The acronym of the title pertains as much to the plot (a nameless victim of a road accident appears in the exposition) as to the key words – Nobody and Nothing – with which the author marks the novel’s two parts. The beginning seems ordinary enough – in Krakow, in the middle of a rainy night, three random pedestrians stop by a man lying on the road, obviously hit by a car. Each of the characters has a monologue concerning both the accident at hand and the speaker’s own situation. As such, the reader is given a baton race of storytellers – and it soon turns out that there are more than three. The latecomers are not tied to the initial incident, but they have various relationships with the protagonists who have spoken. The first to speak is Artur, a medical equipment salesman. He hates his work, and to some degree, himself as well. The same goes for Mariola, a simple woman tormented by her alcoholic husband, who, to keep the pain from driving her entirely mad (the loss of her child), keeps a blog filled with fantasies of a better life. Just when she’s about to slip away from a police patrol, a boy named Heads appears – an eternal student, something of a left-wing anarchist, a bit of a rebel without a cause. We hear his stories a little later on – it is he who introduces us to the remaining characters who will monologue. Among them is a figure who shares the author’s biography – Franciszek Jerzak, an employee of the Jagiellonian University. These protagonists differ in terms of their social status and their cultural competencies, the author has given them different states of awareness, he has tied them to different communities. What they have in common, however, is a crucial thing – alienation, a sense of not understanding, the experience of inauthenticity. In moments of sincerity the protagonists of NN understand that their lives are less absurd than entirely conventionalized, subject to unbearable routine. They correctly suspect that someone or something has forced them to play their roles in society, to participate in the tedious, barren play called life. It is also significant that, in describing their place in the world, the protagonists speak only to themselves, with hope of neither comprehension nor communication.
Jerzy Franczak (born 1978) A prose writer, poet, and literary critic affiliated with the Jagiellonian University, Franczak’s publications include the novels Changing Room (2008), The Inhuman Comedy (2009), Da capo (2010) and NN (2012); these were preceded by several collections of short stories.
Hang on a moment here, what’s that… A sack? Some kind of cellophane, or rags maybe, but why’s it so long? And shoes, or soles of shoes maybe, a sack of clothes, fell out of a truck…
A sack of clothes?
I went over there, right up to it, you could see some white runners, a jacket, a hand… Some guy lying here, what the hell, some homeless guy, but why here on the street? And why so contorted…
“A corpse,” I thought, or maybe I even said it out loud, and only then did I really come to my senses.
“Maybe it’s not a corpse, maybe he’s only wounded,” I swallowed hard, and the wind blew in my face, as if looking for a fight.
If it’s a corpse, I’ll have to do something, you can’t just walk on by a corpse, and if it’s alive, all the more so. Better flip him on his back and put a finger to his neck, check his pulse, but not with the thumb. Or maybe better not to move him at all? Or best to ask someone who might know.
I looked around, but didn’t see anyone. Small wonder – it was night time. As if out of spite. I was getting sober so fast that my mouth felt dry, as if I was getting a hangover.
The guy was lying there, maybe dying, he didn’t look so bad, not like a bum, though he had a scruffy beard, and dirty fingernails, all in all he could have been a mechanic or something...
Or call an ambulance! Call emergency, idiot!
I took out my phone, but first, for no reason, I popped some gum in my mouth, for fresh breath, I’m not up to anything, just out walking my dog.
He was lying on his stomach, one hand tossed to the side, a dirty-green jacket, cap all aslant, definitely breathing, right, one leg tucked in under him, the other one straight.
“Jeepers!” I turned when I heard the squeaky voice, instinctively jamming the gum between my cheek and my gums, and I switched off the phone. No need. A girl in a herring-bone coat, knee-high boots, and a scarf headed toward me and stopped dead.
“Is it a body?”
You wouldn’t have called her ugly, but there was something stupid written all over her face, her jaw slack and eyes open wide, painted up, wearing a beret with an antenna.
“I don’t know. He might be breathing,” I explained, articulating carefully, overemphatically, by which Ola always could tell that I was tipsy. “I wanted to check the pulse, but I’m afraid… I mean, I don’t want to harm him.”
“We’ll have to call in an ambulance. Have you got a telephone?”
“What and you don’t?” I wanted to ask her, everyone’s got a phone after all, I’m sure you’ve got one too, you stingy ditz! But I didn’t say anything – I was holding the phone in my hand, after all, so what was there to say, but really, people can be so cheap! And that phrase “call in,” she was really trying! So without another word I dialed the ambulance, or I guess I didn’t really “dial” it… Obviously, anyway I turned my back to her, to them, and waited for an answer, chewing my gum again.
The wind picked up and then died. As soon as I call in the ambulance, I’ll ring Ola, maybe she’s still awake. You wouldn’t believe what’s happened, honey! On the way home, you know, near Krupnicza Street…
Suddenly a guy jumped out from around the corner, wearing a suit jacket with the collar flipped up. Why wasn’t he freezing? And sneakers, on top of it all!
“A doctor’s what we need!” he said, putting his hand to his forehead, as if he were too hot, but in that jacket? He was quite a specimen: sneakers at this time of year, red pants, long hair, maybe my kind of guy, just a drifter? “Where’s he calling?”
“He’s calling an ambulance.” The girl covered her mouth with her hand, wound up, terrified.
“I’d like to report an accident, I mean a casualty… I found him on the street.”
“What seems to be the problem?” The voice was sober, bloodless, electrical it seemed.
“He’s just lying there, I don’t know, he’s not moving.”
“Where are you?”
“The corner of Krupnicza… Ah, no, actually it’s Wenecja Street.” I too was sober and bloodless, I was only passing by, not with a dog, but anyway, I was doing my civic duty. The guy in the jacket was bustling about the body like a paramedic, checking his pulse and bending his head, yes, there’s the pulse, took off his bag and tried to slide it delicately under his the head, but then he changed his mind.
“Kochanowski… Artur Kochanowski,” I corrected myself, but too late, it came out like “Bond, James Bond,” oh well.
“The ambulance is on its way.”
The electric voice fell silent, thank God she didn’t ask: “of the famous Kochanowski family?”
“Has he been lying this way for a while?” The guy unexpectedly put out his hand. “My name’s Heads.”
“Heads?” I grinned, but not maliciously, not too much, though of course I was tempted to say: “And I’m Tails,” and anyway, it was strange doing introductions in this situation. “Artur.”
We shook hands. The girl took a small bottle of mineral water from her purse and drank it, I was utterly parched, but I wasn’t about to ask her for a sip.
“You guys think a car hit him?” Heads folded his arms on his chest and declared point-blank: “Hit and run.”
What were we, Miami Vice, were we going to do some kind of investigation? I was waiting for the ambulance and genug, I’d done my good deed.
“Or he just fell down, fainted,” Heads continued, put his hands on his hips, as if turning into a different policeman, at a loss, because I wasn’t saying anything. “A heart attack maybe?”
“I can’t deal with this, here,” the girl was squirming anxiously, pussyfooting around us in those knee-highs of hers. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t deal with it.”
Heads was also pacing about, but with measured steps, back and forth, scratching his head, until I gave it to him straight, or actually didn’t give it to him straight, because it was a bit like I was justifying myself… Anyway, I eventually got riled up:
“Listen, man! I’m waiting for the ambulance, they’ll pack him inside, then so long, I’m in a rush to get home.”
“Everyone’s in a rush.” He gave me an accusatory glance. “The dickhead who ran him down was also in a rush.”
I got riled up again and waved my hand, showing I’d just remembered I had smokes. I reached in my pocket for cigarettes, there was one left.
“Got a light?”
The girl started ferreting in her purse, her hands were shaking, she was nervous.
Then we heard the hum of an engine, no doubt the ambulance on its way, but why weren’t there sirens? OK, the streets were empty, but why so slowly? The headlights lit up the front of a building, and then slowly, ever -so-slowly, a car came round the corner. But it wasn’t an ambulance, just a normal Audi, with lights on the hood... Cops!
“Where’d they come from…?” I was surprised for a second, maybe the emergency network has an alert system or something?
“Oh fuck!” Heads blanched, or so I imagine, because you couldn’t see so clearly, but he got all stiff, tense… Anyway he was scared, which surprised me, because he didn’t look like a crook, and he jumped at the corpse… Or not at the corpse, he just snatched up a bag lying on the curb and made a break for it.
Translated by Soren Gauger