Off the top of my head

Janusz Głowacki
Off the top of my head
  • Świat Książki
    Warszawa 2004
    130 x 226
    270 pages
    hardcover
    ISBN 83-7391-830-2
    Translation rights: Bertelsmann Media

The Polish title of the latest book by novelist and playwright Janusz Głowacki is ‘Z głowy’, which is a play on words. It basically means ‘off the top of one’s head’, and that is how Głowacki writes – without any planning, purely from memory, and mainly about himself. This makes the pun particularly apt, because Głowacki’s nickname is ‘Głowa’ , which in Polish means ‘head’, and so ‘Z głowy’ can also mean ‘By Głowa’, the perfect title for an autobiography.Głowacki tells stories about himself and the people who are sometimes more, sometimes less close to him in what seems like a rambling way, liberally lacing his account with anecdotes, and yet the short tales that make up the book are carefully composed, with a rhythm and their own distinct punchlines. However, Głowacki does not limit himself to an account of his own complex fortunes. The book is also about the absurdities of communist Poland and the ups and downs of being an émigré (he moved to the United States in the 1980s), about people who were successful and – more often – lost in life (such as Jerzy Kosiński).Głowacki writes about himself and others humorously, but expressively, cuttingly and without any illusions. His writing is often ironic, but it is self-ironic too. Some readers might find Głowacki’s book cynical, but to my mind it is quite simply so sincere that it hurts.

Robert Ostaszewski

Excerpt

On the evening of 18 December 1981, I elbowed my way through a crowd of little mushrooms, angels, Father Christmases and elves to appear on British television’s most popular Christmas show. Which sounds good, and everything would have been fine, if it hadn’t been for the circumstances.Ten days earlier, in my flat on Bednarska Street in Warsaw, I had put afancy pigskin belt on my best black trousers made of the finest velveteen, polished my shoes to make them look decent, and then, driven by lust for profit and fame, I had set off for London to attend the premiere of my play, Cinders, at the Royal Court Theatre, leaving behind me all the strikes, negotiations, police beatings and the already visibly tottering communist government. And also my mother, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Zuzia, whom I had promised to bring back a doll, and my then fiancée, later wife, Ewa Zadrzyńska, who has no illusions about the moral calibre of this story and insisted that her name should not appear anywhere in it - a promise I made but did not keep, just like most of the promises I have ever made to her or any other women.
Naturally, when I smugly informed them that one of the best theatres in London was staging my play, none of my Warsaw friends were prepared to believe me for an instant. Of course, they politely acknowledged the fact and congratulated me, but winked at each other knowingly behind my back. As my return ticket was for 22 December, I only took an empty suitcase with me for presents, a spare pair of jeans, two shirts and twenty-five pounds in cash.
At first it looked as if I had got it just right.
I had a room at the Holiday Inn for free and was making money into the bargain, because unlike in Poland, where they’re reluctant to let the author into the theatre, in England he even gets paid for attending rehearsals. The actors were impeccable, and so was the director, Danny Boyle (the one who made the film Trainspotting). After the very first rehearsal I was already sure of the fact that Cinders was a really decent play, unlike its Polish version, after which I had promised myself I’d never write for the theatre again. The three Polish consuls in London, Messrs Kopa, Słomka and Mucha, all called the theatre to say they’d come and officiate. That was pleasantly flattering, because I had only ever met one Polish diplomat before (an ex-diplomat to boot), the former consul in Glasgow. His weak point was his total ignorance of any foreign languages. His strong one was his pretty wife, who was an actress. As a result, the consul spent his vacations at the Warsaw Actor’s Club, and after a few shots of vodka was happy to share his experiences as a diplomat with his audience. The job, he used to say, was basically a pleasant one, except that from time to time a Brit would come barging into your office wanting something. Even that wouldn’t have been too bad, if not for the fact that you couldn’t understand a blind word the guy was saying.
In the evenings, after rehearsals, I joined the actors for a Guinness at one of the pubs on Sloane Square. Jaruzelski and Brezhnev, Wałęsa, Kuroń and Michnik were all receding further and further into the distance as I felt myself bursting with pride, and quietly waited for the premiere.
But on 13 December, the very day when my then fiancée Ewa was to board the plane at 8 in the morning to visit London, buy herself something to wear and join in the celebrations, the phone woke me at 7. It was my friend Nina Smolar, who was calling to say that General Jaruzelski had begun the military operation that’s all too familiar to Polish readers. She added that they might let the first plane leave, and if they did, I should immediately bring Ewa over to the BBC, where the head of the Polish Section was Nina’s husband, Gienek Smolar.
“OK, OK,” I replied, my reactions slowed down by the previous night’s Guinness. I put down the receiver and only then, like the vampire in Herzog’s film, did I sit bolt upright on the bed.
The first plane wasn’t allowed to leave. But thanks to General Jaruzelski’s operation and the grievances of the Polish nation, I changed overnight from an unknown provincial writer into a full-scale celebrity.
Admittedly, consuls Słomka, Kopa and Mucha didn’t come to the premiere, but there were crowds of people swarming outside the theatre. The journalists lined up in a queue, and the reviews duly emphasised the anti-totalitarian tone and grim, Kafkaesque humour of Cinders.
And so that was how on 18 December, I found myself walking down that long, wide corridor fitted with carpets and hung with pictures, squeezing my way through the crowd of mushrooms, angels, elves and Santas to appear on British television’s mostpopular show. I pinned a Solidarity badge to the lapel of my jacket (designed by Barbara Hoff at Junior). I kept going faster and then slowing down, feeling terribly ashamed of the thoughts that were rattling round my head. They went more or less like this: Why the hell did I agree to appear on TV? OK, so they pay in pounds, but it’s not all that much and the fame will be short lived. But if I say what I think about martial law, my daughter will never, ever clap eyes on the doll I’ve promised her. Of course I could sit down in front of the cameras and say I’m not interested in politics, just pure art. But that would be an absolute disgrace. How would I be able to look in the eyes of the patriot who persuaded me to drive a lorry full of weapons for Solidarity across the border? He might be a secret police agent but he’d still spit in my face in public. Who gave my number to the TV people anyway? Must have been some jealous Pole who wanted to finish me off. And there’s one more tricky issue: how am I supposed to talk about the tragedy of our nation with such a lousy accent? God forbid I make some grammatical mistake as well.
Mulling these thoughts I walked down the corridor, propelled along by a lovely British actress, more recently turned interpreter, of whom I was not very fond just then, as she was responsible for all my troubles.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones