This book consists of nine chapters, each about a dramatic upheaval in someone’s life. On the surface these stories form a chronicle of accidents: a dozen high school pupils on a pilgrimage to Częstochowa are killed in a burning bus when no one makes a rescue attempt, and after the tragedy, in which the driver was killed too, his name is not listed on the obelisk commemorating the victims; Alina P., who publicises the fact that as a child she was abused by a priest, is outcast by the rest of her village; a grown man suffering from Tourette’s syndrome feels trapped in the cage of his illness, where his parents who care for him are imprisoned too; a mother who lost her daughter in unexplained circumstances (she never came home from a disco) suffers social ostracism; Jan, who has lost his memory, is treated like a slave for years on end by various employers; a young man who has suffered from emotional disturbances since childhood commits long premeditated suicide; a homosexual priest who is HIV positive does not deliver a sermon in which he wanted to confess his life secret to the congregation…
Instead of looking only at the tragically afflicted individuals, we can also examine the relationship between those affected and society. Then we realise that this book is about stigmas as a social issue. A stigma only exists within a relationship. It is not expressed in terms of the attributes of the individual concerned, but in the behaviour of the community towards that individual. If we look at The Rabid Dog this way, we can see that it is a set of reports on how Polish society copes with some contemporary issues at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Tochman’s book is an extremely dramatic testimony on the theme of the clash between the realities of recent modernity (new illnesses, new problems) and social consciousness, which is unable (or unwilling) to perceive its new obligations. Within this society the fundamental traditions, both Catholic and modernising, act exclusively as stigmatising mechanisms. Narrow-minded normality, fearful, hypocritical reactions, a lack of social customs that would allow people to express fear… That is why Tochman realised we need someone who is prepared to start growling – the reporter as a rabid dog?
Wojciech Tochman (born 1969) is a reporter, writer and author of four books, whose work has been translated into English, French, Swedish, Finnish, Russian, Dutch and Bosnian.
The police interviewed fifty witnesses: Ania’s granny and grandpa, her male and female friends, their parents, the local mayor, some of the neighbours, and the teacher who was in charge of the children during the disco.
They did not interview everyone who knew about the disco. Not many people did. No posters were put up in the village, nothing was said about it from the pulpit, only the schoolchildren were allowed in for the party. Apart from the schoolchildren and their parents, only the headmaster and the teachers knew about it. They were not asked where they were at the time and what they were doing. Not to cast suspicion on anyone straight away, but to avoid being accused of neglect years later.
The school is right on the tarmac road, but it is a side road, far from the main thoroughfare. The person who drove down here in a beige Fiat came specially. He must have known the children would be on their way home at night and at that particular time. He must have known which children would come this way: which of them would be walking in a group along the main road, and which on their own, towards the ponds.
If there was a beige Fiat waiting for Ania, and if it was the Fiat with black blinds, the prosecutor should have been asked what he thought about the interview with its driver, who was stopped the next day in a nearby town. The driver said he hadn’t kidnapped the girl. We have that on record. But the police did not do a line-up – they did not show the Fiat driver’s face to the teenage girls who a week earlier had been accosted by some strange men. Nor did they examine the car. They forgot the rules of the Police ABC; they didn’t check if there was blood in the car, or hair or any other trace of the missing girl. They claimed the beige Fiat with the black blinds had nothing to do with the case. So at least it would appear from the records. Could that be wrong? Were there any operational efforts that aren’t mentioned in the records? No one knows. At the Cieszyń police they don’t remember much any more, and no one feels like checking in the archives. The prosecutor who supervised the investigation is now on leave for several months.
We know from the records that the police did check other beige Fiats registered in the former voivode of Bielsk. They seem to have covered all the owners of that sort of car. They asked all of them if they were in Simoradz that evening, and if they could have kidnapped ten-year-old Ania.
The prosecutor should have been asked what he thought about the police work.
Someone should have asked why they hadn’t checked beige Ladas. The mayor wasn’t sure if she saw a Fiat or a Lada.
Someone should have asked why some people saw a beige Fiat or Lada, while others spoke of a red Fiat 126, and others yet said there was no car when they walked down there a minute before Ania. An examination of the spot where the car was supposed to have moved off with a squeal of tyres showed no traces either on the gravel or the asphalt. The examination was made the next day, in daylight. It was clearly recorded in the documents that there was no snow, it wasn’t raining and hadn’t rained since the day before, there was just a slight breeze and it was three degrees. There must have been some evidence left of such violent acceleration, but there wasn’t any.
Someone should have asked why the school girls from the local primary school hadn’t told anyone that a week earlier they were accosted by some strange men. They only mentioned it when news went through the village about the beige Fiat seen by the mayor. Someone should have asked why the mayor, when she heard a child scream in the car that drove off so violently, had calmly gone home and spent the next two hours quietly watching a film on television.
Someone should have asked if the beige car had been seen by the pond at all.
Krystyna Jałowiczor asks herself questions like these. And she answers: if there was no beige Fiat here that evening, no strange car, it means someone from here did Ania harm.
“Stop it,” her mother-in-law reprimands her. “Everyone round here is decent, there are no bad people here. You’re not from here, you don’t know that nothing bad has ever happened here. Except that occasionally God tries people with bad fortune, and punishes them for their sins. You have to pray, you clearly don’t pray enough. You mustn’t rebel.”
Krystyna Jałowiczor isn’t rebelling. She isn’t from here and doesn’t know many people here. They only moved to Simoradz after Ania’s disappearance, when Krystyna decided to come and wait for her daughter here. Or for the worst possible news, which is better than having no news at all.
They moved in with her mother-in-law, got a piece of land from her and built a small house. As she and her mother-in-law stare out of the window, neither of them likes what they see.
She doesn’t ask her mother-in-law why she didn’t go and fetch Ania that night. The mother-in-law has never told her daughter-in-law that she too is suffering, pining and blaming herself.
She doesn’t ask her husband why he has never had any grudges against his mother, not a shadow of regret, not a single bad word to say. She doesn’t talk to her husband much at all now. Nor does he say much in reply.
She doesn’t ask why no one from the school has ever been to see her or spoken to her since Ania’s disappearance, neither the headmaster at the time (whose name is Stanisław Trzciński), nor her daughter’s form teacher (who is called Janina Kajzer), nor the teacher who was in charge of the children at the time, and who for the past year has been the headmaster (he is called Krzysztof Błaszczak).
“It never occurred to me,” says the new headmaster nowadays. “At the time I didn’t feel up to it.”
To this day no one in the village has felt up to visiting the mother of the girl who went missing eight years ago and having a cup of tea with her, giving her some support, or talking to her, not even about the clouds in the sky. Or just being with her, saying nothing for an hour, drinking a cup of tea and leaving. It’s important – anyone who is suffering needs that. But no one knows if that’s what Krystyna Jałowiczor wants. She doesn’t frequent the village much, she doesn’t give many opportunities for anyone to approach her. The people here know each other from the back yard and from school, but she’s an outsider, a stranger. And she doesn’t let them get to know her. She has never been to a parents’ evening to talk about her son – she refuses to cross the school threshold. She sent her husband instead. Every day she travels to work in Bielsk, where she draws films for children, frame after frame. When she comes home on the bus, she stares out of the window as if she doesn’t want anyone to speak to her.
She doesn’t go to the local church. She’s afraid she’ll sit down next to the murderer. She’ll say to him: Good day, and shake hands with him for the sign of peace.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones