Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s new book is set in the minor prisons of everyday life: a once German town with no name, a housing block and a private mansion. Children at the start of the stories, but adults by the end, most of the main characters in this book remain nameless, while their personal stories, marked by the stigma of their family, gain a universal character as they talk, openly or between the lines, about problems to do with entering the adult world and encountering new areas of awareness. Significantly, the way they are initiated into adulthood is determined by the place where they grow up (the Polish-German melting pot) and the historical era (under communism, against which the small boys fight their own personal wars).
In a fairly critical way Klimko-Dobrzaniecki records some expressions of the Polish mentality, including individual and group phobias. At the same time, by creating some very young characters he tries to capture the moments when a person becomes aware of his own psychological, intellectual and sexual identity. In his writing, gaining experience and attempting to understand the world occur through the body. He focuses on the poetic qualities of episodes as he develops his miniature narratives about what is involved in gaining maturity. They are told in the first person, by a punk, a gay, and a skinhead trying to find his place on earth. The written thoughts and voices of the narrators create a polyphonic effect. Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s prose is to a large extent “live” speech, an engaging combination of the speakers’ innocence and the sharpness of their emotional judgements. It is unsettling, entertaining and moving.
The stories in "One, Two, Three" offer an intriguing take on the question of “Polish normality” and an interesting formal approach to getting away from the typical structure of the novel. Using time inversion and confining the tales to the limits of mini short stories create the effect of confusing the book’s essential issues: “beginning and end”, “end and beginning”. Apparently conscious of them is the unreal figure of a man with a bird on his shoulder, who may represent death…
- Tomasz Charnas
The presbytery is growing. I am growing. The city is growing. All around everything is growing. But even so we are prisoners of this town. Chained to the warm windowsill, Zielińska is a prisoner. She must be afraid that if she left, she’d never find another windowsill like it, another street like this one, views like these or gentlemen like the ones who come to see her. And what about my mum? She’s imprisoned too, and now she’s earning an ideology on top of the sentence she imposed on herself years ago. People are afraid, they fear change and that’s how they explain habit, as if that’s how it has to be, as if they’ll never have it better. Plain old self-deception. If it’s so good and will never be better, why the tears, why the tears of sorrow and bitterness, why the aggression? After all, she seemed to want me, even the way she put herself out means she wanted me, and if she did, she was thinking about happiness, that is, about me, I was meant to be her happiness, it was meant to be good, even without a father. Why is my life a nightmare, why does she get angry and into a rage, why did she want to teach me by force to be honest, and why am I supposed to hate men for all that? Something is germinating inside me. I don’t yet know what, a sort of anxiety, an evil, I keep on gathering it. How many years will I go on collecting other people’s guilt? Do I have a right to my own self, to be me? Or maybe I am someone completely different, maybe the person I am is not a boy, maybe it’s not me that’s told off by the PE teacher, maybe it’s not me they laugh at in the cloakroom after lessons. Where am I, who am I, who? Who will answer that question for me, where do I start, and where do I finish, where will I finish and how will I finish…?
I went to the presbytery, the new presbytery. It’s in an unfinished state. The priest is still whining for money. This time for flooring, tiles, maybe gold taps, I don’t know. It’s always too little for him. In the evenings boys, altar boys sit in the new presbytery, as if to guard it. No one’s going to take the walls away. There’s nothing there at all, not even a door or windows. Just a red brick pattern interrupting shades of grey. The priest is building the place out of bricks. Everyone says brick is brick, it outlives everything, and certainly concrete slabs. It’s going to be a proper house in the old style, a house for all of us, us and our children, and our grandchildren, maybe our great-grandchildren, that’s what the priest says. The priest believes we and the town will last for ever and ever amen.
Three altar boys were sitting against one of the walls – I knew them by sight. We went to the same school, and sometimes we used to play a match against their class, but I just watched and at most handed back the ball. The substitute, always the substitute, that stuck, clung to me and couldn’t get unstuck for all the years of primary school. As long as I don’t become a substitute in life… They were smoking cigarettes. When they saw me they stood up. One of them shouted: “Hey, Szydełko, want a smoke? Come over here, come on, don’t be afraid.” “I don’t smoke, thanks though,” I replied. They winked at each other knowingly. “He doesn’t smoke,” one of them repeated. “Give it to him, he’s a sneak, he’s a poof.” They grabbed me and twisted my arms. “Take down his trousers. Take down his trousers, let’s check if he’s got a cock, let’s see, he’s a poof, isn’t he? a fucking poof, everyone at school says so.” A freckled redhead took a handkerchief out of his pocket, stuffed it into my mouth and gagged me. They took off my trousers and pants. “Check if it flutters, check if it’s real, put a bit of paper near it and set it alight, let’s see it letting off smoke,” said Ginger. I tried to break free, but they were holding me tight. They wrapped my dick in a bit of torn newspaper and set it on fire, then waited a while. When I started to howl with pain and tears rolled down my cheeks, they laughed and let me go, shouting: “Put it out, put it out quick or it’ll burn up, you poof.”
I never told anyone what happened at the new presbytery. Mum had sent me to get some pansies because she wanted to decorate our windowsill, offer some competition for Zielińska’s tits. The gardener sold me twelve of them, and then added, as he probably tried it on with everyone who had got flowers from him lately, that his bitch had had puppies and he didn’t know what to do with the little ones. He didn’t want to drown them, so he’d be giving the puppies away for free. The bitch was big, a real Podhale sheepdog. At once I thought about myself, I thought I should take a puppy, bring it up and train it. With a dog like that you could walk about safely everywhere, feel safe, no one would touch you, and if they did attack you, you could set it on them. Without asking permission, next day I went to the gardener and got a small, fat white doggy. It was a boy, a dog. I called him Fluff. And when Mum saw him, she went crazy and wanted to throw him out at once. No animals, she shouted, no dogs, cats or anything else, there’s no room in this house for a zoo, but after a while she eased off when little Fluff rolled up to her feet and started licking them. I think he won her over. Seeing her weakness, I started praising his qualities. He’ll be a good dog, he’ll guard the flat, he won’t let anyone harm us. Then I started to lie, insuring myself against questions that might destroy the temporary idyll. I told Mum he’d be a little dog, the indoor kind, and that he wouldn’t grow any bigger, that he was a Lucerne hunter, that was the breed. A little dog, I went on, and cheap to keep, he eats very little, almost nothing, we won’t have to spend money on him, it’s a joy to have a dog like that. She agreed. I was the happiest boy on earth. My happiness lasted for a few days. Happiness changed into a nightmare, a nightmare lined with terror, because when Mum found out from the neighbours that it was a Podhale sheepdog puppy and that in a couple of weeks we’d have to give him several buckets of food and he’d grow to be a giant that would never fit in our flat, she took him away on the quiet, she never said where, or who she gave him to, and I was alone again, and once again there was no one to defend me, and we were back at square one.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones