In Polish twentieth-century literature there was a broad current known as “Borderlands” fiction, depicting the culture, history and fate of people living in territories that before the Second World War were inside the borders of Poland, but are now in Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Contributors to this trend included great writers such as Czesław Miłosz, Stanisław Vincent and Jerzy Stempowski. Zbigniew Żakiewicz is another writer of “Borderlands” fiction; born in the Wilno (Vilnius) district, in his work he consistently restores the memory of images of life in the former north-eastern borderlands, where the Polish element was mixed with Belarussian and Lithuanian features. Wilno Triptychis both an old and a new book, old because it consists of three novels that have already been published separately as The Abacz Clan (1968), Lupine Meadows (1982) and Wilio, at the Bottom of the Sea (1992), and new because put together as a set they take on a slightly different significance. Emphasis is placed on the theme of initiation, the story of a child, then teenager and young man as he enters upon life and gradually gets to know the Borderlands world, which is colourful, but full of dark mysteries and an emotional ardour that consumes the main characters. Żakiewicz portrays the “twilight world” of the Polish Borderlands just as it was slipping into historical non-existence (the action of the novels takes place in the 1930s and 1940s). Żakiewicz’s prose is a deeply poetical memoir of the times and places of his childhood, highly recommended reading for anyone seeking traces of lost worlds in literature.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Zbigniew Żakiewicz (b. 1933) writes fiction, essays and children’s books. Since 1966 he has lived in Gdańsk, where he worked as a researcher at the Institute for Education and then at the University of Gdańsk.
The absurd logic that had plagued the Abacz clan for several generations came down upon my mother on the threshold of her independent life, branding my beginnings too with the stamp of a bitter privilege. For can the reasons for my parents’ marriage be explained by any other logic, when at the time my father’s prime went back to the days of old Abacz’s engagement, while my mother had experienced so little of life that nowadays, when I have twice exceeded the age at which she married, only now am I capable of grasping the cruelty of our destiny?
That cruelty proves even more cruel if we remember the exceptionally disinterested nature of my parents’ liaison, because no great estates or ancient clans were united in this case. The ominous significance of the facts cannot even be diluted by my father’s sudden infatuation; having come to the wedding of Aunt Ewelina and seen my mother in the bloom of her eighteen springs and the good health provided by the countryside and by simple, wholesome food, he felt a rising emotion in his heart. The fact that his eternal dreams could suddenly come true proves all the more forcibly that some powerful external forces had become entangled in my father’s life.
So clearly the doom, the destiny pursuing the Abacz clan had caught up with my parents too, and must instantly affect the life of their child as well. Or to put it bluntly and openly, because of the circumstances described above, my fate, the fate of the last descendant of the Abacz clan, could seize me in its thorny gloves from break of day and keep a tight, secure grip on me. I would even venture to suppose that in the entire story of this marriage everything was precisely planned and pre-conceived, that the Abacz destiny picked out the heroes of the drama like two tightly fitting pieces of a single whole, and that I too was chosen to be a worthy crowning piece for the entire creation. Thus it would be a rash judgement to say that my father, not an Abacz by descent, was just a passive witness to events. The combination in one person and one heart of his lusty, artless and indestructible bison-like nature (which in truth in his particular case was veiled in the shadow of twilight) with the Abacz nature, insatiable and so very tragic, produced an alloy that was truly the only one of its kind! And then on my father’s side I was also burdened with the era experienced by my peers’ grandfathers, and by this token gained greater grounds for my sense of coming from another world. And my untimely maturing (when my character ceased to be a character and became a deep self-awareness), thanks to my father’s old age, seemed something natural, if not expected. In my father too I gained an unwitting ally of the Niżan clan, as he roused my sympathy for the semi-feudal, clearly still noble points of honour – including an interest in the Niesiecki armorial as well as a fondness for matters and ideas that span the centuries.
Thus as a result of my parents’ unusual marriage, very early on, earlier than it befell any other Abacz, I was summoned into my drama. And before I had crossed the threshold into conscious life, before I had had time to grasp the unusual nature of the circumstances in which I had been fated to grow up, I had already been gifted with sensitivity a hundredfold, I was already helpless in the face of the world, like a man who cannot live through the day without a shot of morphine – I was already in the power of an insatiable heart.
For these very reasons, once I had made my appearance in my parents’ home but before I had yet fully warmed my place in it, I had already begun to flex my elbows, and, growing by the day (the more amply I was gifted with the tenderness of my mother’s heart the faster I grew), once I had developed extremely beautifully, like a cuckoo chick in a starling’s nest, I spread my wings for my first flight.
I soon grasped that between my mother and my father, who had brought us his name and his artless good nature, something was happening that shouldn’t, if I were to be a real grandson of Abacz. I realised that on account of this occurrence my possession was incomplete, my hungers would become more ravenous, and my sufferings more painful. This was such a difficult, complicated thing to grasp that I suffered even more and found myself even harder to comprehend. And at that point came memories that were not from dreams, though they could only be compared with hallucinations, half-waking reveries that took away the power to move and made my consciousness all the more potent.
Thus I see my mother walking with my father – she is beautiful, slender and golden-haired, walking in a new coat and shoes fastened with buttons. My father too is dressed in his best, with a suitcase in his hand. For some reason I am sure my parents are heading for the bathhouse, where they will bathe, stepping into the hot mist like two suns; I also know how long and difficult the road to the bathhouse is – through a foggy autumn forest, where single pine trees stand like northern palms, dead already, yet still green and resinous, their bark aflame, and then across a moor where stifled fire is glimmering among the stumps of trees, hiding the hotter embers. But I don’t shout and I don’t run after my parents, because bound by cobwebs, I understand that so it must be.
Later, once I had grown a bit, my suspicion became better defined, and my dreams even more painful and alarming. Having fed my imagination on images from a book by Doctor Kneipp, a tireless proponent of taking the waters, a tome richly illustrated with human figures whose paper insides could be removed, I would wade even further into my dreams, and fall deeper and deeper into the abyss that now I would never leave.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones