In Phantoms, Łukasz Orbitowski shows himself to be the type of writer who can deftly combine an unfettered, fantastic storytelling imagination with the attentiveness of the penetrating psychologist and observer of reality.
This sprawling novel begins with a disquieting scene involving a small girl and a soldier. There is also a mysterious box, which will appear again and again as a leitmotif throughout the entire tale. The actual commencement comes, however, only a dozen or so pages later and is set just before the planned Warsaw Uprising of August 1, 1944. The hero, Krzyś, who is heading for his assembly point, expects to take part in it (the model for the character is Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński). His fiancée, Basia, is supposed keep the box a secret from her future husband. But the Uprising does not break out. The weapons do not work. A different history of Poland begins – an alternative one, for Krzyś as well, who in Orbitowski’s book does not perish in battle during the war. It turns out that Krzysztof lives on into socialist Poland and attempts to write a novel in the service of current political needs. It is tremendously difficult for him. Moreover, he experiences problems in everyday life, in relation to himself and to others. Meanwhile, in the background of Krzysztof’s adventures, the story of the militiaman Victor and the political prisoner Janek plays itself out.
Orbitowski’s tale shines with many colors. Fantastic narration is interwoven with realistic narration (and vice versa), themes draped in historical clothing suddenly turn out to be identical to contemporary ones, and the largescale portraiture of the characters intersects directly with psychological observation of human relations. Orbitowski thus perfectly juggles styles, perspectives, and moods. It’s a solid piece of work, at moments almost cinematic, and situates itself superbly among the most important examples of contemporary Polish literature rooted in the fantastic.
Krzyś scooped aside the papers atop the hidden pile, there were a few underground publications, crumpled copies of the New Sparrow, military textbooks from before the war and one written under the Germans, a clandestine edition of Petrażycki’s Emotional Psychology. Beneath this were maps and training materials, all covering the real treasure:
a long-butt Thompson, two Sten guns, a Schmeisser, plus a pair of grenades and a little ammunition. General Monter said that anyone who was unarmed should pick up a stone and go try and seize a weapon. But Krzyś was armed.
He hunched over the chest for a moment, but not because an asthma attack had choked him, who could worry about asthma on a day like this? Krzyś was thinking over what he should take, after all the weaponry did not belong to him, on the other hand it made no sense to show up on Foch Street with bare hands. But what if a patrol stopped him?
The day was warm, one of the Stens could be hidden under his coat, except that a coat on the first of August looked suspicious. That day, however, there would be plenty of people in coats on the streets of Warsaw. Krzyś knew that besides coats and Stens soldiers also needed boots and he still had to find a pair. There was little time. He felt a strange, unpleasant taste, as if this requirement amounted to an order for him to remain in the rear and serve those who were fighting, as if you could see in his eyes that to fight meant to kill, but
Krzyś gave the impression of someone who could die beautifully, but would have trouble with the killing part. He rejected those thoughts, comforting himself that everyone in Warsaw right now was bogged down in doubt and everyone wished they were somewhere else, in a different platoon, in a different townhouse or entryway than the one in which they happened to be sitting, and there were certainly some who at that moment were kneeling over a chest of weapons.
He placed two grenades on the bed, returned the papers, and put the floorboards back in. He shoved the fold-out chair over the spot and sat on it, out of breath. He missed Basia, her words and lips the most, but also a certain simple thing she would do: until now whenever he had closed the hiding place, Basia would come in with a broom and rag, unbelievably cautious for such a beautiful girl. He could never understand why Basia did something like that, there was no need, after all if someone denounced them or if some German came in by chance, he would immediately think of the foldout chair and the floorboards beneath it and no amount of sweeping would help. But Basia would sweep, she swept patiently.
Now he wondered where she was, whether she had already arrived on Pańska Street, and if not, then would she arrive before everything began, after all you didn’t have to be a general to know what was afoot. The mobilization had already been going on for several days, Soviet artillery was blasting from Praga, from Radzymin, from Otwock, and at Fischer’s call to dig trenches only a few sons-of-bitches showed up instead of the entire city. So Basia, who had never wanted to know, knew, it would be worth it to ask her what she would do with that knowledge, would she hole up somewhere or come after Krzyś? That question stung him and spread over his entire body, just as poor and thin as he was.
Krzyś washed his face, stuffed the grenades into his pants and covered them with a faded blazer that was too large for his narrow shoulders, his skinny wrists protruded from the voluminous sleeves, his boyish head with its frightened eyes jutted from the starched collar. He glanced out the window, at his watch, out the window again, people were hurrying along the cobbled sidewalks, moving in unordered groups to destinations known only to them; if a face appeared in the window, it did so only to disappear again, a barefoot kid ran out of a dark entryway, but then immediately disappeared into another one. Poetic imagination added the rest: Now the walls of the townhouses of Hołówka were being torn open like freshly scarred wounds, wet, red bricks
were peering from beneath the plaster, the tall, narrow entryways, shaped like ancient monoliths, were empty reflections of pagan circles, those whom Warsaw had devoured were dashing from them, those tossed onto the dinner plates of the Muscovites, the Soviets, and the Germans, gobbled up by the silverware of the
Volksdeutsch, torn apart and chewed – now, once again whole, they fled for freedom, boys butchered during the slaughter in Praga, killed by the frost of Siberia, shot on Szuch Street, the living ashes of the recent ghetto rushed in a gust of wind from the bowels of the city. A second picture placed itself over the first one, surprising even Krzyś: peace had come, the Germans had been destroyed, the liberated phantoms were greeting one another, finding old friends and lovers, they were hurrying to victory celebrations in columns of black cars, where ghostly orchestras were playing cheerfully, people in love were seeking places for themselves on stairways or even copulating in public, convinced that since they were dead, they could get away with their debauchery. Killed legionaries were playing poker and skat, slaughtered whores were flirting with them, children summoned from the dead were joyfully breaking the windows of buildings, windows that had already been shattered five years earlier in September.
And then, something even more beautiful, the ghosts were gliding in the direction of the Old Town, to Marszałkowska Street, where they merged into a cadaverous procession illuminated by the glow of victory. Everyone had a funny cap or colorful clothing on, red confetti shot into the air, laughter rang out, the songs of accordions, guitars, and barrel-organs resounded, and the happy, victorious dead were pulling the living into joyful madness, they raised the handicapped from their wheelchairs, they knocked the crutches out of the hands of the elderly and drew them after them, they grabbed hold of soldiers, their women, mothers, they fired salutes into the air, ever more quickly, the living and the dead, kings and corporals, entwined in a dancing, snaky line along the streets of Warsaw. And no matter where you looked there wasn’t a sad face to be seen, unless it was the mug of a blackmailer of Jews, or a Volksdeutsch, or the furious grimace of a blue policeman, frozen in a standstill, tied by a string to a lantern post. Warsaw was laughing, Warsaw was dancing, animals and buildings along with people, the city leaped for the sky in the holiest days of August. At least, that’s how Krzyś saw it, clearly surprised at himself, he thought yet whether or not he should write it all down and get it to Basia somehow as a sign of good fortune – if you could only slice open a poet’s head and read the future from it, life would be simpler. He smiled at the thought – the sight of priests presiding over the cracked skull of some bard or another – he decided he wouldn’t write it down after all, because he really
had to go. Wherever Basia was, she would certainly wait for him.
Translated by Christopher Caes