Saving Atlantis is not a novel in the classic sense, but rather a collection of stories which are closely connected by people, events and narrative situation. To some extent this book is a summary of Oryszyn’s writing to date, completing and supplementing themes that are present in her earlier work. The stories in Saving Atlantis essentially centre on one particular issue: how major historical events encroach on the lives of ordinary, colourless people. Oryszyn has always been interested in the destructive power of the winds of history – from the outbreak of the Second World War to the martial law era in Poland. First of all she takes us to eastern Sub-Carpathia, where in a shelter, or rather a hideout dug in the ground, a Polish family are hiding, along with some war refugees from the deep countryside. Outside, there are armies rolling past and partisans on the prowl. Oryszyn focuses on her main characters’ simple, innocent emotions; fear predominates, and the situation is compared to a never ending hunt. Later on we find ourselves in the era immediately after the war. The family moves from the east to Lower Silesia, and occupies a flat in a formerly German tenement building. The traumas of the recent past seem to pile on top of present-day traumas – Poland is shifting into the era of Stalinism, lack of trust is intensifying, denouncements are becoming more common, and those arrested by the apparatus of repression are disappearing. The very place (Leśny Brzeg on the river Oder, until recently the German town of Waldburg) is marked by the drama of expulsions and the wrongs done to the former inhabitants, who had been supporters of Hitler, and after 1945 came in for reprisals. Oryszyn writes about all these matters through the medium of a naïve, as if blinkered perspective. The main characters in this book do not try to square accounts with history or to analyse the world according to any moral or socio-political criteria – they simply say what happened to them or to someone in their immediate environment. This is a view from below, set within real experience and concrete fact, far removed from the sublime, and thus it is authentic and moving. In the final chapter of the book references to the paradoxical title appear – life has been saved, though under pressure from extreme violence, and in such unfavourable circumstances that it ought to have been lost forever, like Atlantis.
- Dariusz Nowacki
Zyta Oryszyn (born 1940) is a writer and journalist. In the 1980s she was the editor of samizdat journals and an opposition activist. She published her first novel, The Naiad, in 1970, and in later years her books have included collections of stories entitled Black Illumination (1981) and Madam Frankenstein (1984). To date, her most acclaimed publication has been the novel A History of Sickness, A History of Mourning (1990).
The railway track disappeared in the woods around the bend.
Around the bend the world began. Crossing the world by train took you all the way to Wrocław. Wrocław was where the universe began.
The universe was divided into two unequal parts by the iron curtain.
The capital of Olek Walewski’s universe was Moscow. Which city was the capital of the other universe was not entirely clear. The Americans claimed it was Washington, but they walked upside down. The French declared that it was Paris, but they ate frogs and snails on a daily basis. The British insisted that it was London – enough to make the cat laugh. Olek Walewski could cover up their little islands with a single small inkwell.
The world was obscured by beech trees, hornbeams and oaks, as well as pines and firs. One time Olek Walewski scrambled up the highest oak. The air was crystal clear, so his grandmother claimed. The coking plants weren’t putting out smoke because they’d had a breakdown. Olek thought that thanks to this favourable state of affairs he’d be able to see not just Gedymin’s Hill or Sobótka, but also Śnieżka mountain, over which the border ran. And once he saw Śnieżka, he’d see the iron curtain too, for surely that sort of curtain must reach up to heaven.
It wasn’t at all clear whether or not the iron curtain reached heaven, or just came up to the first feeble little clouds. Mietek Szczęsny said it only came up to the first clouds. For if it had reached right up to heaven, there would have to be some sort of airlocks in it or something, so that the planes could keep flying.
Nor was it clear how far the curtain reached downwards – whether it just touched the ground, or was dug deep into it. For if it was dug in, they’d definitely need a sapper’s shovel to make a tunnel under it.
Olek Walewski’s granny reckoned the curtain didn’t reach all that high and could be climbed like an iceberg, so she urged him to equip himself with a rope and climbing hooks.
She had spent her honeymoon at Chamonix before the First World War, and there she had seen mountaineers climb to the top of the Bosson glacier, tied together with ropes. They had special boots, with sticking-out nails on them. Granny insisted that before the journey to the other side of the curtain everyone should fit nails to their shoes. And that the nails should stick out specially.
Mietek Szczęsny and Franka Salatycka had voted for the sapper’s shovel, and against the ropes and specially hobnailed boots.
Firstly, they didn’t have any boots, just rubber-soled slippers.
Secondly, they wondered how old Mrs Walewska was going to climb up the iron curtain, even if it wasn’t entirely smooth. It probably was a bit rough, because it didn’t reflect the sun’s rays well enough for the flash to be visible in Leśny Brzeg. A flash like that would have been dazzling, it would have shone like snow or something, but there was nothing dazzling Olek Walewski or shining in his eyes as he sat in the highest oak tree.
The iron curtain had come down a few months before the referendum. On exactly the fifth of March 1946.
Just then, Olek Walewski had been squatting by the building site, observing the early spring. The early spring had looked like Mrs Pitkowa in her dressing gown, when she came out to throw ash onto the rubbish heap each morning. Her brown, cracked heels and her torn grey night shirt protruded from under her dressing gown. Scorched by a permanent wave, her hair stuck up in the wind like crisp, dry, faded stalks. Mrs Pitkowa breathed through her mouth. In her half-open mouth the teeth had gone black. That mouth and those teeth looked like the pit dug at the building site.
The building site was some heaps of earth and a hole next to the tenement house. It was some trees that had been ripped up by the roots and tossed onto the embankment. Some bricks and bags of petrified cement. Fag ends, dried grass and a rusty digger with its scoop raised up. The scoop was like a gallows.
Under the gallows stood two kennels. A dog kennel and a man kennel. In the dog kennel a black mongrel kept barking for days on end without coming outside. By night the mongrel howled and apparently chewed at her own paws. So said the watchman, and he called her Loopy.
The watchman lived in the man kennel. He had a rifle and a radio. The kennel had no windows. Just chinks between the boards. Inside there was a couch, and the man kennel was supplied with electric light.
The watchman often used to sit outside the man kennel and listen out for Loopy’s barking. Sometimes he grabbed his rifle and promised her: “I’m going to see the day when I kill you, you son-of-a-bitch.”
He also listened to the radio. He claimed that all the tenants in the tenement house should listen to the radio. Because you could find out from the radio who was an outsider and who was one of us. And outsiders were forbidden entry to the building site. Spies, for instance. And every spy is an outsider. He was to point his rifle at outsiders the way he did at Loopy and shout out loud: “Stop, who goes there, you spy!”
Nobody knew what the watchman was called. It was silly to ask an official person his first name, surname and place of birth, like at an interrogation.
When on exactly the fifth of March 1946 Olek Walewski was squatting beside the man kennel and observing the early spring, the nameless watchman was tuning the radio. Loopy was barking, and the radio suddenly began to boom – boom, boom, boom, boom – and presented itself: “This is Radio London.” Olek was surprised the watchman had an English, not a leftover German radio, and when he stopped wondering, he heard from the English radio that an iron curtain had come down on the Earth. More or less right across the European continent.
It roughly emerged from this that capital cities such as Warsaw, Berlin, Sofia, Prague, Budapest and Bucharest were in front of this iron curtain, on the same side as Moscow. And the rest of the universe was now behind it.
Olek Walewski sprang to his feet, because it was woeful news. He raced head-over-heels to Granny’s, to communicate this woeful news. On the way he kept telling himself who had revealed that the curtain had come down and where: namely somebody Churchill in a place called Fulton.
Unfortunately, Granny was hiding again. He looked for her in the usual places – behind the galvanised bath tub in the corridor, in the flat under the bed, and behind the wardrobe, but he couldn’t find her.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones