The main theme of Traitor is “lustration” – the exposure of collaborators with the communist regime – within the Church, illustrated by the case of Father Konrad Halicki. The novel is set on three time scales. In numerous flashbacks Halicki’s childhood and youth are depicted, up to the moment when, already a priest, he is beaten up by the secret police. The heart of the novel is the investigation that goes on for several months, and which is conducted by the priest and a journalist whom he befriends in order to find out which of his friends and acquaintances informed on him in the 1980s. And finally there is a description of the dozen dramatic hours when Halicki has to survive the night high in the mountains during a raging snowstorm.
Harny has done a lot to make the main hero of Traitor an original character – for a priest, Halicki has an unusual curriculum vitae. He is the son of a writer who was highly regarded in the communist era and who was an avowed atheist and anti-clerical, so not surprisingly he was never christened as a baby. For years he is not at all interested in matters of faith. He is a rather troubled teenager and youth, quite a rebel. First he gets up to no good with his contemporaries, fails to study and has an affair with an older girl, then finally he gets a job at the Lenin Steelworks and leaves the family home. At the steelworks he experiences the turbulent strike period of the early 1980s and gets involved in opposition activities. He also meets a girl who gradually draws him into the Oasis Catholic youth movement, which will turn out to have key significance in his life.
Harny has succeeded in an interesting and convincing way to depict the psychological effects of “lustration”, describe a growing climate of mistrust and suspicion and show how a single secret police record or a single rashly cast accusation can result in people who have been close friends for years suddenly ceasing to acknowledge each other in the street. And how often those who claim to be seeking the truth about the past are actually only interested in common revenge.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Marek Harny (born 1946) is a journalist and writer. Traitor is his sixth novel.
He did not yet fully understand the reason for this sudden summons to the Bishop’s palace.
“So how was it? Was that the moment when you began to hate your father?” asked the Bishop, fiddling with a paper knife. “Because he spoke disrespectfully about our Holy Father, and just then you sensed which side you actually belonged on?”
“I don’t quite follow…”
“Of course you do. You once told me about it, don’t you remember?”
He did. He had said too much about himself to too many people, he had been too open, and trusted people too much. He had never got out of the habit.
“No, that’s not right.” He shook his head. “I never felt hatred for him. It wasn’t that…”
“Then what?” asked Gawrysiak, staring into his eyes. “Shame?”
“It’s a family matter. I don’t see why you are exploiting some of my old confidences now, Your Excellency…”
“You do, you do… Because that was when it occurred to you that you would become a priest, or maybe I’m mistaken?”
He clenched his fists until it hurt, yet, furious that he was explaining himself and that he wasn’t able to put up a tougher front, he replied:
“It wasn’t like that… Not so quickly.”
“But there’s something in that, isn’t there?” The Bishop gave him a concerned look. “You see, perhaps your problem is that at the heart of the matter you have never had a vocation? Maybe you just wanted to do it to spite your dad? He was a communist, so you decided to become a priest.”
For a while he didn’t know what to say in reply to such injustice. Not because of the suspicions that his vocation wasn’t genuine. He had been used to that from the start, though he did not expect to hear such accusations from the mouth of the Bishop after almost twenty years of service that could not be faulted in any way.
But he was more hurt by something else. Zygmunt Halicki a communist? What nonsense. Never for a moment had he ever thought of his father like that. He may have been a weak person, who tried to set himself up as best he could. But a communist? It’s true he joined the Party. And so what? Could His Excellency have such a short memory that he had forgotten how many party members had marched behind his canopy?
“My father was never a communist,” he said sharply, dropping the tone of respect due to the Bishop.
“Oh, really?” Gawrysiak’s voice shook with not very carefully concealed mockery.
“What can you know about it, Your Excellency?”
“I can, I can. I’m not as young any more, but there are things I remember. For instance, there was a novel called Comrades From the Front Line, a book that poisoned the minds of an entire generation. Don’t interrupt, I know your father disowned it, he must have wanted to wipe it out of memory entirely, I heard that ultimately he even tried to take up religious themes… Unfortunately, facts are facts.”
“Your Excellency, you know perfectly well that it wasn’t people like my father who tried to get on with the communists. Even the Primate of the Millennium, even…”
The Bishop raised his hand in warning.
“That’s enough! Don’t say a single word too many. Too many people, including priests, are already blabbing too much. They don’t stop to think what that really serves. I have heard rumours that you too have started playing at a private investigation, tracking agents within the Church off your own bat…”
So that was what it was about. Now he knew. Some saintly little soul had already come running to denounce him, concerned that another dirty stain should not appear on the face of the Polish Church. Though in fact Konrad hadn’t really started to do anything yet.
“I just asked for my file at the Institute of National Memory,” he said. “Everyone persecuted in the communist era has that right.”
“Yes, yes, it starts with your own file, and then… Curiosity has a strange way of growing.”
Konrad was surprised. The Bishop evidently suspected him of wanting to follow in the footsteps of Father Abramowicz-Mirski. The renowned exposer of agents within the Church had started from his own file. Reading the secret police documents had proved such a shock that it had changed his life, or so at least he had told the journalists. From then on he had been doggedly tracking down agent priests, like no one before him. He had stirred quite a panic among the hierarchy. Yet Konrad was convinced no one could suspect him of similar intentions. Now it seemed he was beginning to understand.
“Did the Cardinal ask you to stop me, Your Excellency?”
The Bishop sighed insincerely again.
“Do you really think the Cardinal hasn’t anything more important to worry about? It’s enough that he has to keep battling with that… you know who… with that… bearded fellow, right?”
Although he did not find the situation in the least bit amusing, Konrad almost smiled. His Excellency could not get the name Abramowicz-Mirski past his throat.
“No, Konrad,” the Bishop went on. “I asked you of my own accord, to spare the Cardinal new worries, and to spare you…”
“What? Punishment? Exile to a remote parish?”
“You see? I was right. There is anger in you. You don’t want the truth, just revenge. On whom? Just on your father, or…”
Konrad was overcome with fury, all the greater because the Bishop wasn’t entirely wrong. Yes, he did want to get even. But it wasn’t about what His Excellency thought at all – his suspicions were so unjust. A few weeks earlier Konrad had been convinced that investigating who within the Church had once informed for the secret police was none of his affair. He had something to do, he had a mission he believed in. He was definitely more needed by his God’s Trampers than some old papers piled up at the Institute of National Memory. He was drawn to the mountains with the young people, and they had already planned a trip to the Tatras for the holidays, to climb at least the five highest peaks, and if they succeeded, more even. He had rarely felt such a strong desire.
And did that Gawrysiak really think he’d prefer to fill his lungs with the dust off secret police files rather than mountain air? If it was really up to him…
“I don’t want revenge,” he said. “I just have to defend myself, that’s all.”
“You are a priest, Konrad,” the Bishop reminded him caringly. “You should take accusations, even unfair ones, with humility. If you are innocent, the Church will clear you itself. And if you happen to have something on your conscience, sit quietly and don’t bring shame on the Church. Don’t make more noise, because there is already too much of it as it is. That’s just my friendly advice for now.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones