sort of modern annals, or written variations, a miscellany that includes literary invention, the language of personal record, quotations and paraphrases, comments and impressions. My Wehrmacht was also created from the scraps and images of everyday life, of which the latter (the images) should be taken literally. The book opens with two comprehensive commentaries on two monographs that made a strong impression on Rudnicki. One of them is Brecht’s Women (2002), and the other is The Nazis’ Women (1998). Rudnicki interprets and comments on both these books in an unusually crafty way. In the texts that follow, which this time are very short, he turns to the everyday world around him. The strength of this writing lies in his incredible perceptiveness and extraordinary humour – here literally every trifling detail, the most banal incidents (in the street, in a shop, or in a lift) can spark off an elaborate anecdote, because Rudnicki’s sneering attitude has a deeper, to some extent philosophical meaning. As we read his prose we laugh through our tears and come into contact with areas of our life and world that are absurd, illusory, ambiguous, or characterised by an oddness that we don’t generally notice.
I am on holiday
Waiters. I’m embarrassed by their service. Embarrassed by their work, which involves serving me. Embarrassed by their existence at my every beck and call. The master who’s intimidated by the servant. It’s not that I feel pity for the waiter’s lot, his role surely suits him – it’s not about him, it’s about me. I turn my embarrassed head away as he pours the wine into my glass. The crown witness to his humiliation, which he is completely unaware of. But I can feel it, so humiliated am I by his exaltation of me.
From lunch to the beach. A feeling of nausea sweeps me as I repeat the phrase: having a bathe in the sea. The sea – the shameless existence of its idolatrous waves. People love the sea. But I know it is black and cold, seething full of cold, hideous creatures. I’m not taken in by its greenish hue. That’s just a thin veneer that lures the mobile skeletons of naïve tourists.
Why mobile skeletons? Because I’m a rabid dog, with its collar sticking into its muzzle.
From the beach to the square, and onto a bench.
Bench, I repeat, but I can’t swallow the word. It hangs on my lips like a hapless thread of saliva, too long to be drawn into my mouth, and too short to fall to the ground. The longer I mull the word over, the more remote it is from the object it shadowed.
Why bench? Why not horse, for example? A dead horse, buried underground. A donkey had been at his place. A donkey’s belly. He was on a tram, and the bench he sat on had a seat made of red velvet, and velvet has thousands of tiny bristles sticking up. Dead ones. So what he was sitting on could just as well have been a belly, red as blood and bulging, because the tram ran along the beach - thus the bulging belly of a dead donkey. With him on it, small and short, in thick spectacles.
The bench I’m sitting on stands in front of a tree. The tree exists with a vengeance – there’s just too much of it. The sap keeps rolling upwards, because it has to. There’s a root sticking out of the earth under the bench, naked, scratching at it with black talons, because there’s too much of it.
There’s too much of everything.
The world is like an octopus, existing for no reason, trapped in existence, suffering from an excess of form. Sartre as the shocked discoverer of the world in flagrante, while I’m the disciple in love with his ontological nauseas, sitting in those days on a bench near the secondary school with the same book I’m sitting with today, here and now, on Majorca.
In the square, on a bench, under a tree. Some sort of pine, perhaps, I don’t know. Nature doesn’t particularly interest me today. Trees grow upright from the level ground, that’s all.
The square? I don’t know what it’s called, although I do know that I could caress you gently with its Spanish name, with the seductive veil of fact.
On my left there’s a church, with people coming out and going in. Churches don’t particularly interest me. Buildings, some smaller, some larger, grow upright out of the level ground. On the outside, to intimidate me, there are high walls bedecked with the elongated faces of some characters born under a mournful star.
On my right there’s a swing, with some phone booths behind it. A child is swinging on the swing, and the swing is creaking. People making calls are shouting: “Hello? Hello?”
In front of me, three old men are playing bowls. I’m probably the youngest person on this island. There’s a sort of jubilant festival of old age taking place here, a forest of crutches and walking sticks, patiently supporting the sacks of worn-out bodies. Old age doesn’t particularly interest me today, so why do I have to look at myself in every one of those bodies, crying out to heaven for life?
So there are these three old men in front of me playing bowls. They make a throw, then toddle after what they’ve thrown. One of them has thrown his ball straight onto another one’s foot, so they’re laughing fit to burst, laughing so much they have to sit down on a bench.
Behind me is the sea, which is reaching for my back. The sea doesn’t particularly interest me, though I admit that when a wave comes along while I’m “having a bathe,” I’m as happy as my child.
None of these things interest me individually, to tell the truth. But taken together, the church, the phone booths, the swing, the three old men and their bowls, the tree, the bench and the sea suddenly become, how shall I put it? Intensely compatible? As if some instruments that had previously lain scattered and separate had started playing in a single orchestra. A concert for me and me alone. The swing is squeaking and groaning behind me; the words “Hello? Hello?” are still echoing, as if the people who were there just now are no longer there; the sound of the three old men dies away in a spasm of laughter; waves of believers flow out of and into the church; on my head I have a crown of wood, the crown of the tree. As if the kaleidoscope of the square, motionless until now, had gently twisted, gone ‘click’ and suddenly shown its true face, proving it could afford a small show even for the most jaded of spectators. Sometimes the world falls on my head like an eagle landing on a mouse. And how am I to grasp the mystery of life as I sit here in the very middle of it?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones