African Electronics is Jan Krasnowolski’s third book of short stories. Reading this new collection (including “Dirty Heniek,” “African Electronics,” “Hasta siempre, comandante” and “Kindoki”) reminds us of what Stanisław Lem wrote in the foreword to Krasnowolski’s first set of stories: “The author doesn’t like our times at all, a view one is bound to agree with.” In Krasnowolski’s work there is always evil lurking, lying in wait, changing case, disguising itself, playing underhand tricks and making surprise strikes. This is not our world, the best of all possible worlds. Here there are no good, honest policemen; there is political intrigue and dishonesty affecting every sphere of life. The guardian of order turns out to be keeping disorder (Krasnowolski jokingly reminds us that the law does not fall from heaven, but is the result of various decisions and compromises), and coming to terms with the complexities of the past seems almost impossible.
A mature child of pop culture, in his most incredible, and thus probable stories, Krasnowolski constantly disarms myth after myth. And, in the process, he produces very serious literature: light, trivial, satirical, fantastical, and as a result truly realistic. He speaks out on major historical issues, both local and global. Poland’s martial law period features in his stories (including Heniek, Dziuba and Comrade Gierciuch in new, democratic settings), as well as ideological vampires (Ernesto “Che” Guevara gains immortality for a merciful act, and sucks the blood out of beautiful virgin bodies – and not just those dressed in T-shirts with his image on them), Satan in the body of a child, racism, fascism, and (perhaps most importantly) the work of the non-institutional upholders of justice. Victims of the Holocaust who come looming out of the fog, or a war criminal on fire, imply that sometimes we should be reading Krasnowolski in the context of the tradition of stories which are incredible (e.g. the portrait that attracts misfortune) and free of bombast, which, as they crawl along, steal up and grab History from behind, in their search for answers to agonizing questions such as where does this weakness come from? Where is the mediocrity from? And, finally, where does evil come from?
Krasnowolski manages not to run aground on absurdity, thanks to a large dose of ridiculous humour and the courage to turn to unconventional solutions. Drunk and stoned, doped and desperate, Krasnowolski’s marginalised central characters prompt questions about the overlap and difference between dreaming and waking, madness and normality, good and evil. Nor will we find the answers of a cheap moralizer here – we have all the more reason to be inclined to agree with Stanisław Lem’s early diagnosis that Jan Krasnowolski “is in fact already a mature writer.”
Jan Krasnowolski (born 1972) has published two previous collections of short stories, Nine Easy Pieces (2001) and The Cage (2006). After graduating from art college he worked in a wide range of professions. In 2006 he moved to Great Britain and settled in Bournemouth. Here too he has tried his hand at several professions, now runs a building firm and – as this book proves – is still writing.
He took the kid to the restaurant at the end of the first passenger deck. Most of the seats were already occupied, mainly by football fans on their way home from an away match. A few dozen blokes in their club colours – they all looked rather sour-faced, which showed unambiguously that the match hadn’t ended favourably for them. Some of them had already opened their first cans of beer, and were loudly fulminating against the “sodding French”. Rybka managed to get a seat in the corner, right by the window, where there was also a view of the television set suspended from the ceiling.
“At least you can watch a bit of telly,” he said to the boy. “Normally you’d be able to see the sea, the other ships and seagulls, but it’s foggy today so you can’t see anything.”
Then it occurred to him that the kid had probably seen a good deal of sea lately during the voyage from Africa. Though perhaps not necessarily – after all, he didn’t know the circumstances in which he had made the journey. As a stowaway he might have spent the entire journey locked in a stuffy cabin, if not in a crate crammed into the cargo hold. Who knows – the road to a better life isn’t always easy.
“Wait here and don’t move an inch,” he said, as the shudder of the engines grew stronger and he felt them pulling away from the shore.
He went to order some food, never taking his eyes off the kid as he stood in the queue. The boy sat still in his seat in the corner, fixing his gaze on the window, as if he had noticed something interesting in the fog swaddling the ship.
As the little black boy tucked into bacon and beans, without taking his eyes off the Cartoon Network, Rybka thought he wouldn’t have any problem adapting. In a few months nobody would be able to tell him apart from the other kids born and brought up in the British Isles. The boy would blend in, melt into the colourful crowd that filled the streets of London, start talking like a born Londoner, get to know the city and learn to live in it. And in a few years he wouldn’t remember Africa any more, the village somewhere in the jungle or the slum where he’d lived until now.
“Aren’t you feeling homesick?” he asked.
“My home burned down,” said the little boy, sticking the last beans from the plate onto his fork. “There’s nothing left of it.”
“I’m sorry,” mumbled Rybka in confusion, regretting that he’d brought up a topic that was so difficult for the kid. “I hope nobody was hurt?”
“They were burned up. All of them. Mummy, daddy, my three sisters and my brother,” muttered the kid, tearing his eyes from the screen, on which SpongeBob was jumping about the seabed. “Those people stood there with machetes to make sure nobody escaped from the fire. That’s how my brother was killed, because he tried to escape. Only I survived.”
“Oh my God, I really am very sorry,” said Rybka, shocked, regretting that he’d started questioning the kid at all. “You must have been through an awful lot, son.”
“Uh-huh. The beans were yummy. I’d like a Coke please,” said the boy, pushing the empty plate away and smiling endearingly. “May I?”
As he stood in the queue for the till again, Rybka wondered what sort of traumatic experiences the kid must have been through. Everybody knows what happens in some of those African countries. Tribal conflicts, massacres, dirty wars in which insane commanders make soldiers out of little nippers like him, stuff them full of drugs and then put guns and machetes in their hands, changing them into merciless killing machines. But it’s one thing filtered through the flat screen of a television set, and quite another when you’re standing face to face with someone who experienced it. This child clearly had the bad luck to be born in some place that was gripped by conflict and had endured a nightmare, which was sure to cast a shadow across his entire life. What good luck he’d managed to get out of there. Little Eugene deserved to live in a better world, where the kids go to school, don’t see dreadful things around them and have a real childhood, instead of running about with guns, sowing death and destruction, until another stoned kid packs them full of bullets.
The little boy had seen his relatives die. Rybka found it hard to comprehend how he could talk about it so calmly. It must have been traumatic – maybe the child was still in shock. Altogether that would explain his composure and lack of emotion.
For the first time in ages he felt he was actually doing the right thing. He was helping to save this kid, get him out of hell and give him a new life. Little Eugene had already been through more than anyone ever should, he had seen his family die, and had come close to death himself. Rybka promised himself he’d deliver the boy to London, even if the world collapsed. Not because of the money, but because it was a necessity.
Rybka had been in business for a few years now. Smuggling cocaine, or “Charlie,” as the white powder was called in British slang, guaranteed him a regular source of pretty good income. It was all so easy that there was no moral dilemma keeping him awake at night. It was just a job like any other. One guy sits in an office for eight hours flipping through pieces of paper, another toils away in a factory at a conveyor belt. Rybka had tried both of these, and now he was smuggling drugs, because the opportunity had arisen and he’d got to know some people who’d given him the chance. If he didn't do it, someone else would – only a total loser would let an opportunity like that go by. Great Britain was like a gigantic vacuum cleaner: thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people, from the unemployed on benefits to the board member of a big company, snorted streaks of white powder through rolled-up banknotes every day of the week. Doped-up politicians ran the country, doped-up businessmen managed the corporations, doped-up cops caught doped-up crooks, and even the average Dave Smith liked to snort a line at a club of a weekend. It was thanks to cocaine that this country functioned at all. If the entire supply were suddenly cut off, the whole place would come to a standstill, like a machine that’s out of fuel. The financial system would break down without warning, the economy would instantly collapse, the country would be plunged into chaos, and riots would break out in the streets. Great Britain would slide into an abyss. That was roughly what Rybka imagined, as he salved his own conscience.
He didn’t even think of himself as a smuggler. He reckoned he was more like a one-man courier firm for special deliveries. Smugglers were losers who let themselves be sent to Colombia, from where they’d come back stuffed with condoms full of white powder, risking their lives for a paltry few thousand, which even so would never get them onto the straight. Or petty conmen, who pack their estate cars full of boxes of fags and vodka, then drive all day and night across Europe just to fall foul of the first customs official who casts a glance at their vehicle in Dover.
This commission was different from all the rest. When he heard that it involved bringing a seven-year-old boy from Marseille to London, he refused. A discreet package which can be concealed in a specially prepared hiding place under the boot is one thing, but a live person is quite another. A much greater risk, and, what’s more, the British services had cracked down lately on smuggling illegal immigrants, especially since there had suddenly been far too many of the legal kind. Taking all this into consideration, Rybka had told his employer to look for someone else. But the gentleman evidently wasn’t used to being refused.
“You’ll bring me the kid,” he had said, and then brought out a packet of money from the pocket of his expensive overcoat. Rybka knew without counting that it was more than he was capable of earning in six months.
“As much again when the job’s done,” said the black man, whom Rybka knew to be someone who counted in the London underworld. One of those who had climbed high enough not to have to dirty their own hands any more.
“I’ve got something else here in case you still can’t make up your mind.”
The black gentleman reached into his coat pocket again and brought out a small card, which turned out to be a photograph. He put it on the table in front of Rybka, for whom one glance at the picture was enough to understand that this man had him in his grip.
He could feel the blood drain from his face.
“You must care very much about this kid,” he said, staring straight into the gangster’s ice-cold eyes. He smiled weakly, though he actually felt like leaping at the man’s throat, knocking him to the floor and squeezing the life out of him. He knew he couldn’t take the liberty.
“More than you can imagine. He’s my nephew. So you’re going to do your best to make sure not a hair falls from his head. Otherwise another kid might have an accident…”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones