Hermes Case, The

Henryk Waniek
Hermes Case, The
  • Wydawnictwo Literackie
    Kraków 2007
    123 x 197
    334 pages
    ISBN 978-83-08-04090-4
    Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie

Hermann Daniel Hermes, chairman of the Great Consistory Court, is suddenly dismissed from his post, with no justification and no opportunity for appeal, though he spends the rest of his life seeking them. Hermes’ deeds only come to light after his death, when the judges at the supreme court take up the enquiry – the angels. With documents at their disposal that have been amassed from the day the defendant was born, as well as modern surveillance equipment and modern ways of archiving the data, they can screen every last detail of his activities. However, their ruling is burdened by a patent antipathy towards the defendant, and the documents have gaps in them, so it is impossible to interpret them unambiguously. Therefore the judges must find new witnesses, fill in the missing pieces and determine a single, accurate version of the truth about Hermes.
The inquiry into the Hermes case can be compared with the “lustration” process (whereby those who collaborated with the communist authorities in Poland have been exposed under the present government), and the novel itself regarded as a response to contemporary “lustration”, the equivalent of a witch-hunt, with all its various distortions and the lack of objectivity that obscures potential doubts about where the blame really lies. Depicting this process in a joking way does not change the real point – the unambiguous judgement of human deeds, suggests Waniek, is bound to end in corrupt practices.
Hermes’ life was judged in the era preceding the French Revolution and the anti-monarchist movement it initiated, which led to further social changes. Hermes is a freemason, and also an anti-monarchist and advocate of social change, but he operates under cover. His views and actions reflect the views of many “conspirators” of the time, and also serve the author as an excuse for examining various opposition groups and their influence on politics – in this case Prussian. The specific, colourfully drawn background for the inquiry is seventeenth-century Breslau (now Wrocław), which was then part of Prussia. Thus the “Hermes Case” is an opportunity to take a good look at the mores of the city in those days.
Waniek’s book combines the qualities of a historical novel of manners and a political treatise as well as a thesis on metaphysical zest. Its great virtue are the portraits of the main characters, both the earthly and the celestial ones, who are very “human” in their vices. Realism and fantasy are also superbly combined here. In an original, highly ironical way, aiming to expose the truth, Waniek approaches a topic that is inspiring twenty-first century thriller writing – the conspiracy theory of history.

- Marta Mizuro


I shall spare you a lengthy introduction and say at once that I wish to talk about the library. And that this is a confidential matter, so please do not pass on anything that is said here. I merely thank you for coming – I am counting on your help. I know next to nothing about libraries. Naturally, I don’t mean bookshelves, catalogues and that whole lifeless arrangement of volumes. That I can imagine. But I would like to hear something about the secrets that never make their way across the library threshold; about the deeper philosophy of those book-filled vaults, which is the reserve of the initiated. And as the Count has opened his eyes, I will ask him first. I do not have to mention the fame of his library. Everyone knows about it, because it contained the world’s greatest collection of hymns and anthems. Why exactly anthems?
Forgive me for talking through my teeth. It’s the cold that is making something happen to my jaw. Just look how it’s trembling. I don’t even know how to start. The whole business is so remote and complicated now, all the more since it brought enormous costs, efforts and fears in its wake. A library is a great responsibility. I used to have nightmares about fires, death-watch beetles – in other words monstrous woodworm, known as Anobium punctatum, that eat into the pages of the books, the audacious theft of valuable specimens, and brazen forgeries. I’m reluctant to go back to it, but for you, Counsellor, I will make an exception. Apart from other books that I’ll talk of later, collecting songbooks was my grandfather’s idea, and became an ancestral tradition. Nowadays everyone thinks an anthem is just a song for the common folk. Those blessed times are long forgotten, when in drawing rooms and temples, on parade grounds and battlefields people sang with the pure intention of changing the human heart and the entire world for the better. Because in my father’s day things were already starting to go wrong. There was a deluge of trash building up, the work of forgers, spoiling the original purity of the anthem. Before then no one would ever have been so bold. Anthems were sacred! A Roman warrior would rather die than change a single word of his legion’s song. The singing determined the outcome of the battle – victory or defeat. There are numerous references to this in Thucydides, and no doubt Suetonius too. Would so many monasteries have fallen into ruin if they hadn’t done something fanciful to their hymns? Just as in countries that have fallen shamefully. The nearer our times, the worse it gets. Anthems were corrupted to suit the needs of the common dance hall. Any old circus had to have its own anthem. And by the Enlightenment era the scandal had reached its apogee. Fashionable, rationalist texts were written to fit the traditional tunes. Somewhere in the Czech lands a secret establishment was founded to manufacture anthems. Smugglers began peddling them at half price. Of course they were devoid of quality. People were shouting themselves hoarse to no effect – no heroism, none of God’s grace, not even any plain good cheer. In this situation my library was to become a sort of Noah’s Ark, a stronghold restraining the barbarian advance.
All manner of falsehood would shatter against your library!
Saving the anthem was my top priority from childhood onwards. When I went to school at the age of ten I already had a lot of knowledge of the subject. I was shocked to discover that all my schoolmates and most of the teachers were using songbooks of such dubious value that all our studying was good for nothing. When I told my father, he took me away from there and entrusted my further education to our chaplain, Mayer. He had the great talent of being able to tell sham from truth in an instant. That was what he taught me, until I reached the right age. Then he opened a cupboard for me that had always remained locked. It took more than a key – you also had to say a magic word, makbenak. As he uttered it, the hinges creaked, and what wasn’t in there! And all in a perfect state! The best things to have arisen since the world was created, nothing but the jewels of hymnology. Step by step he initiated me into their secrets. One after another they revealed to me the arcana of divine sound.
I have heard that to the singer the profound power of the anthem can be revealed, leading the soul to a state of enlightenment and opening the way to the mystery of existence. I have also heard that an anthem contains a force that, if used properly, can make the walls of a besieged city crumble or inflame the heart. You mentioned the world’s creation, so I shall ask about the legend that says the Creator did nothing, but merely sang seven hymns in turn. Is it in your view possible, as the hymnologists claim, that the universe was made by song alone?
In calling that ancient tradition a legend, you diminish a great truth, though you also touch on the heart of the matter. Our library contained as many as four of those seven hymns. My father purchased them from a merchant from the Levant, who had bought them there from a monastery, where they were stored by Solomon himself. The merchant even promised to provide the remaining three, but he never appeared again. Nonetheless, with only four, we were already in a position to divide the light from the darkness or to create whole new constellations. You are right, Counsellor. The hymn is a tool of the deepest mystery.
That is just what I wanted to hear. That is what I was expecting.
Under Mayer’s guidance first I mastered the anthem used by Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea. Whenever we sang it together, the walls of the chamber gave way, and the burgrave’s envoy asked us to stop, because one of his palace towers was starting to lean dangerously. One afternoon I went beyond the city and having sung a short phrase on the banks of the Holstemma, I easily crossed the river without getting my feet wet. It’s a pity the only witness was my horse. That day I learned my destiny. I took on my young shoulders the mission of saving the sacred song. If only I had known how much it would cost me, I would have stopped at the singing alone, like my father, who had a distaste for books and paper in general. After Mayer’s death I went on studying on my own. I learned how to tell a false anthem from a genuine one with my eyes closed.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones