This is the fifth novel by Wiesław Myśliwski, a leading writer with origins in the rural tradition, but whose work is far from run-of-the-mill folklore. Myśliwski rarely publishes, but his books are always heavyweight. He writes about the meaning of life in an era of great cultural change, about human fate as a chronicle that requires interpreting and understanding. The hero and narrator of this novel is an ageing man who works as the caretaker for a group of summer cottages and tells a visitor – a character who is never revealed to the reader and may be purely symbolic – the story of his own life from his village childhood during the war right through to old age. This account in itself could serve as food for thought on the power of the spoken word when passed from one person to another. Myśliwski’s work includes everything: the ups and downs of the hero’s life and some moral pointers and adages all appear within a long oration that is in search of an understanding listener.
Everything that happens to the hero in his life, including a happy childhood cut short by the war, the mass murder of his family, how he hid from the Nazis in a potato heap, his post-war job working as an electrician and also his amateur musical education, his experiences with politics and love, his encounters with life’s teachers, his travels abroad and finally his role at the summer resort, all provide the opportunity to express some general conclusions that put his personal fortunes in order and make sense of them.
So Myśliwski’s man lives among people, events and things, which at first sight look ordinary, but soon take on symbolic meaning; human existence is all about reading the signs and recognising the order of life. The writer demands the same of his reader, to whom he presents his hero’s fate like a huge conundrum that has to be solved by comparing the facts and situations, and crucially, being aware of life’s ethical dimension.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
In one of the villages five of us once lodged together. They were all old, I was the only young one, and there was a foreman, a master craftsman living with us. We even used to called him the foreman behind his back – go to the foreman, ask the foreman, get the foreman to advise you. He was the only one we called the foreman. But perhaps you don’t know how people usually talk about the foreman behind his back? Anyway, no one ever says “foreman”.
He was a man of few words, never let himself get drawn into any conversation, even when they were drinking. He liked a drop of vodka, why shouldn’t he? But you had to haul the words out of him, as if out of the deepest well. And they were never words that really told you anything. Maybe they meant something to him, but not to others – it was always “yes”, “no”, “who knows”, “maybe”, “that’ll take some thought”. Never the whole thing.
Then one evening for some reason or other they didn’t drink. We came home from work late, someone asked, “Has anyone got anything?”, but no one had, and no one felt like going out to buy anything. Oh, well then, let’s go to bed, they said. So we lay down, put out the light, it all went quiet, and I started to nod off. Suddenly someone let out a deep sigh, and another one turned over, shifting the entire weight of his body onto his other side. And at once they all started turning over, stretching and fidgeting. The beds were all worn out, so the slightest movement made them creak.
And that foreman had the bed under the window, and after lights-out he always smoked one last cigarette. He also smoked whenever he woke up in the night – he had to smoke two or three cigarettes to get back to sleep. Only vodka sent him off at once, though it did depend how much he drank. A lot all at once did the trick. Just a little, and he suffered even worse. Oh, but that time he kept on and on smoking. There was a geranium in the window next to him, and he used to flick his ash and stub out his cigarettes in it. In the morning he always gathered up the dog-ends, and you could tell how he’d slept from the number of dog-ends. And not just how he’d slept – it was a measure of more than just his insomnia. But what did we care, we electricians? To us dog-ends were just dog-ends. What’s more, you could always smell the smoke in the morning, so we’d sniff the air and say oh, the foreman had a bit of a smoke in the night all right. So that time too he lit up, and someone asked him: “Can’t you sleep? Me neither.” And at once they all said they couldn’t either.
“That’s what happens when you don’t have a drink before bed,” said one of them, and another cursed. Another one mentioned a place where they make stronger hooch than anywhere else.
And so they started talking. Meanwhile the foreman smoked another cigarette. Every time he flicked the ash into the geranium, it lit up. And every time he took a drag, his face lit up too. You could see he was lying there with his eyes open. But he probably wasn’t listening to their conversation, because he never said a word. As the youngest, I had no part in it, I just listened. Anyway, what could I have said when they were wondering for instance what each of them would do if he found out his wife was being unfaithful? They were all married, but I hadn’t even started thinking about it yet. We didn’t know if the foreman was married. He never talked about it. Well, as you know, start thinking about your wife cheating on you, and you won’t sleep a wink all night. And next day at work everything flies from your hands. But each one of them knew what he would do – this one would kill her, that one would throw her out, that one would do something else. Then they started wondering if an old man can still do it, and when does a man start to be old, as far as that’s concerned. You know what I mean. And if he can’t do it any more, what keeps him alive? And is it still worth living? To which one of them said God makes the rules about life, and man doesn’t even have the right to question if it’s worth living or not. And so they moved on to God. After a war like that one, should a man go on believing in God or not? One of them reckoned he should, because it wasn’t God who started the war, but people. Another said that may be so, but if He wanted to He could stop people. And another one said we say a man fires the gun, but the Lord carries the bullets, so He could control the war, so there were less casualties, less suffering and death. And they began to tell stories about various incidents they’d witnessed or heard about. And one of them got really upset, because his brother had been shot, and asked straight out if there is a God at all. Then he started asking us, bed after bed, what we thought. Is there a God? I pretended to be asleep. Finally he asked the foreman: “What do you think, Foreman? Does God exist?”
The foreman stubbed out his cigarette in the geranium pot and lit another. I think it was his fourth since we’d gone to bed. And the whole time he hadn’t said a word, as if he weren’t listening at all. We waited on tenterhooks to hear what he would say, as if it depended on him whether or not God existed. Until the one who’d asked him the question, asked him again: “Well, Foreman, what do you think? Is there a God or not?”
“Who?” he replied at last.
He didn’t answer straightaway, but once he’d put out his cigarette he said: “Why ask me? Why ask them? It’s not something you vote about. Ask yourself. All I can tell you is where I was, he wasn’t there.”
And he lit another cigarette. The room fell silent, no one dared ask any more questions. And no one said another word after that. After a while they started falling asleep – here there was a whistling noise, over there some loud breathing. I wondered if the foreman was asleep, because I couldn’t hear anything from his bed. But he didn’t light another cigarette either.
I couldn’t get to sleep. My head was full of thoughts from that conversation, because for me everything they’d been talking about seemed beyond the limits of my imagination. And what bothered me most of all was what the foreman had said - where he’d been, God wasn’t there.
And the next day I went up to him to ask for his advice, because the fuse kept blowing every time I switched on a three-phase current. And I asked him: “So where were you, Foreman?”
He looked at me suspiciously.
“Somewhere I hope you’ll never be.” Then he grunted: “Get back to work. You know what you have to do now.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones