Fifth Point of the Compass, The

Kazimierz Kutz
Fifth Point of the Compass, The
  • Znak
    Kraków 2010
    140x205
    260 pages
    hardcover
    ISBN: 978-83-240-1311-1
    Translation rights: Znak

Kazimierz Kutz is a man of many talents and interests. Until now he has been most acclaimed for his film-making, but lately he has been making a name for himself as an extremely interesting writer. His first novel is set in Silesia, which is no surprise, as he was born in that region and its problems have always been close to his heart. Without much of a stretch, the book can be regarded as a disguised autobiography, because the narrator – one of the Basista brothers – and the main characters are, like the author, people born at the end of the 1920s in Szopienice.
As the result of a serious accident, Basista suffers paralysis and comes home to his mother in Silesia. He also finds out that two of his close friends have committed suicide. These events prompt him to make a journey into the past. He painstakingly recreates the story of his own life, and of the friends and acquaintances who during the war jointly created something like a self-education group, as he tries to investigate why their fortunes have turned out one way rather than another, and to understand the meaning of the choices they have made. In the novel’s meandering narrative full of digressions three main themes stand out: stories about the lives of the narrator and his close friends, anecdotal tales full of local colour about life in Silesia that go way back into the nineteenth century, and thoughts about the history of Silesia and what it is to be a Silesian. Kutz moves elegantly from biographical details that show the multitude of types and life strategies among his compatriots to generalisations that encapsulate their experiences. And he comes to some sad conclusions. In Kutz’s view Silesia is the “fifth point of the compass” of the title, a place that both exists, and at the same time does not. During the past hundred plus years this region has functioned within the sphere of all sorts of state bodies, without ever being fully colonised, but without ever gaining any sort of autonomy either. Time and time again, Silesia’s terrain has been ploughed up by “history unleashed”, complicating the fates of the Silesians. "The Fifth Point of the Compass" is inter alia about how difficult it is to be a Silesian. However, it is not just a veritable mine of knowledge on Silesia, but a universal story about struggling to cope with being different.

Robert Ostaszewski

Kazimierz Kutz (born 1929) is a well-known film director, screenwriter, essayist, publicist and politician. The Fifth Point of the Compass is his literary debut.

Excerpt

Lucjan and Alojz – what fine people! It was plain to see neither of them had the skills I had learned with age. But my toughening up to life came from my nomadic work. I am an ant adapted to living in a dog kennel. I was helped by my ignorance, because sometimes it pays to know less. Sometimes stupider people are happier – they don’t notice things because they don’t know about them.
In terms of class I was in the middle: Lucjan was a doctor, Alojz was a worker and I was just a technician. But they were both intellectuals, not in the general sense, not by reason of education or the professions they followed, but by way of life and interests. They lived an intense inner life, not too common round here. By their own effort they had moulded themselves into idealists and, to my mind, as a result they had difficulties in communicating with their own environment. They were incapable of tying their fortunes in with the lives of their brothers, colleagues, parents and grandparents. The world had ceased to agree with them. Though I am not sure if that was really the case. I wasn’t here for twenty years, so I do not want to make judgements.
Maybe their heads had gone too far into the clouds and distanced them from their own nation? Maybe they had started to think independently too early, and as a result they had got stuck in a spiritual grind with no way out? After that maybe they were unable to turn off their chosen path, and the resulting individuality they had worked hard to achieve became a source of complications? Who knows? They suppressed everything inside themselves until it came to a head, in other words a crisis, and then all it took was a light breeze or a child’s finger to topple them. ...
The example of Albin Lompa eloquently proves that old Lompa should never have asked himself his own question. How many educated heads had chewed over his question but never managed to come up with an answer? For there are questions that have no answers, but they can always be asked. Lompa was, as I see it, a poet manqué, except that he hadn’t found the right term to describe himself. He hadn’t discovered the paint brush like his friend Ociepka, who was tormented by a similar question. The written word was beyond Lompa’s range; he spoke German, because he had been forced to go to a German school for eight years, but for everyday purposes he used the local dialect, and that was enough for him. Whenever he peeped into a Polish book, for the main part he was unable to work out what it was about. All he had left was his own spoken word. Who knows if he’d have been understood if he’d ever gone to Poland with it? I had that experience for myself.
Ociepka had an advantage over him, because instead of relying on earthworms, he relied on dwarfs and fairies. In carbon fossils he had espied the impressions of antediluvian forests and creatures, conjured up all manner of reptiles in his imagination, reached for his brushes and started painting his pagan fantasies. Thanks to this he was able to ward off obsession. He spat out his metaphysical question in the pictures, to his own credit and to the benefit of others. Both of them, Lompa and Ociepka, were haunted people. Their fantasising revealed the beauty of their hyperawareness, in other words the extras residing in each man’s noddle. They were innate philosophers: fine ones, because they were free and drained of the sea of parish mediocrity.
With Lucjan and Alojz it was totally different. In the case of my deceased friends we are dealing with people who thought with care, from the first class at primary school, from the first book read in Polish. They entered the world of the written word in Polish, were inculcated with it and had cultivated their own “self” – or something of the kind – that ceased to fit within the lining of their brains, within the anguish of the present day, because it was part of their ill-fitting flesh.
At the point where spirit and flesh came into contact, a tension arose that they had ceased to control. They did not know how to comprehend it. It was as if they had nailed themselves up from the inside and become exiles among their own kind, despite being liked – positively adored by their environment. They did not cut themselves off from people on an everyday basis, which was in any case not possible, because Lucjan was a doctor and Alojz a worker, as I have already said, but mention again here, so there can be no lack of clarity about whom we are dealing with.
Their situation was not the same as the one described in so many books, where if the hero has a wife, she has cancer, and thanks to these or other trials he ends up in the nick, and then the cancer and the nick mesmerise the reader, because here’s this, and there’s that, everyone’s poor, and then bits of life go by: cancer operations and interrogations by the secret police, or something of the kind, and what’s left in the person is a bloody delusion, the hallucination that lies between cancer and the nick. And nothing happens! The heart doesn’t even miss a beat. As everyone knows, man’s greatest tendency is to yield easily to others, and it comes from the goodness of one’s heart. And from selflessness, which lies within each person in a thin layer, like a seam of diamonds deep underground in South Africa. My writing might be different, because it will be holding onto a Silesian banister.
We people in Szopienice, Roździeń and hereabouts come into the world anchored in a tough grind: in steelworks and mines at the point where Germany and Poland meet, within the culture of both this and that side. Lucjan and Alojz carried this stigma inside them, but in contrast to their fathers and mothers, who were educated at German Volksschule, they were the first generation for centuries to get a taste of Polish schooling, Polish history and culture. Before they had got as far as the final year, the war broke out and everything fell back into the same old rut. Soon after German army life swept them away.
Once again the soup was made out of our bones. As the Germans conquered the world, we were made to slog our guts out and were conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Our labour and our lives were the cheapest goods in the Reich. For it has to be understood that Upper Silesia is like a steep downcast between two steep mountains. We were always at the bottom of the abyss. Lucjan and Alojz tried their best to battle their way upwards unaided. We’ve had so much of it that they wilfully left this world. They’re not here any more.
Our geographical position condemned the local people to efforts beyond measure. We became a German colony. Working for yourself always bore little fruit. And that is still the case today. Our labour was always Sisyphean, in other words it never bore fruit. But Sisyphus was thrown into that abyss as a punishment. Why on earth were we?

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones