Mariusz Sieniewicz has already made a name for himself as a writer gifted with an original and unfettered imagination, maybe the only novelist of the younger generation (apart from Jacek Dukaj) capable of creating entirely new worlds in his books. But in his latest novel, "The Rebellion", he has surpassed himself. He has come up with a peculiar anti-utopia where the fears and problems of the modern world are depicted in an exaggerated form. He describes the “Civilisation of the Great Toddler”, where thanks to the terror of youth, health and beauty, old people are persecuted and excluded. Most of the action takes place on an imaginary “old folk’s island”, where old men being supervised by unisex “goy-birls” (the island operates a bit like a labour camp) have to mummify the corpses of beautiful young people who are to end up in a mausoleum celebrating youth. But the reign of rampant youth is not irrevocable – the desperate old men plan a “geriatric revolution” headed by Błażej Kolumb, who is partly the Saviour of the old and partly someone like Neo out of "The Matrix" (Sieniewicz uses a mixture of references to all sorts of different cultural sources)… This is not the first time Sieniewicz has taken up the issue of the exclusion and marginalisation of entire social groups, and he has also proved before now that it is possible to write about such things in a very different language from the usual style of ideological propaganda. As he writes about an old men’s rebellion, there is also a rebellion going on in the language he uses, where lots of different kinds of language come together, including clichés from modern speech alongside poetic metaphors full of symbolism. Almost every sentence of "The Rebellion" gives the reader some linguistic fun. If Witkacy were still alive, I’m sure he’d write like Sieniewicz!
The gigantic building looked like a neo-Renaissance temple carved into a cosmic meteorite. The galactic ore was certainly the best domicile for the sacred thing that lived there. The stone wall was broken up by elongated stained glass windows and the patterned cupola, overgrown here and there in moss and visible from every corner of the island, looked like the armour of a futuristic tortoise. From the upper part of the façade glared the gigantic eye of a mandala. Below it ran an anonymous inscription reading: YOUTH IS ETERNAL ETERNITY ANEW – NO ONE SHALL EVER FORGET IT, AND EVERYONE SHALL KEEP THE FAITH.
Cast-iron gates led inside, with a footbridge cast across three small stone steps, in front of which the trail of platforms ended. Kaktus looked left, then right, pulled on the door handle set high above his head and whispered: “Come and help me, Błażej, for crying out loud! You should be higher up if you’re on a higher rung.”
“Got a ladder complex, have you?” said Kolumb in revenge.
They pushed. The gates let out a dreadful creak. Brrr… it was just horrible! They were enveloped in icy cold, much worse than in the youthery. All that was missing was a wolf to start howling from over by the fungal graveyard and the shadow of a hand holding a knife to flash across the walls. Kolumb was regretting his curiosity. He could hear organ music. Someone was playing, but the purity and fluency left much to be desired. The sounds kept breaking off, they were flat, cacophonous and irregular. It would be truer to say that someone was only just learning the mysteries of notes, octaves and keys, and failing to find the right key to this most inaccessible of arts.
“Calm down. It’s the Great Toddler murdering Bach on the keyboard. The St Matthew Passion,” Kaktus was quick with the answer as they went inside the temple, which was drowning in fluorescent light. “Don’t be afraid of a thing. He can’t hear anything except his own playing and he can’t see anything. Sometimes I suspect him of being deaf and blind. Fascist narcissist!”
But Kolumb’s face was already providing proof of the theory popular among the philosophers that only the ability to express surprise distinguishes thinking from unthinking minds. His jaw had dropped like a creature aware of his own meagre status, before whom “something” has arisen that is not on a human scale or that surpasses human understanding… Just imagine all at once waxworks displays from the world over, then imagine nothing at all. Mentally embrace all the possible stores and wardrobes on earth with innumerable puppets, dolls and mannequins, then get your mind round nothing but the dust of your own thoughts. Gather into one place by sheer willpower all the secret laboratories where, according to the models of advanced science, a modern homunculus is being cultivated, then have the willpower of a jellyfish.
Because there, on pedestals and platforms, on podiums and plinths, with rods stuck into their crotches, stood mummified bodies. An endless legion of them, young and naked, joined in couples or contemplating monads on their own.
“We’ve collected all that’s best in the history of the past hundred gardens and in present times,” declared Kaktus, emitting a dense cloud of steam. “Of course it’s the best version according to the Great Toddler and the little laddies. If any of it depended on me I’d have immortalised completely different ones,” he advised. “Take a look around if you like. Though the museum isn’t finished and it’s just being planned for future generations.”
Kolumb felt a bit intimidated, because how could you not feel intimidated with the most excellent exhibits from the past staring down at you from their pedestals, which if not for Kolumb’s fading memory, could stand as a record of his own past. The dancer Huanita Loslobos made him feel bolder – she was standing there as if someone had cast a spell on her in the middle of a waltz. Vorobyov had come out of it well, he reckoned, and moved onwards. Counting from the door, the first human idols seemed to him quite trivial, unremarkable, and not even the labels said much. There was a “Max Coldwey. DJ. US” holding a gramophone record, an “Otto Schmidt. Designer. D” with his head up, then a “James Peadlow. Snowboarder. GB”, holding a crooked board under his arm. But the further he plunged into the world of mummified bodies, heads and hands, frozen in the most fanciful poses, the more his curiosity and wonder grew and the Pantheon of Immortals seemed to have no end. First he glanced at the label to find out with whom he had the pleasure, then he admired the expert craft of the Youth Workers. All the mummies shone with brilliantly finished skin, a breathtaking play of the muscles, and perfect proportion between the limbs and the torso. With no flaws or wrinkles, the bodies had an alluringly polished smoothness. The oldest ones were no more than thirty gardens in age. The past hundred gardens, though not yet over, must have been an impossibly rich era for youth.
Oh, who was that boy with the body of Apollo the colour of milk chocolate and those playful tassels instead of hair? The label explained that he was “Bob Marley. Musician”. He was holding a guitar, which made Kolumb think of the words of an old song: the boy with the guitar, he’d have been my star, tra la la la… After him there was a mummy with disarmingly large eyes – “Kurt Cobain. Musician”. And that blonde woman, painted in gold and pink, she must be Miss Mausoleum – “Barbara Handler. Barbie”. Next to her, holding his slender hands towards her was “Ken Handler. Ken”. What a strange profession to be a “Barbie” or a “Ken”. “Louis Lassem. Great restaurateur” was holding up a sesame roll like the host. With a book in one hand and a rifle in the other there stood “Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. Soldier-poet”. Then at once, as if for variety, came three figures holding bottles of vodka and drinking to each other in turn: “Jim Morrison. Musician-poet”, “Rafał Wojaczek. Poet” and “James Dean. Actor”. Kolumb must have wandered into the vagrants and artists’ section, because here the youthful heads of “Jack Kerouac. Writer” and another versifier, “Allen Ginsberg”, were turning their silent look of superiority on him. Apart from bottles, the mummies were holding cigarettes, and wore grimaces as if they had a bad taste in their mouths, which only added to their tragic macho charm. The figure of “Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński” did not really fit in this “unathletic” company.
Kolumb pushed his way past the charms of “Marilyn Monroe” and “Mary Pickford”, who were pompously labelled “the world’s darlings”, and at once came upon a passage that appeared to belong to the wise men of the mausoleum of youth. It started with a naked figure with a painted-on first moustache, “Francis Fukuyama. Last historian of history”. The next one, “Michel Houellebecq”, had his hands curled for some unknown reason, either to fight or to clap, and there was a net hanging from his wrist. It was also unclear who he wanted to fight or who he wanted to applaud. Was it for the above mentioned last historian in history, or for “Jacques Derrida Postmodernist postmortem” with the beautifully ambiguous face? The third of these was standing a little to one side and was called “Albert Camus”. His mood was the hardest to determine. Apart from his nakedness, which said nothing, his vacant eyes, typical of the most ancient statues, expressed an equally vacant sorrow. A boy named “Le Corbusier” was holding a box of matches vertically, and was totally preoccupied by its cube-shaped structure. Meanwhile another one was lavishing great care on a model of a Potemkin village. Who was this attentive fellow? A glance at the label and all became clear – he was “Herbert McLuhan”. And two Siamese twins were trying to embrace the entire company of wise men with a cordial gesture, “Walt Disney” and “Bill Gates”. They were smiling as if wanting to say: “our ideas surpassed the boldest expectations”.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones