Jerzy Pilch’s new novel, which has been enthusiastically received by the critics, takes up two major themes which are unreservedly at the heart of literature – love and death, ecstasy and nonentity. Here gloomy pessimism alternates with the orgiastic rhythm of the pleasure of story-telling, delight with mockery, belief with disbelief. The novel depicts the life of the Polish Lutherans in a small place called Sigła, at some point in the 1960s. The local and personal character of it are familiar to Pilch’s readers, because Sigła is none other than his home town of Wisła, which is not only his birth place, but almost his entire world. The symbolism of “Many Devils” comes from Protestant theology, and the way the book is constructed makes reference to literary myth – lined with nonentity and exhaustion, but stunning for its evocative images, tense plot, and well-paced narrative.
Life in Sigła is seemingly cold – because Protestants are economical with the firewood – and gloomy, because they sit in rooms without enough lighting. There are passions and addictions throbbing away here, but order prevails. The world can be heartbreakingly beautiful, on mornings when the grass steams in the October sunshine, or “the frost takes grip like a crystal vice”, or else it can be extremely nasty. “Man is born at the bottom of a terrible abyss, lives for God knows what reason, and dies in torments”. Death, under various guises, attracts, horrifies, pesters and haunts the main characters and the narrator, an almost transparent figure, very closely related to the author. Childhood fears are more familiar with death than with the real world. “The hallway is like gloomy, ice-cold delirium. They’ll die, they’ll die, they’ll die. Under a ceiling coated in brown rime a weak light-bulb burns, as someone steals across the garden”. The disappearance and search for one of the Reverend Mrak’s beautiful daughters makes Many Devils a bit like a crime story. But only ostensibly, as its essence is a mystery, not a riddle. Indeed, “after a few years’ thought” the clairvoyant postman points out the spot where “encrusted with never melting brown-and-green ice floes lay the dark cherry-red – so dark as to be almost black – pyjamas of the younger Miss Mrak”. But if it shows up at all, the alleged corpse will only appear in flashes excluded from the main story. As Pilch himself implies, it is more like the sort of disappearance that features in Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock – the girl remains the spirit of the story, a virginal angel shrouded in dense eroticism, like Ophelia, a figure representing the loss of an opportunity for love to be fulfilled. The mystery of Ola’s fate acts as bait for the reader, as her body becomes an ever more elusive object of desire, not just male, but also motherly and sisterly. The real horror is happening somewhere lower down, in people’s homes, in everyday life assiduously changed into hell. The special devilishness of sheer existence in a religious community is a paradox that typifies the Protestant characters familiar to us from Pilch’s autobiographical fiction. But Many Devils is not a gloomy horror story. It is a dense, narcotic tale about the devils of literature and the inevitability of dying.
In the middle of the last century there was a postman called Fryderyk Moitschek working at the Sigła post office who knew the secret of human life, knew where we are heading and what will happen after death. Only a handful of people believed in him, although everything he proclaimed, or rather read out of a thick ring binder, came true to the letter.
People died, fell sick and got well again according to his predictions, tomorrow’s weather was just as he had said it would be, and he accurately foretold foehn winds as stifling as the grave, floods that tore away bridges, overwhelming, oleaginous heatwaves and infinitely cold, snowy winters that came in from all directions.
He took a middling interest in football, and only once in a blue moon; it was all the harder to persuade him to predict the results, but once he did place a bet he was spot on: Real Madrid, Ruch Chorzów, FC Santos, Wisła Krakow – even our A-class eleven, altogether all the teams to which he turned his countenance always scored and always lost exactly as many goals as he wanted. It was a rare event, because he avoided situations in which his gift might not so much serve to make an easy profit, as generally be associated with any kind of shallow machinations. A shadow of surprise – one could sense that Fritz’s divinity did not rely on the weekly miracle of winning the football pools, picking the right lottery numbers, or consistently avoiding losing raffle tickets, one could sense it, one could plainly sense it, and with all subtlety one would not insist. Do not tempt me, anti-Christ! Get away from me, Satan! “And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season” (Luke, 4:13). Fritz was not a conjuror making a living out of breathtaking tricks. Fritz was a prophet, made of flesh and blood. Made of God’s flesh and Christ’s blood. His kingdom was not of this earth. He had plenty of cash, nobody knew where from, but definitely not fees for rendering prophetic services to humanity.
He predicted Zuzia Bujok’s lethargy and her awakening from lethargy, Józek Lumentiger’s abstinence and his abandonment of abstinence, Poland’s communism and its emergence from communism. All, let it be understood, gratis; in the final instance not just gratis, but with a good deal of patriotic fervour.
It was like this always, and with everything: gratis, gratis and once again gratis. Never a penny for anything, though he often incurred costs himself, though he sacrificed any amount of time, though he risked his health, and thus his life too. Perhaps only the Lord God, the Spirit of literary fiction, or a small number of other transcendent beings know to what strains he subjected his body, and to what injuries he subjected his unearthly, and thus especially fragile inner man.
It can’t be said that he didn’t treat his own folks seriously, helping and most lovingly caring for us with great devotion in whatever way he could, and not just being supportive in times of illness. Unfortunately he did not donate his entire strength, and all the ardent passion and skills of a talented healer to us alone. He served others, often complete strangers, not from Sigła, but from the world outside, with just the same, and sometimes – as one couldn’t help noticing – perhaps even greater ardour, solving their problems, curing them of all manner of phobias, recovering their irretrievably lost items, warning them against specific dangers, recommending thorough domestic therapies and – to be blunt about it – overzealously, especially when dealing with the fair sex, extremely overzealously elaborating all sorts of important and unimportant details of the treatment point by point; he would predict a favourable, at last a favourable turn of fortune for them, of course he still foresaw some minor difficulties, but at once he advised on how to dispel them, shrewdly explaining the situation – all tip top stuff, but at what price? To say that he managed his nature, his form and his condition wastefully, is to say nothing; not just wasteful, but how frivolous, how irresponsibly self-sacrificing – for instance nobody ever saw Fritz eating… Nobody, not ever… Do you see? Nobody ever saw him eat, and yet he must have eaten something… No? He didn’t eat? Did he live on air? The incidents and events came along in such rapid succession that there was no time for as much as a sandwich? Just a small apple on the run? But nobody ever saw that apple either! They just told stories about it. Were there tales and legends about Fritz’s apple? Anecdotes? Yes there were, this, that, and the other too. There were hundreds of questions, though it was really just one question. So what about our saviour, our healer, has he eaten anything this morning? An apple for lunch. One apple. Small, rather than big. So does Fritz keep himself going all round the clock on a single apple? So it appears. One day he’ll drop dead and it’ll all be over. No more miracles, no more prophecies, no more prescriptions against suicidal thoughts. Fritz will never drop dead, at any rate he doesn’t look like weakening. And that’s the worst thing – it would be a thousand times better if his weaknesses, hardships, cravings and what have you came out onto the surface. Out in the open they may look ghastly, but they’re not dangerous. Invisible, hidden deep in the heart and brain they’re in danger of exploding. Indeed, Fritz was exploding, thanks to his own exploits.
From the Kubatschkes’s house he drove out the ghost of a husband, pathologically jealous in life, and demonically jealous after death. For Doctor Nieobadany he predicted first four, and then, seeing what was in the wind, seven daughters. He cured Mr Ujma, manager of the pump room, of his penchant for men. He knocked the suicidal thoughts out of Emilka Morżolikówna’s head. All that on a very empty stomach? He never felt hunger, because he had no appetite? His bland body was so crushed by the strength of his spirit that it did not even require basic rations? Taking a broader view, is it that digestive processes (not to mention excretion) do not befit true prophets? They do not. To tell the truth, not even the most refined corporeal or biological aspects befit them. Was Fritz a ghost? He never offered anyone his hand; the question spontaneously arises, whether anyone ever touched him? Surely the numerous women who used to visit him? You would be surprised, you sure would be surprised. And you definitely are going to be surprised, but just a little later on.
Apparently a good few years before the war and a good few dozen years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he had new maps of Europe and Asia in his ring binder sketched with a copying pencil – those who saw them claimed that with the exception of East Prussia and Turkmenistan, it was all correct to the last millimetre.
Whether he ever resurrected the dead is not certain. He most certainly did revive Juda Tadeusz, the practically dead pet of the pastor’s wife – the most intelligent of the three parish cats.
He removed painful swellings from the udders of Greta and Maryna, both cows belonging to Józef from Ubocz. Not such a big thing, perhaps, but Fritz did it from a distance.
He bellowed in a dreadful voice at the paralysed Alsatian dog, leader of Frau Scherschenick’s pack: “Drop thy cane! Verily I say unto Thee: Drop thy cane!” – and frenzied by fear, the animal did not in truth drop its cane, because for the life of me it had never used one, but it stood up on all four paws. And that’s not all – it roamed the earth, fit and able, for a good couple of years more! And whenever it saw Fritz, or merely scented him from afar, yet more healing powers plainly entered it, because with a healthy howl it would be off like a shot.
Yes indeed, even if he wasn’t a one-hundred-percent miracle-worker, Fritz Moitschek had a gift. He would enter a house and infallibly sense idle motion in the electrical wires.
“There’s a light on somewhere, Mr Homeowner!” he’d say, and unhurriedly take a look around. “There’s a light on somewhere! Non-stop! Broad daylight, a long way to go until evening, but in your house at least one light bulb has been on since yesterday, or goodness knows when, Mr Homeowner!”
And every member of the household would leap to their feet and check the rooms to which the electricity extended, and every single time, be it in the cellar or in the attic, or in a cupboard locked and bolted since time immemorial, they’d find a dull yellow 40-watt bulb burning away in vain.
Fritz knew in advance who was going to get a parcel from America, whose child would get lost in woods while picking blueberries, who would steal whose cubic meter of planks and in which shed they’d hide them. He would infallibly point out the shelters on the edge of town where rash lovers would hole up, and the Austro-Hungarian bunkers where schoolboys inclined to commit offences would go and smoke their cigarettes.
Indeed there were those who claimed that Fritz figured out the mystery of the electricity by taking a discreet glance at the meter ticking over in the hall; that he knew about the parcels because he was a postman and sometimes even deliberately held on to them, just to have a chance to display his prophetic skills; that he wasn’t the only one to sense which child was feather-brained, who had criminal tendencies, who was conspiring with whom and in what shelter they hid, not to mention where the young lads puffed away. There were more than a few sceptics and doubters; frankly, they were the decided majority. A majority’s a majority, but a mystery is a mystery.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones