Land of Nod, The

Radosław Kobierski
Land of Nod, The
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa 2010
    ISBN: 978-83-7414-738-5
    604 pages
    Translation rights: W.A.B.

"The Land of Nod", a wide-ranging novel written with an epic sweep, portrays the fates of a few dozen characters, ordinary citizens immersed in everyday life, going about their business. The subject of this story—as grandiloquent as it may sound—is human destiny, life bound by routine. At least up until a certain moment—later on political history cuts into the triviality of ordinary life (the action takes place in the Polish city of Tarnów and the villages surrounding it, in the years between the World Wars, then under Nazi occupation, and finally just after the war). The novel’s characters come from all kinds of backgrounds, although people from two of these take priority, namely, the Polish and Jewish residents of the area. But there is also a Ukrainian, and there are Germans, and there is even a Silesian who has settled just outside Tarnów. The novel is peopled by representatives of all classes, of different mentalities, professions, and world-views. The novel is made up of loose, sometimes barely sketched-in episodes. Kobierski has clearly aimed to grasp the quotidian and the ordinary, and to make them sublime. Of course, everything changes in September 1939. The ordered and somewhat sleepy reality of the county of Tarnów is shattered by violence and omnipresent brutality. A metaphysical scandal arises that no one can understand, not even those Jews who are experts on the Talmud. The Land of Nod of the title appears, traditionally located, as we all know, east of Eden, a place of exile and suffering. Social and political history—like everything in this novel—appear in snapshots. It is not them, i.e. historical or social facts, that Kobierski relies on most. In a way, they are meant to illustrate or confirm some fuller diagnoses of the human condition, and these have been best recorded in the Book known as the Old Testament. The fullest of all emerges at the end of the novel: “Man always wanders in the land of his exile.” Kobierski’s reconstruction work delights. The world he has depicted is unusually realistic. His characters are made of flesh and blood, and the events of the novel are as moving as if they had really been witnessed by the author. "The Land of Nod" is written in a beautiful language and may be deliberately old-fashioned, isolated from the contemporary trends and fads in literature.

- Dariusz Nowacki

Radosław Kobierski (born 1971) is a writer, a poet, and a photographer. He is the author of three critically acclaimed works of fiction as well as five volumes of poetry.

Big automobile race in Tarnów! So the advertisements on the posts and in the local paper announced the sporting event being organized and financed by Sanguszko. The competition was to be accompanied by numerous festivities in town and in Strzelecki Park, including musical performances and magic shows. The Borowicz home was topsy-turvy all day. Thrilled by the prospect of a trip into town, the girls went running around their room, jumping on their bed and their bedcovers, sending clouds of dust and goose down into the air. Tosia caught them with a smile, like butterflies, and set each daughter in turn in front of the mirror.
“How old are you? Just look at yourself! And we’ve got to be in town in two hours.”
And so it began. Hair was combed and braided, faces were washed and dried. Meanwhile things were being baked, kasha was being mixed, and the pan of oil was being watched to make sure it didn’t burn. The boys, fortunately, stayed calm, already in full formal wear, scented and groomed: Józio in a navy blue sailor suit, Tadeusz and Wojtek dressed in newly sewn pants of the same material and white shirts that were almost indistinguishable from one another. Tadeusz went to harness the horse, put on its collar, and tightened the ropes while Wojtek showed Józio his notebook from school and began to teach him how to form the letters of the alphabet. Józio patiently guided his pencil from line to line, angling it, straightening it out, and showing the results to his brother with a smile. The letters were unlike any known form of writing, more of a mysterious design, but Wojtek pretended to be amazed, praised Józio and stroked his shaven head.
Paweł and his future son-in-law, Julek Lipko, talked about politics. Paweł liked Julek a lot, because he spoke little but above all was able to listen. Julek was languid, as though his whole life were delayed by several seconds. You had to wait out those several seconds before Julek would react, wake up, and offer a response. Maryśka, on the other hand, was a chatterbox. They would complement each other nicely in life.
Everyone was interested to know more about the events that had been written up so much in the papers. Everyone wondered what streets they would race down, what automobiles would take part in the races. Because the duke had already gotten them all used to seeing newer and newer models, their glistening bodies, the wail of their high-powered engines that wrenched the city out of its quiet, sleepy rhythm much more effectively than the infantry regiment’s bugle calls or the shows on Musikplatz, or Sobieski Square. The duke himself in his inevitable great big glasses, in his green plaid breeches and his cap slanted to one side, would cruise down the streets, down alleys, across squares, giving rides to agronomists, administrators, bohemians, and even distant relatives of the Spanish Infanta.
What chaos this caused! People would stop halfway along the road to the store, the cafe, the hotel, listening for that familiar sound, still in the distance. Only the passengers on the tram, as it stubbornly climbed Krakowska Street toward Targowa Street, couldn’t hear the whirr of the car approaching from Gumnisko or from Zgłobice. But now the vendors at the Burek Market were ceasing to shout their wares, and on Bernadyńska Street people were slowly starting to move into hallways and shops. Along with his countless other personality quirks, the duke had developed this weakness for motoring, and in particular for driving fast—he was, as well, a terrific driver, but whenever he drove into town, he was like an errant lightning bolt that doesn’t know where it’s supposed to strike. He took great pleasure in driving onto the hard shoulder, into murky puddles, the standing water left after the heavy rainfall that day and night had trickled down the narrow streets toward Wątok. Fountains of murky rainwater would drench the neat suits and dresses, the overcoats and hats of pedestrians. Interestingly, no one seemed to hold this against the duke, especially the women—they would faint at the very sight of the athletic young master of Gumnisko, handsome as Paris, prince of Troy; he had even rejected the advantages of the Iberian throne promised to him by marrying the Infanta, yet he shone in the society of Tarnów’s ladies, which threatened him at every turn with a mésalliance.
The Jurs were also heading to the festivities. Stanisław Jur, son of Wincenty, newly appointed alderman of Istow, led his slender chestnut mare to the carriage where Janka was already sitting with his mother, waving her parasol in Józio’s direction. It had rained all night, but since ten o’clock the sun had reappeared. The meadows glinted and the earth began to give off steam. A fine mist enveloped the clumps of alder trees, the orchards, and the ditches, which looked as though thick spider webs had been cast over them. Marysia handed Tosia a loaf wrapped in cloth, and the whole family set out for town. They passed the taverns near the grounds of the manor and the church with its new presbytery. Along the way, in the mud, there were fading daisies, rose petals, and dozens of colored ribbons from the processions, which in that anniversary year had gone to Łukowa and the holy icon at Tuchów. The great plane of fields and meadows, crops growing in rows that seemed to stitch the earth together, stretched before them. Tosia, happy, cuddled up to Paweł’s powerful shoulder and began to sing Henryk Wars’ latest hit from the movie The Singer of Warsaw: “Only with you and only for you, my heart dreams of your gaze. Only with you and only for you, for all my living days.” Olga and Renia wasted no time joining in.
With a radiant smile, Józio watched out for Dunia’s yellow house. He thought of her all the time. He dreamed of her large black eyes and her long braid. She had captured his boyish heart for all time one winter day, in January, when she gave him a raisin cookie for his birthday, along with a tender kiss. He had been standing up to his ankles in snow, freezing, but he still delighted in the memory of that kiss, made real now by the blush that sprang to his cheeks.
They passed Brzozówka and started to come near to Krzyż. The village’s houses and brewery were right inside it, somewhat lower down, hidden by clumps of trees and cornfields. The only thing that grew along Starodąbrowska Street was top-heavy, leaning willows. Some of them, hollow as double basses, were rotting from the inside, full of moisture and smelling of fungus. Every spring slender sprouts would shoot out of the swellings, switches covered in catkins and shimmering foliage like commas, setting the stagnant air in motion. In the half-shade of the lane grew canopies of angelica, the little bells of white deadnettle, yellow stonecrop and ivy, all trying to annex the road. But as soon as the first frost set in, all those unsettling colors would fade, the leaves would curl up into little balls and silently fall onto the ground. The trees would wave their naked branches, hoarfrost would settle upon the cobwebs coating their trunks, and the carapaces of dead insects would crunch underfoot. Józio was afraid of those trees. He would imagine that they were enchanted witches, and that they could be brought back to life with some casual gesture, with some simple incantation. He knew how effective willow switches were if you made switches out of them. They caused a short, stinging pain and left thin reddish swellings on your skin.

Translated by Jennifer Croft