Lidia Amejko's book is a series of responses to the question: How is one to explain the chronic inactivity of the residents of big city apartment blocks? The ones from the sleepy project-housing districts are particularly idle - drunks tied to their local corner stores, housewives glued to their windows and televisions, pensioners cut off from the working rhythm of life. It may be easy to get a handle on their daily rituals, but it is much harder to guess what is going on in their souls. To figure out what issues they discuss, how they perceive their existences or their role in God's grand scheme - if they've been assigned one at all. In forcing them to take action, that is, to consider their own predicaments, the writer draws philosophical meaning from their apparent torpor.
Amejko aims to dignify neither this miniature realism nor the impoverished with soul. The surreal hardships and metaphysical reflections that haunt the various "saints" are pure invention. This invention is comic by nature. The comic element comes in the elevation of these (not only superficially) barren and mindless existences. The combination of materials interwoven to make up the novel creates an even more humorous effect. Amejko draws from the Bible, from the history of philosophy, art and literature, and simultaneously translates all the elements belonging to the sphere of high culture into a kind of biblia pauperum. She uses them so that they become a natural component of this plebeian tale. This is the linguistic stylization of The Lives of the Project-Housing Saints.
Both this stylization and the use of an arsenal of high-culture references are employed here with masterly consistency. The seemingly incongruous component parts create an inexpressibly harmonious totality. The foreign, imposed ornaments are, of course, noticeable, but they also melt into the storyline to such an extent that they do not seem out of place. With this integration of discrepancies, Lidia Amejko achieves a result that adherents of realism or reporters aim at through other methods - she ennobles what would seem to be trivial or beneath the attention of a less sensitive observer. The writer laughs at this project-housing microcosm, but her laughter is full of sensitivity and understanding for her protagonists. She distances herself from this world via meta-textual commentary on the text she creates, and yet also dives deep into it, emphasizing that the fiction she creates is more than mere language games.
That's how it's been for years, here in the housing district, that to each of us is granted but one birth and one death.
Two ends, our lives are given, like the clothes-line for your underwear, and though the stones should shit, the wind should hit and the Project houses split in two - thou art bound to eternity by no more than two ends, O man!
Now obviously, one clothes-line was shorter, and another longer, and upon each line was something different hung - yet TWO knots ever kept us from non-being.
And the end.
Things only ever turned out different for Cyryl. Of course, he was only born ONCE, just like all of us. But then he died - every day! Like one end of the string had snapped and frayed into a thousand threads.
No doubt you're thinking that he might have liked to die, that he was insatiable for this death, that the free rein he showed to the gluttony within was unto excess - that so?
Let me tell you: It was fear of death that drove Cyryl to die each day!
“Ah, what’s all the fuss!" you cry. "No secret that to each of us comes fear of death (lest one take to drink), but he who fears need not a saint become! (Only he who shows great courage becomes one - this children are later told in religious instruction.) And thus why place this cowardly nutcase amidst the saints?!"
Shut your face for a minute, dang it, and listen up!
It was hard for Cyryl to be so scared to death of dying, and so he once thought to himself that maybe he'd get used to death a little and die, but just a little bit, just dip in his big toe - 'cause who could know? Maybe see if it's so bad after all?
He got settled on the couch, clicked the remote, so as not to lose sight of his own death, after all: how dumb it would be to die with one eye, and with the other peek at the screen. (Herein, O man, lies the most profound question of the Projects: how to reconcile one's final END with a television series that stretches forth into the INFINITE!)
And thus did Cyryl click, the screen went blue-grey, like a corpse, the glow lingered a moment longer in its tiny cathode soul, and blip! - the television went off.
Thus did Cyryl close his eyes and die.
It wasn't so bad at all!
And the day after contented did he awake, gazing upon the world with joy - after all: whom among us would not after death! Scrambled eggs did he fry with bacon, singing merrily all the while, but when came the evening, the fear descended 'pon him, that mayhaps he forgot something while dying, that... it had all gone too easy, somehow; that... one more time, just in case... he'd have to check!
Thus on the second day, he died.
On the third day he ate his fill, and by evening he was fidgeting again, like a puppy wanting to crap. Then he knew well and good that he wouldn't be waiting for the film after the news, but that he longed once more to lay eyes on the infinite that set this fear upon him.
And thus it went, every day.
Cyryl died, then res-erect-ed himself and made himself some breakfast.
At the start he was even happy, but later he felt dumb, that he was egotistically dying for himself only, without a thought for anyone else! Because as long as this dying business was going so good for him, why not die for someone else, who isn't as practiced as him?
He put up an ad in a shop: "I'll die for free. Orders by telephone: 3452861, Cyryl Damascenski”.
First it was Miss Hapiór who called to ask if he might not die for her, because she had so much work before the holidays that she wasn't sure where to start, so you see she had no time for death herself. But she'd be sure to die at some later date, just as soon as she caught her breath. And she'd bake Cyryl some cheesecake in exchange.
Then it was Mr. Kruczek who called, who in the occupation nearly perished one hundredfold and scarcely feared death at all, and now at the very thought of it went pale, trembled and wept without cease. Not butch, not at all. Janina O., the Seamstress, had neatly stitched his path to Oblivion, true enough, and Mr. Kruczek stared into the buttonhole she made night after night, but he was somehow afraid to go crawling through to the other side. So could Cyryl be so neighbourly as to die for him, and Mr. Kruczek would even fix his sink for him in return.
All kinds of folks came to see him.
Someone came for detox, wanted to start a new life and didn’t need death coming in-between; someone else wanted to be at his daughter’s wedding, and still others had bought a cheap vacation abroad and were out to avoid a last minute death!
And Cyryl was happy, because now he was dying for others!
And fared he quite well, for each unto him left gifts in gratitude. (How ‘bout that then? Feel a little dumb for tearing him to shreds? Just try and find me such a saint, whose devotion to other lives might match that of Cyryl’s!)
Only in Heaven was he disapproved of.
The tally kept coming up short: people were dying in the Projects, and Up Above no-one was showing up!
There was a tick in the “Death” rubric under Miss Hapiór, and she was still zipping about the Project like nobody’s business, still baking those cheesecakes for people!
“What’s up here?” snorted the Lord. “Never happened since the world’s been the world. I know, I know, people are crafty and have always wanted to pull one over on death! What they won’t come up with: turning their beds round to face the window, changing their names. One guy, Nondum, almost got away with it: there was such a void that there was nothing there to die of, so we had to send him Psychopomp, so as to first suit him up in a proper existence, and then push him through to the other side. And what about that weasel Farrago! Sent him right back from Heaven onto the Earth, he laid it on so thick!”
The Bookkeeper Angel flew down to the Projects to get to the bottom of things. He stopped off at the Jericho, had a quick beer, chatted some people up and got back home quick as a wink!
He went to see Cyryl with some bait up his sleeve: he claimed to want Cyryl to die for him. Cyryl agreed, took his cash, wanted to die for an angel - like it was nothing!
Cyryl’s eyes just bulged out, he splutters, wheezes, death sticks in him mid-way, like a bone in the gullet - it will move neither hither nor thither. Whereupon the Angel set handcuffs upon him and brought him unto God’s Court.
And thus ended the good times in the Projects, when people stopped dying altogether.
The Lord in his mercy did not even punish Cyryl, he only ordered his soul to return, so that everything in Heaven would tally up.
But Cyryl was rewarded with sanctity, because Heaven had never seen a fellow who’d taken away fear and done so much good for folks!
Translated by Soren Gauger