This book can be read in two ways. The first, as the author intended, involves plunging into a nostalgic account of literary and social life in post-war Poland in the period from 1956 to 1989.
Thanks to Nowakowski’s incredible memory we get to know dozens of people – writers, painters, graphic designers and editors – who either produced or contributed to producing literature. Nowakowski’s idea involves sorting the large crowd of characters who flood his pages according to the places where they used to meet. And so he takes us on a tour of Warsaw as it used to be, dropping in at restaurants, hotels and editorial offices to meet the people there. Each of the characters is established in a particular place and is given the floor for a while. Short scenes recollect conversations, the names of various alcoholic drinks, café-bars and their atmosphere. Yet each of these memories carries a nostalgic, obituary-style summing up: “The old Hotel Bristol is no longer there”; “the Caracas café ceased to exist, and the aroma of roast coffee has evaporated, never to return”; or “Those people are no longer alive. Not a single one.”
Thus this is one of Nowakowski’s saddest books. As he intended, the sadness is meant to arise from the simple observation that once upon a time literary Warsaw was buzzing with life, but now, since all those people have died and all those cafés have gone, the city has changed into a necropolis.
However, we could also read it in exactly the opposite light, and then a different graveyard story appears before our eyes, not about the present day, but about the past. From the narrative the ghastly reality of Poland’s cadaverous literary life emerges: in the 1960s and 70s the writers meet in café-bars and restaurants, have heated arguments, drink vodka, move to another bar, have more heated arguments, drink more vodka… They are neither alive nor dead. Their semi-corpselike state arises from the fact that they seek proof of their own vitality in a semblance of literary life, through meetings in cafés, through the material success offered by the state in exchange for literary servility, and through the occasional short story printed in a literary journal read by their own colleagues at the café. It’s a closed circle of zombies taking part in the slow dance of literary life that the communist state provided for its writers, and that they made up for themselves. The only ones to escape from this graveyard routine were the ones who sought confirmation of their vitality in their work.
I’m in the square in front of the Wielki Theatre. The false-fronted town hall wasn’t there yet then, nor were the bank buildings, with the small church cowering between them, where Father Niewęgłowski gathers and converts creative souls. Nor was the glazed bunker over there on the other side of the Wielki Theatre, the work of world-famous architect John Forster. The surrounding area has changed. But however often I cross the square my memory immediately changes the scenery, just like at the theatre, and another stage set appears.
In those days, from Senatorska Street towards the Saxon Gardens, there were only two restaurants here. Now there’s a whole string of them – the Peking, the Chinese Palace, El Popo, Rhubarb and Barbados. Then there were only two. One was near Niecała Street. It was small, with a wood-panelled interior; the premises of the Warsaw Gastronomic Enterprise, towards the end of the Gierek reign it was a so-called franchise, with two big fat women, the classic buffet ladies of those years, behind the counter. There was vodka and quite a large selection of dishes: herrings, stroganoff, tripe, and beans Breton style. Those beans! No one could truly say where the name of the dish came from. It consisted of beans, best of all butter beans, with bits of sausage and bacon in a thick sauce, pepped up with tomato paste. Allegedly this putty-like substance was derived from French cuisine, much to the surprise of the French. But it went down particularly well in winter with some plain vodka. I often used to come here with Leszek Dunin.
He was a taciturn individual. An aristocrat from an ancient clan, a cavalry officer from 1939, Home Army and Freedom & Independence warrior, he had spent at least five years in prison after the war. He was an architect who built churches and was one of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński’s favourite people. He was always happy to trot out the Primate’s impressions of his pastoral tours: the whole of Poland, from mountains to sea, was one great big prison block. Everywhere, even in the most picturesque places, there were grey concrete boxes, of greater or lesser size. All that was missing were the barbed wire and the watchtowers. That’s what the Primate said. For his own part, Leszek Dunin called the communist period the Boeotian era. In his view, the Boeotians were the most limited, dull-witted nation in ancient Greece, equivalent to the barbarians, Vandals, Longobards and Visigoths. Leszek’s stories about illegal church-building were like the screenplays for thrillers, including nocturnal picketing by the parishioners, raids by the militia and security police, the demolition of provisional chapels and their re-erection by uncompromising believers. Mr Dunin was a tall, well-built man with the head of a Roman patrician, a prominent, aquiline nose and intensely blue eyes. In appearance and manner he stood out from the colourless crowd on the streets of Warsaw. With his Basque beret worn fancifully low and his inseparable pipe between his teeth, he walked slowly and heavily, shuffling his feet along the ground – this was an after-effect of the solitary cells at Rawicz, where he had been kept many times up to his knees in ice-cold water, with the windows open in winter. He was endlessly contracting recurrent leg ailments, but he had a tough character and used to state with gallows humour that this affliction never let him forget the loss of independence.
Leszek liked a drop of the hard stuff, and we often met in this small, dark bar, fitted with brown wood panelling. He sometimes came with an entourage of craftsmen who often took part in the construction of churches free of charge. He was the heart and soul of the company, recited our great bards superbly, belted out bawdy regimental ditties, was an ardent collector of Warsaw historical memorabilia and an expert on antiquarian books. There remains in my memory his tale of the cavalry charge of September 1939 when he captured a German Lieutenant-Colonel, the division treasurer. I remember his dialogue with the prisoner, a graduate of Heidelberg University, with a student fraternity duelling scar on his cheek. They tried to outdo each other in reciting Goethe. Maybe he was a bit of a fantasist? …..
Sometimes our path took us from there to other drinking dens. I visited Mr Dunin several times at his home in Konstancin, a small, tumbledown cottage with a wooden veranda around a garden that had gone wild. He occupied the ground floor. It was full of old books, knick-knacks, furniture and portraits – souvenirs of a former life. We sat down at table with his wife, who was the daughter of Galiński, famous before the war as the owner of a café on Three Crosses Square, and their three children. Adam Mauersberger, head of the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in the Old Town, also took part in our gatherings – he was an original, the friend of artists from the inter-war period, a historian and assistant to Marcel Handelsman at the university. He was portrayed by Gombrowicz using his real name as a character in an unfinished play, and – as the last survivors of that circle used to relate – some of the absurd sayings in Ferdydurke were written by Adam, whose close friends called him Małż – meaning “Mollusc”.
Both tireless raconteurs, Leszek and Adam held sway at table. Adam used to resurrect the ancient beauties of Warsaw; Diana Eiger, mother of the poet Stefan Napierski, the wife of Wojciech Stpiczyński, a journalist who was a close friend of Marshal Piłsudski, Carlotta Bologna and the daughter of Rabbi Schorr. Leszek would explain about his ancestors – cupbearers, royal army commanders and castellans. He was no blind apologist for the past, but presented it in all its complexity. Once a famous doctor from Pawiak was with us at table, who had taken part in a Home Army conspiracy at the prison. She had known Leszek since the German occupation. At one point, she looked at him and said with emotion: “How beautiful you boys were then!” It sounded like a requiem for the tragic, wartime generation of Poles.
I stare into the dark windows of the former restaurant. After 1990 it closed, and the Prado bar opened here, with a plaster lion at the entrance; now the interior is completely lifeless and bare – a small card on the door announces that the bar is closed until further notice. As I look inside I see the same old café-bar with its wood panels, and the same old regulars sitting at the wooden tables, Leszek Dunin chief among them.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones