Once in a while surprising, unusual books appear that do not fit the norms of current literary output in any way. This is undoubtedly true of Michał Komar’s Initiations, a book as intriguing as it is flamboyant. In fact it is hard to define where exactly this book is located on the literary map, because it borders on the genres of fiction, essay, philosophical treatise and… cookery book, as Komar makes smooth transitions from describing Poland’s tangled fortunes in the past few centuries to detailed analyses of Sophocles’ Antigone or Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, from subtle reflections on philosophical ideas to descriptions of sophisticated dishes and their ingredients. The main characters are Mrs E. and her servant (who is also the narrator). The elderly Mrs E., who comes from a good family with centuries of tradition, is well read and intelligent, as well as being gifted with a wisdom about life arising from a wide range of experiences. In Mrs E.’s house (or rather houses) the servant takes care of just about everything, though his main fulfilment is in the role of chef, a specialist in dishes that you would seek in vain on the menus of even the very best restaurants, and a connoisseur of top quality alcohol. He is also the object of his employer’s passion for teaching – Mrs E. considers it her duty to educate “the lower orders”. The narrator describes the last few months of Mrs E.’s life, mainly focusing on the breakfast, lunch and dinner parties at which she and her guests (including a popular actor and a not widely read yet interesting writer) sit at a sumptuous table having conversations full of digressions. In brief, these are real orgies of the intellect and taste. In his new book Komar has gone for a remarkable combination of solid intellectual discourse and a sort of burlesque, evident not least in the comedy and irony that permeate the relationship between Mrs E. and her servant. As a result, this is a book that makes the reader think without ever boring him at all. It has been put together like a perfectly assembled meal (the culinary comparison is highly appropriate here) – offering a seductive abundance of flavours, it is satisfying and at the same time easy to digest.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Mrs E. once told me that during puberty her younger sister, the Belle de Jour mentioned earlier, treated snails with disgust, if not sheer hatred, urinating on them, stamping on them, coating them in paraffin and setting them alight – all for reasons of morality, to wit that snails were associated in her mind with the sinful inner secrets of the female sex, which Father Wincenty had readily warned her against. The obsession subsided once Belle de Jour began to suspect that where the pervasion of the essence of sin was concerned, repulsion should not be her only counsel. In this instance a touch of practical curiosity also comes in handy.
As for me, although plucking them is rather a bore, I regard thrushes as a dish worthy of attention. It is simplest to stew them in thinly cut slices of bacon, adding butter, salt and pepper, then put then in the oven for a few minutes to go brown. Alternatively one can also cut off the breasts with the breastbone, stew the rest of the meat including the stomach and liver, to which one can add two or three chicken livers, with shallots and pork fat; then chop it all up finely and blend it with butter, pepper, salt, possibly also some herbs according to preference, though I would avoid juniper, and two egg yolks. Spread this mince thickly on rounds of French bread, place the thrush breasts on top of the mince, cover them tightly with strips of bacon and put them in the oven. When the bacon starts to go brown, one must discard it, and coat the thrushes with butter. Out of respect for the order of nature, I would wish the thrush to be surrounded by snails coated in breadcrumbs and fried in butter. I note from experience that thrushes are covered by a total protection order, with the exception of those covered by seasonal protection, the fieldfare and the mistle thrush, which are succulent if care is taken. In my dreams, I would serve a Hermitage with the birds, or maybe a Saint-Joseph, in both of which, apart from the dominant Syrah, there is a touch of Marsanne or Roussanne. Perhaps also a Barolo from Silvio Grasso.
At this point I must add that K. the writer’s deep descent into silence was not a one-off act. I would say it was more like a series of events. First our guest sank into an armchair by the fireplace, and his face assumed a dark purple shade.
“Is there something troubling you?” asked Mrs E.
“I heard the voice of the Lord,” he replied and closed his left eye, while the right stared fixedly at Mrs E., malevolently and challengingly, for such are the appearances produced by immobile stares.
To which Mrs E. averted her gaze from the eye of K. the writer and, continuing her conversation about the work of Sophocles, she said: “Let us remember that in the very first instance the order to cast the corpse of Polyneices to the dogs and vultures as prey did not meet with the clear objection of Theban public opinion as represented by the Chorus of old men. Let us speak rather of acceptance. Of acceptance not free of discomposure. Because it is an apparently appropriate, apparently just order, issued by a man of strict principles with regard to the remains of a traitor, as a warning to others, in other words useful in an educational way, but on the other hand rather excessive. Moreover, an objection might anger Creon and bring painful punitive consequences down on the Chorus, including the death penalty. Would it be worth taking the risk? Who would be so foolish as to stick their neck out? One has to act prudently. And so, by acknowledging the ruler’s right to decide what to do with the corpse of the city’s enemy, the Chorus Leader is also making it plain that he would prefer to keep his distance from this matter. It is not improbable, he says, that Creon is free to apply the law both to the living and to the dead, so let the body be cast to the dogs, but on condition that we do not participate. Let the young men do it! Sophocles was a perceptive man, so he realised that pure, naive Youth is willing to perform rash deeds, though they often lead to misfortune. Old age by contrast dons the festive robes of sagacity to conceal the fact that it feels all right about this foolishness, which also ends unhappily, for can anyone be happy who feels all right about foolishness?”
Just then K. the writer opened his left eye and closed the right one.
“Yes, yes, foolishness! There’s no need to pretend!” screamed Mrs E. “Do you remember the moment when the Guard brings Creon the news that Polyneices’ corpse has been buried by an unknown perpetrator? What does the Chorus Leader do then? My dear Sir, the Chorus Leader starts scheming! Why? Because he can see that opposing an order of Creon’s carries the risk of the death penalty, yet someone has come forward and taken this fatal risk. Who, for God’s sake? Who could be that foolish? Or maybe not foolish? Maybe just pretending to be foolish?
“The first commandment of old age, the one that keeps it alive, is to cling onto life tightly. At any cost and for the sake of comfort. Thus the prudence of old age, evolved from experience, bids one to think that if a daredevil has come along and broken Creon’s ban, there must be some power behind him. What sort of power? Strong enough to forsake allegiance to Creon, in other words considerable power. And the fact that it is anonymous? The people of Thebes have never seen such miracles before! So would it not be prudent to mollify this power in advance somehow, but without falling into Creon’s disfavour in the process? And that is why the Chorus Leader starts jabbering at Creon about reason, which suggests to him that the gods may have taken part in the act of burying Polyneices’ remains… Reason? But surely that is the last thing one might expect from the Chorus. Creon knows that, because he shrugs off the Chorus Leader’s words, saying: ‘…stop gabbling before you turn out to be old and foolish.
“And how does Antigone respond to that?
“In Antigone’s eyes the Chorus are a bunch of old men whose fear has deprived them of decency. They are old and foolish! Ever ready to ruminate on man in general, reflecting that although he’s so mighty, so terribly ingenious – for he knows how to sail, plough the land using subjugated oxen, build houses and blend medicines – even so fate will sting him, the mortal, for there’s no escaping Hades. Christ, how solemn that is! How ponderous! But when the time comes to deal not with man in general, but someone alive and suffering, like the woman standing before Creon, the old men in the Chorus can do no more than state that instead of remaining obstinate, the girl should yield to misfortune, or else she will bring woe on herself, just like her father Oedipus. For this matter is too hard for her, both mentally and morally! To put it in a nutshell, one has to die young, with a pure and naive soul. If one fails to do so, then in old age one should beware of both senile sagacity and youthful ecstasy. And don’t strike up friendships with members of the Chorus!”
At this K. the writer closed his left eye and opened the right. The purple on his cheeks set about mixing with pallor, just like sour cherry sauce at the moment when you add the cream to it. I mention sour cherry sauce because I know from my junior colleagues that in schools of nouvelle cuisine they serve wild fowl with it, as if they had forgotten about hawthorn sauce. They must have forgotten. Take a glass of hawthorn fruits, clean them of hairs and seeds, boil, and once they are soft, rub them through a sieve. Mix with a roux of butter and flour, a glass of red wine, a clove and some stock, simmer for half an hour, strain, and add the sauce to the roasted birds. In my childhood hawthorn sauce also accompanied roast wild boar – in those days a few puréed juniper berries were added to it.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones