This book reminds me of Ridley Scott’s film The Duel, which was based on a story by Joseph Conrad with the same title. The main protagonists in The Condition are two Napoleonic officers who get themselves involved in an idiotic duel, and forever after keep duelling in various ways over and over again, until it leads to the death of one of them. The heroes of Rylski’s story are the recklessly fearless light cavalryman Captain Andrzej Rangułt, a squire from Nekla in Lithuania, at one time the district troublemaker, and Lieutenant Semen Hoszowski, “son of a priest from Wikanówka, in deepest Volhynia”, a former tutor to the sons of Ukrainian estate owners who has managed to achieve the rank of an officer, but never stops suffering from an inferiority complex. The story of their strange acquaintance, or rather love-hate relationship, which began at the siege of Moscow, is marked by various stages: first the duels, then enforced desertion, an escape home across the frozen wastes of Russia, a sojourn at Rangułt’s estate in Lithuania, and finally a period of recuperation full of dramatic events that will end in the death of Rangułt’s army comrades, followed by his own death and Hoszowski’s re-birth with a mission to uphold the Napoleonic legend.
Rylski writes colourful, realistic prose, and some critics in Poland have acclaimed his work as a masterpiece.
All around the world was at a standstill. The earth had set solid. The sky had sunk into the horizon. The wind had dropped. On the edge of a fallow field, on the far side of a winding stream, a ground squirrel stood on its hind legs. It folded its paws under its snout and froze. A pair of hawks spread their wings as they crossed paths in flight. Everything cowered down.
Just four men went about their business, without hurrying, but without lagging either.
First they all went up to each other. Then they conspired. Then two of them turned back to back, each holding a pistol. The smaller one faced towards the park and the back of the mansion in the distance, the taller towards the river, with his right arm hanging lifelessly down his body. The other two walked off to the sides, one to the left, the other to the right. The men with the pistols kept moving forwards. After fifteen paces they stopped and turned to face each other. Their comrades did exactly the same, at the same distance from each other. The four of them marked out two triangles joined on the diagonal. No inequality marred their geometry. The two pistol barrels were raised to shoulder height in total silence.
Rangułt pulled the trigger. The flint snapped dryly. A spark ignited and went out. Hoszowski took his time.
He aimed deuced carefully. The eastern officer closed his eyes. Heltrein stared into the distance. Rangułt could not control his shaking. The useless weapon slipped from his fingers.
Slowly but inevitably, the lieutenant’s wide open eye, the raised sights, the bead above the mouth of the four-cornered barrel and the captain’s brow began to form a single line with nothing in its way.
Hoszowski gently tried the trigger, and it moved as if on rails. Well done the regimental gunsmith! The eastern officer hid his face in his hands. Hoszowski released the trigger.
“Please shoot!” cried Heltrein hysterically.
“Now?” asked Hoszowski calmly.
On this command a flock of starlings burst out of the blackthorn, disturbing the general stillness. The dry whirring of their wings hung in the air.
“Shoot, you swine!” Heltrein had lost his self-control.
Calm until now, the lieutenant’s face assumed an unpleasant scowl as he pulled the trigger. A roar like a cannon, a trail of smoke, the squirrel ran hell for leather, and Heltrein tumbled to the ground with half his face shot away. The convulsions did not last for long. Hoszowski grasped the still smoking barrel of his pistol and spread his arms wide.
With this gesture of surprise he went up to the eastern officer, who was hiding his face in his hands.
“Don’t move, please,” he said politely, and struck him a powerful blow on the temple with his pistol butt.
The officer clung to Hoszowski, who repeated the blows at a measured pace, less and less torpidly, with a better and better aim, reducing the young man’s shapely head to a bloody pulp. Hoszowski did not stop hitting him even when the officer’s body was lying limply on the turf, free by now of any signs of resistance or suffering.
Rooted to the spot by total paralysis, Rangułt watched the execution with pain blasting his gut apart. When the breathless lieutenant came near him, he fell on his knees, briefly remained like that in a gesture of submission, and then quietly fell on his side. Nothing disturbed the deathly silence. Not a blade of grass, not a reed, a bird or a squirrel. The sky did not return from behind the horizon nor the wind from beyond the river. Hoszowski took a few paces to and fro, spread his fingers and the bloody pistol fell from his hands. He drew moist air into his nostrils and went down to the water. There he spent a long time washing his hands. Fifteen minutes later he came back to the juniper bush spread with Heltrein’s cape and extracted a saddlebag from under it. He took both items over to the wagon. He undid the reins, turned the horses and led them up to the motionless captain. He threw a chest out of the wagon, and in its place he loaded the unconscious Rangułt on board, covering him with the cape. He jumped onto the driving box, then glanced at the corpses of the officers, ran over to them and took their pistols. He whipped up the trotting horses and they took off like the devil, downhill towards the river. Just then as if on cue the wind rose, the sky fell, the sun lit up as if it were August, and the grass began to whisper. It looked like a lovely day.
In pain Rangułt was emerging from non-existence. He was coming out of a long tunnel, only to retreat back down it at once. The reflections of some lights were plunging him for contrast into darkness, and his hostile body kept falling down and down, as if into a bottomless abyss.
His limbs kept going numb, his skin was splitting, a dull headache held him in a vice and only an advancing sense of nausea was keeping him in touch with life.
He’d come to as soon as he was sick.
Icy water trickled down his face and poured into his mouth, repelling the nausea, which came back at once with redoubled alacrity.
He turned cautiously onto his back and just as cautiously opened his eyes. He saw the trunks of some neatly planted hazel trees and grey earth, felt damp moss on his cheek and a chill in his body.
“What’s happening?” he asked dully. “Where am I?”
“You’re on the run,” came the answer from above.
“Where to?” Rangułt raised his head as much as he could. It began to spin.
Hoszowski was standing nearby with his legs splayed, pointing east. It took a while for Rangułt to recover his sense of direction.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because the hunt has headed west,” said the lieutenant, and splashed the rest of the water from his cap into Rangułt’s face. “If it has set off, of course.” He wiped his hands on his trousers and added: “I lugged you all the way here, Captain. You’re not light.”
“What hunt are you talking about?”
“For deserters. I don’t wish to be brusque, but I’d say we deserted.”
Rangułt got up more easily than he could have expected, and took a few feeble steps. He took in the south, the edge of the pine forest, and the foaming horses harnessed to the wagon. “We deserted?” he asked in disbelief.
“That’s what I’d say,” replied the lieutenant pitilessly.
“What are you talking about?”
“The firing squad. Don’t you remember? You had a go at the regimental safe. You’re in line for a court martial, demotion and execution.”
He took short, rapid paces around Rangułt, then came within a hair’s breadth of him, stood on tiptoes and matter-of-factly explained: “Listen, Captain, we’ve come about twenty versts. We’re already out of range of the Grande Armée. We’ll go round Moscow from the south. When we come parallel with Smolensk we’ll turn west. Then it’s a month to Lithuania.”
“Is that your plan?”
“Yes it is, and I’ll do everything to bring it off.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones