The action of Quill Feathers is set in the countryside in the early 1950s, but the main story is framed by a present-day time-scale, in which the father of an acclaimed writer lies dying. The father is a simple, illiterate peasant; moved by the old man’s demise, the son decides to tell the tale of his stormy life, as if in his name, as his deputy. The story begins at the point when the authorities launch a campaign against illiteracy. The main character is a small boy at the time; his father is an indigent peasant, thief and troublemaker, who smashes up the school house and destroys the blackboard used to teach the alphabet. He is branded “an enemy of the people” and sent to a secret police prison. Since time immemorial rural society has held the attitude that it is better to be illiterate (“everyone knew it was better not to write – to be sure not to sign something stupid one day”). But there is also a superstition alive and well in the village which says the written word is capable of moving mountains. At his mother’s insistence the boy, who can barely form letters, writes lopsided messages to the authorities, asking for
his father’s release. When the old Dog (we only learn the father’s real name on the penultimate page) comes home a few years later, the son is convinced that his written intervention was the deciding factor.
The major events and motifs in Quill Feathers have a symbolic dimension. In a folder belonging to the father who has just back from prison, there are two objects: a pair of glasses and a newspaper cutting containing a socialist-realist story. The boy puts on the glasses – the symbol of an intellectual – and immediately gains visual acuity. As soon as he has read the socialist-realist story he decides to become a writer. Word by word, he will copy out the text he has found in the newspaper and send it out into the world. But the most important symbolic object in the book is a fountain pen which his father deliberately steals from an office for the would-be writer (who for now is still a little boy at his first school). At a future date, when the young Dog is at high school, the secret policeman recruiting him as an informer tells him to write the truth with the stolen pen. And so it turns out the central character has written not just elegant prose, linguistically as fancy as the quill feathers of the title, but he has also written shameful denunciations as an informer for the secret police. Marian Pilot’s novel is about the power and the curse of the written word, about faith in words and the consequences of being intoxicated by that faith.
- Dariusz Nowacki
Why did the father head along the main road up the hill towards Pogwizdów, the court wanted to know. Surely it’s better for a lame man to shuffle down a hill than to scramble up one? From the father’s statements it emerged that he’d headed for Pogwizdów because he meant to climb a windmill with the blackboard he’d pinched from the school. Why on earth would a lame man climb up a windmill? What did he want to do up there? What did he need the school blackboard for up a windmill? The prosecutor ranted away and shook his fist. The father spouted whatever came into his head. He was going to jump down from the windmill with the blackboard. Jump down from the windmill? To kill himself? Commit suicide? No, he had no intention of killing himself, he said in denial. I wanted to wing it down from there! Wing it down? asked the court. In other words the defendant wanted to fly? On a school blackboard? (The court did not believe it.) The father said nothing, so the judge boomed at him: Well? Well? The father ummed and erred. Then the prosecutor asked if the father had wanted to disseminate enemy propaganda from the windmill. The father said no, he hadn’t.
Those were long-ago, poor and quiet times. The father strode down the middle of the highway – it was still gravel-topped in those days – because the cows weren’t on their way back from pasture yet, the market in Ostrzeszów was only due to be held the next day, on Thursday, so there weren’t any carts on the road (no one drove a car yet then, just the authorities rarely), and not even the most sluggish old biddies had set off for the October service yet, so the father carried himself and his blackboard the width of the entire roadway, from one ditch to the other. The whole way up the hill towards Pogwizdów, he kept up his merry mood, like the best man or the toastmaster whose duty it is to shout, lead the singing and turn somersets just to put the wedding fraternity in a jolly mood, to make them feel elated and merry. He was all on his own (said the witnesses), but he was making merry for ten, as if he were proper tipsy or had eaten on the insane root. He was alone, but he had the blackboard at his side, and was rejoicing along with it, tossing it in the air – spinning, twirling and whirling, the blackboard went soaring, then bucked and reared in mid air as it fell. Never to the ground – the father made sure of that; hobbling nimbly, he ran up and caught the board in his outspread arms. Shouting lustily (what had he been so very pleased about, the court asked him; because never before had he succeeded in pinching something like that, the shameless thief confided in the judges), he waved the blackboard about like a banner. Then he placed it on his head again and gambolled all down the highway trying to find his balance – now jumping up, now squatting down, twisting his neck, then instantly racing in pursuit of the board as it kept slipping off his cranium. Zig-zagging, circling, almost overturning and almost spraining a foot, as doggedly as ever the father kept aiming for the windmill on the hill. He only ceased his frolicking at the sight of the pauper Józek Chlewus, who was turning his cart full of potatoes, harnessed to his two thin cows Ruby and Bessie, off the Korpysy road and onto the Mikstat. It seemed the father had been watching out for Józek Chlewus all the time, and not the windmill (so it now appeared), and was looking for this Józek and his cows. And now he removed the blackboard from his head and used it to bow low to the cowman. And it’s a good thing the father happened upon the pauper’s cows in harness, for horses would have shied at the sight of that big blackboard and bolted, while the cows just tossed their heads and raised their tails; before they could run amok, Józek Chlewus managed to bar their way, grab hold of the shaft, brace it, slow the cart and avert a misfortune. From his post he rounded on the father: “You’ll startle my bairns!” The father began to laugh in reply and, balancing the board on the splayed fingers of one hand, just as a waiter holds a tray full of plates, with the other he seized hold of a cart post, jumped up and sat himself on the cart, laying the board next to him on a heap of taters. By this means once again driving the court into total dismay and confusion; in no way could it understand why somebody who is flamboyantly striding up the highway towards a windmill standing on a hill should jump without a second thought onto an ox cart which is rolling down that road – in completely the opposite direction! Józek Chlewus fell victim to the suspicions of the prosecutor, who flatly refused to believe he wasn’t in league with the blackboard pilferer; he began to spit blood on hearing that in the course of the drive, the pilferer sitting on the cart did not exchange a single word with the man driving the team. That prosecutor foamed, dribbled and frothed, fulminating, demanding divine retribution and revolutionary class justice in one fell swoop, and calling for the support of a firing squad in his struggle against vile reaction in the person of the crude liar and perjurer, Chlewus. To his good or bad fortune, the wretched, hounded, terrified Józek Chlewus was incapable of stammering anything but the truth, and the truth was that at the time, with his shoulder glued to a cart post, Józek had been trying with all his might to stop his beggarly cart as it rolled down the hill faster and faster, rattling and rumbling dreadfully; meanwhile he was also tugging at the chain tied to the horns of Bessie, the leading cow, doing his best to rein her in, for the animals were racing ahead like crazy.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones