Telephrenia could be described as a novel about being addicted to films, television, newspapers, the Internet, advertising and other media wrecking the mind and soul of modern man. However, the author links this wide-ranging issue with an illness (as implied by the title) and has invented an individual case, where a sick man tells the story of his sick world. The novel’s narrator and main character has strayed from the straight and narrow. He is a 55-year-old engineer from Warsaw who, plagued by illness, sees addiction everywhere: he convinces his son he’s addicted to television and the Internet, and his daughter that she’s hooked on extreme sports. In the 1970s he himself was a cinema addict, later he spent over ten hours a day watching TV, then finally gave up TV but became an avid reader of all the tabloids and colour magazines issued in Poland. He easily got into that, because after the decline of the construction plant where he worked for many years he took a job as a salesman at a newspaper kiosk. Extensive flashbacks that tell the engineer’s life story are built into the action of the novel, which takes place from mid February to mid April 2005. In this period the hero falls hopelessly in love with a pharmacy employee, who he thinks is the image of Catherine Deneuve, goes to meetings where “Suicides Anonymous”, “Meteoropaths Anonymous” and other alleged addicts are treated, but above all, accompanied by his son Karol, he takes part – as a member of the viewing public, of course – in the huge media circus surrounding the final days, death and funeral of Pope John Paul II. Quite sincerely and disinterestedly he wants to join in with the national mourning, but fails to do so, and the novel ends with a ludicrous finale.
He died at 21.37, surrounded by compatriots. At 20.00 a mass for Divine Mercy was conducted at his bedside (“today we are celebrating this festival, established three years ago by John Paul II at Łagiewniki”). The Holy Father took the sacraments for the dying once more. He was conscious. He turned his gaze towards the windows onto the square, and tried to raise his hand to bless the faithful one last time. Archbishop Dziwisz took hold of his hand, and as his friend held it tightly, the Pope took a breath of air, said “Amen” and – as Archbishop (here there’s an Italian name) announced before 22.00 – “Our beloved Holy Father John Paul II went to his Father’s home”.
Son, you were sitting on the edge of my couch, you let your head drop, held it in your hands and said: “Finally! Finally I’ve come across a man who really did have faith. Because that priest on Nowy Świat Street, hmm, I keep thinking about him. I’m sure he wanted to believe very much, and he did, but did he believe one hundred per cent? How much per thousand did he lack? And the Dalai Lama had faith, pure and unconditional.”
A little later: “It’s not even what he believed in that’s so impressive, but the fact that it’s possible to believe in anything at all, so entirely and utterly.”
And again, a little later: “So what now, Dad? Game over, here comes the tricky bit – what do we do with the rest of our lives, Dad? What path do we take? Can we think up one of our own? A better one?”
And a bit later: “In Dostoyevsky there’s an officer who says in despair: ‘If there’s no God, what sort of a captain am I?’ My question is: If there is a God, why on earth be a captain? What on earth do I need capitalism and GNP growth for?”
The radio announces: “A crowd of several thousand people has gathered at Piłsudski Square. At 24.00 mass will begin at Saint Anne’s church. Services are already being held at many churches in the capital – ” (here there were the names of some churches, including the church of the Saviour).
Me: “Let’s go to the Saviour, let’s get some air.”
We’d only just got to Puławska Street when a wino stopped us. “Gentlemen, I’ve got one hell of a hangover and now I hear the Holy Father has died. Good people, please give me some money for beer.”
I took a look at him – Belmondo, a Varsovian Belmondo.
He: “Gentlemen, maybe you’d give me enough for half a litre of vodka? I’ll buy it, then let’s sit together by the lake on the other side, eh?”
You laughed, son, took out your wallet and gave him twenty zlotys. “Let’s wait,” you said, “and if he doesn’t come back, we’ll go to mass. If he does, we’ll go to the park. OK?”
Another experiment. Oh, son!
He came back. We went to the park, down to the little lake known as Morskie Oko. He found a bench right by the water. We sat down, and he unscrewed the bottle. “To make it fair, let’s drink about fifty grams each – do you reckon, gentlemen, I hope? There’d be three rounds.” And to me: “You start, the older gentleman.”
I went first, then my son. Then him (he must have been over fifty). He drank, let it go down and started up again: “So, gentlemen, tell me, what did that man have in him so that if he’d said I should devote my life to something I’d have done it? Such as, ‘Off you go, Stanisław, into that pond and drown’ – I’d have gone and drowned. Gentlemen, I mean it seriously. My father was in the Uprising! You’re probably new boys, because I’m local, I’m from Upper Mokotów! Have you seen? Every building has a plaque – such and such a number shot.”
His father had survived, but without an arm, affected in body and mind (though he faked it a bit in order to get out of prison). “Gentlemen, Warsaw is one big cemetery, the ground is steeped in blood, every half metre into the earth there’s an uprising. I sent my son into the outside world to get away from Mokotów, but I can’t do it myself – I did go away for a couple of years to Szczecin, but I came back – I can’t cope without this sick city. There, up the hill, there was a market – carts used to come along with potatoes and cabbages, and if the farmer didn’t block the spokes, his wagon went flying down the hill – quite a few people and horses drowned in this clay pit pond, because it used to be deep. The same thing happened during the Uprising when a German tank and its crew rolled down here, and afterwards the eels multiplied. My father used to boast about the Uprising, then curse it for taking all those young lives, for taking his arm. And now there’s Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan – will it never end, all this invading and killing? Holy Father, keep my city safe from wars!”
“Gentlemen,” he appealed, “now let’s kneel down and say the Angelus for the soul of our King!”
We knelt down. Silence.
He: “The trouble is I don’t know that prayer. I thought you, the older gentleman…?”
Me: “I can’t remember it very well either.”
He: “Then let’s say Our Father and Hail Mary.”
We said them. We stood up and walked up the hill together. “By profession I’m a painter, an interior decorator. If you ever need me, I’m at your service!” (He handed me his card.) “Thank you, gentlemen. I feel better now. I wish you a good night’s sleep.”
He shook hands, with a powerful grip, and went off down Madaliński Street.
Me: “Shall we go home?”
You: “Yes. We’ve said our prayers.”
I had a long, sound sleep – the decorator had wished me a good night’s sleep, and his wish came true.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones