Polish religiosity has its own characteristic form – it is most strongly manifested and certainly most deeply felt during pilgrimages, large-scale, festival masses and during papal visits; apparently the Polish Catholic feels at his best in a crowd. Yet the Poles do not go in for much religious meditation, not to mention Bible study. This is reflected in Polish literature, which rarely – except in poetry – takes faith as its theme. So no wonder Marian Pankowski decided to tackle it, a writer who from the start of his creative career has always been ready to take on controversial or tricky themes in an attempt to make his readers do some thinking. This novel, Pilgrims from the Motherland, first appeared in 1985, which was not a good time for thrashing out sensitive issues of religious belief, which was an important element in the social movement that opposed the communist regime, and as a result the book was almost entirely ignored. All the more so as Pankowski depicted the phenomenon (as ever in his work, metaphorically as well as satirically) of “stadium-pilgrimage Polish Catholicism” from three removes. Firstly, from a foreign, European point of view, because the author-narrator’s story (all Pankowski’s books are always plainly autobiographical) is addressed to a Belgian friend to whom he tries to explain what is happening in a strange place called “Cartoflania [Potatonia?] Dolorosa”. Secondly, what is going on in Poland is described by an émigré who actually goes there quite often, but takes a sidelong view of local events. Thirdly and finally, the Poles’ religious passions, as they seek their saints, make their pilgrimages to the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, and listen intently to every word of the Polish Pope, are shown from a lay perspective, from the viewpoint of a man who lost his faith long ago in the Nazi concentration camps. More than twenty years since it was first published Pilgrims from the Motherland is still topical; this is a book that can help Polish readers to understand themselves, and foreigners to gain greater insight into the specifics of the “Polish soul”.
My fellow European, this earth has been standing in the same sunlight as today for over a fortnight now. The weather satellite is broadcasting the sort of pictures that the press loves to depict the day after as a fountain in the park, with a small boy guiding a remote-controlled model ship across its surface.
These photographs come pouring into the newsrooms in a silver stream, and today it’s the fountain, the boy and the ship that are drawing the readers’ attention to the record heatwave. And over here, on a bench facing the blinding sea, oh… this guy has noticed something and is pointing it out to his woman, rapping on his newspaper. Oh, and that lady on the next bench who has no one to show her surprise to, is pointing out that white patch on the European weather map to herself.
Wherever you look, on the promenade, in the cafés, in the hotel lounges, everywhere folks are rapping on their newspapers. And why is that? Because just one single country is not benefiting from the blessings of the August sun: Cartoflania Dolorosa.
Is that steam rising from the river, boiling in the heat? Are those son-of-a-bitch coalmen burning coal in a plot to fill the day with soot and obscure the sunshine with their black practices? Is it a cloud of flour from mills that have got hold of extra parts and got going full blast to make a snowless snowstorm, even though it’s summer?
At last the Paris newsrooms have called their correspondents, and now the telexes are raining down and the front pages are covered in big fat letters saying: Nation of pilgrims on the move
Triumphant procession of the humble
This August on the march
Victory of the meek and mild
The people of God flow like lava
And the details – as reported in the Parisian Paris-Catch:
From villages, small towns, inaccessible mountains and deep valleys millions of pilgrims have set out for the provincial cities. It is their marching feet that are raising the dust, causing darkness in broad daylight, to a point where international flights have been cancelled. The same goes for storks – they are hesitating to take off. You should see how joyfully the pilgrims are choking on this airborne sand – now they know they’re being talked about in the West, they’re shifting their devout feet even more vigorously. Let the world see, they keep repeating. In the coughing of these simple people there’s something that inspires hope. As they swallow the cloud of golden dust they take in draughts of devout song. And while those eyes of theirs are already half closed, their mouths are open wide…
And here are the gates of the provincial city. A guide will run out before our company of pilgrims, hold a loudspeaker up to his sand-flushed face and shout. And in an instant, in their thousands, every pilgrim will reach into his breast pocket for an icon! And they will wave them overhead in their thousands, intoning “Happy Returns!” To whom? We can guess. And ring their bells, enthusiastically.
I’ve only been with this company for three hours, but it’s as if I had known these people for years as, sticky with sweat and dust like them, I enter the city. We are greeted by a diocesan megaphone, and after some words of welcome (Three cheers for modernity!) the Jesuit priest, a sociologist, informs us of the statistics. What do we find? Our company has been walking for thirteen days, covering a distance of 370 kilometres in that time. That’s not all, because – a fact worth stressing and a good omen – our pilgrimage includes 95 per cent young people and only 5 per cent old. In response to the diocesan loudspeaker the young pilgrims burst into thunderous, never-ending applause.
And throughout Europe, dotted with kiosks where illustrated magazines are bleeding, weeping and dripping sweat into coffee and liqueurs, the excitement is growing. There’s a sob of sympathy for those masses of wanderers, with no roof over their heads, who are tramping the length and breadth of Cartoflania, holding their heads up boldly to the heavens that are full of holy martyrs applauding this earthly journey so ardently that their 24-, 18- and 12-carat gold haloes are ringing against each other and resounding.
It is against this very stronghold, against this hill a thousand kilometres away, that I rest my typewriter today, this harpsichord overgrown with the Gestapo’s rap at the door at night, full of human nests woven from barbed wire, covered in drool from the lunar tongue of everything that crawls.
An alarm – and at once the instrument gives way beneath my fingers, house after house bells electrify with the news that there’s a fire, a flood, that our regiment is beating the drums, that the body is the word, saying don’t give in to vermin, send the rust to hell, to the edge of oblivion. And now there’s no longer an alarm, but a climb – now there’s some breakneck mountaineering to place a wrought-iron monogram like an orchid above the ledge of the final cliff, up where the hawk hangs in the balance between the sun and the moon, checking at noon to see if this world is in line.
I enter the city – I, the narrator – and at once the sky has cleared. The streets have recognised me. I turn along the tracks, and take a shortcut down a path through wet grass and nettles – and here I can hear children’s voices full of excitement. Voices, and thumps – the boys are beating and pounding the path. To avoid startling these apparitions I show them a teacherly smile, as if to say: “Now then, my dears, what’s this you’re playing at?”
They have stepped back. A grass snake is lying there, mangled. It has shuddered, and they’ve taken a step backwards. Now they’re staring at their white socks, spattered with that lowly blood, these boys on their way to high mass.
“It almost bit me, sir! Lucky I jumped aside.”
“My golden children,” I say to my brothers in the murder of birds, reptiles, fishes and butterflies, “it’s not poisonous… it’s protected… it can swim well… it must have been on its way back from the meadow to the stream. Well, all right… say a prayer for it. Perhaps may God grant it to heal up again.”
And as they stare at me, a smile appears on their faces, because the man from the television is telling them jolly jokes.
So with the hand of not exactly a conductor and not exactly a preacher, I make a sign telling them to go and granting them a sort of absolution. And once they have disappeared behind the railway embankment, I slowly pick up the remains of the snake. “Lift it higher,” I say, “overhead.”
Who will come to claim it? Who will take care of the soul of Saint Stephen, patron saint of reptiles tortured, tormented, stoned and prodded for having… you can guess what for.
And as on earth and in heaven there’s a void and none of the family dares come forward for the body, I lay it here, under this elder growing beyond the road. Every time I come this way, I’ll think: “That’s the elder where the poor thing lies.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones