“We never walked down those streets. Nobody could even imagine doing so, as if we had banned ourselves from entering them,” writes Piotr Paziński in “The Manuscript of Izaak Feldwurm”, one of the four novellas in this collection. Within the book this ban is broken, and we step inside a space that is very densely inscribed with meaning. It is the area of pre-war Warsaw’s northern district which was later made into the biggest Jewish ghetto in Europe – for that is just what “those” streets, the “bird” streets, are encoding – doomed “never to rise from the dead”, and yet they are alive, drawing us into their strange “in-between” formed by the time and space of the entire set of stories. In Paziński’s work this is an invisible place, obscured by post-war topography, annihilated from maps and from memory, emanating a posthumous life so intense that present-day reality fades and pales, handing life back to the phantoms. “A net of contemporary cross-streets, cast there at random, as if none had been there earlier, did not adhere to the ground, but hung in the void, ineffectually concealing the nothingness.” Eagle, Goose, Crow and Duckling Streets – all bird names – “rang in the air, and it seemed as if each one were singing its own tune”. The important characters in the stories, as well as the ones only mentioned in passing, are old friends, a family circle of castaways from the Polish-Jewish world: Mr Sztajn, Mrs Tecia, Dr Kamińska, Mr Abram, Mr Rubin, the grandmother, the uncles, and finally, tangled up in it all, the narrator, somebody from the grandchildren’s generation, the third since the Holocaust. Everyone is engrossed in a spectral life, in the task of recreating memory. Some are entirely phantasmal figures, such as the Feldwurm of the title, or the Tzaddik from the story “The Cortege”. Others, like the dead man being carried by absent-minded mourners, or Dr Kamińska, live, temporarily, in the form of actual corpses. But all of them belong to that in-between realm, where both people and ghosts exist, the domain not of the traditionally uncanny, but of literature itself, the weakened magic of fiction – the only life of people who are being forgotten – which requires constant reanimation by its readers.
As in his first novel, The Boarding House, but in a far deeper way, this prose is built upon the idea of an expedition into a place where the past is lurking, hiding, but also waiting for someone to summon it by name. It can be scented out, imagined, and seen. It can, but it doesn’t have to be. Elegiac memory materialises partly, hesitantly, shakily. Paziński leads us through a half-real, half-dreamlike and spectral space, where he finds a shape for absence, an expression for non-existence, and a record for the invisible. He proves an unusual, ironical seeker and chronicler of the lost Jewish world. The style he has succeeded in creating for this purpose is at once distinctive and muted, brilliant but at the same time conscious of its own impotence. This writing is filled with deeply internalised knowledge of the fact that what was once called the “literature of exhaustion” ultimately found fulfilment in the upshot of the Holocaust, the need to write literature about the non-existence of one’s heroes and even about the death of objects, as in the superb story “The Apartment”. This erudite style, full of paraphrases of Schulz, biblical allusions and Talmudic references, is a special way of practising the philosophy of loss, which is fundamental to Paziński’s literary mission.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Jakub didn’t answer. For quite a time he hadn’t been listening, but was watching a pair of squirrels chasing each other along a branch. The man, who had introduced himself as Lejzer, noticed this and stopped talking. The sounds of the funeral cortege died away too. Jakub began to worry whether he’d really done the right thing by remaining here with a man who, one might reasonably suppose, had little in common with the other mourners and had not concealed his contempt for the entire ceremony.
“We’ll catch them up, they’ll be coming this way at least once again,” the man reassured him. “I’d better tell you what the real writing was like. I remember my grandfather, Szmuel the sofer, as he toiled over the sacred scrolls. He’d sit in total silence over a sheet of the best calfskin, and we’d be afraid to move. We were just kids, you see. Kids usually run around the room, but not at our place. At our place there was none of the racket you get in ordinary people’s homes. The house wasn’t large, and there were a lot of us, but nobody made a noise – nobody even spoke, sometimes just Grandma whispered to us very softly. Because at our place it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop! Nobody dared to scratch their head. What am I saying – if we could have stopped breathing, I’m sure we would never have breathed again, just like dead bodies. Anything to avoid disturbing Grandpa, who from the crack of dawn to late at night sat writing out the Torah. Later, once everyone was asleep, he’d meditate over every line he’d written and form his own account of those sacred verses. But in the daytime all his grandchildren were there, and just the scraping of his pen! Grandma used to worry. What would happen if Grandpa made a mistake? What if his pen broke? But Grandpa didn’t make mistakes, and sometimes, as I was his oldest grandchild, on condition that I didn’t say a word of course, he would let me stand behind him and watch…”
Jakub was looking out for the cortege. There was nobody coming down the road, but several times Jakub was ready to swear he could hear people striding along, now closer, now at a certain distance again. The man took no notice of this. He remained somewhere on high, invisible to Jakub, talking with ever greater fervour, as if he hadn’t had the opportunity since long ago.
“So I used to read the Torah over Grandpa’s shoulder! And two Torahs at once! One of them, complete, lay on the table wound on rollers, just as on the bimah in the synagogue. Grandpa would be copying it line after line, in the same order as his predecessor had once written them down, and before him yet another sofer, all the way back to the rabbi Moses himself. Each letter was equally important, and so was each crown over seven of the twenty-two letters, which together were like one body. And the entire scroll was like one single name, which Grandpa skilfully divided into individual words. I would read them, as they gradually emerged from the parchment, which in an incomprehensible way became black in exactly the places where it was necessary. Grandpa didn’t so much touch it with his pen as address it in his thoughts, and like this he summoned up the images of letters and entire sentences. And if it hadn’t been blasphemy, I’d have shouted: V'zotha'torahashersam Moshe lifneib'neiYisrael! This is the law that Moses presented to the sons of Israel! But in those days I was afraid to blaspheme, though to tell the truth I was more scared of Grandpa and his anger, for if, God forbid, a single drop of ink had fallen on the parchment and made a blot, that would have been the end…”
Jakub felt that he lacked the strength to leave the man on his own. In fact, despite some discomfort he was quite happy sitting there, and even the man’s story was quite absorbing. He reproached himself for not having the courage to fetch out a notebook. The words were melting so rapidly into the dark undergrowth that after a while it was hard to distinguish them from their background. Nevertheless, Eliezer did not stop talking.
“The finest moment always came when Grandpa added the names. The entire sheet would appear to be ready, three neat columns, one beside the other, the splendour emanating from every word and every letter, and I thought we’d found ourselves in heaven, but the most wonderful thing was still ahead of me. As he wrote, Grandpa would leave blank spaces in the text for the unutterable name of the Holy One, may He be blessed. Then he would go and cleanse himself at the mikvah, and in a sublime state he would sit down to work again. Now it was the whiteness of the parchment that shone, no letters were visible, just their white outlines. I would wait in suspense until he picked up the pen, and then the names of the Holiest alone would glow forth and eclipse everything Grandpa had written thus far. And so indeed it would happen. I would watch in total awe, for even though I had followed Grandpa’s writing, forming the finished sentences in my head, now, as the unutterable names were dazzling me with their power, I was quite incapable of doing it. Grandpa could cope with it somehow. Whether or not he closed his eyes and inscribed the missing letters from memory, I don’t know. Or perhaps he let them take away his sight? I wanted to ask him about it, but one day he came back from the mikvah and went blind. He sat down at the table, unfolded a sheet of paper, checked the inkwell, recited the blessing… And nothing more! He could no longer write a thing. And it was the parshatkitisa, what’s more, the point where the Name appears twice in a row. He couldn’t bear the brilliance! Silence fell, but it was different from before, it was awful. All the letters were escaping from the scroll, leaving blank parchment behind! There I stood behind Grandpa, as if spellbound. I longed to help him, but I knew I wasn’t allowed to, for he was the sofer, not I. It lasted a long time, perhaps longer than the actual writing. I gazed at Grandpa, who sat hunched, covering his head with his hands, as if petrified. We could hear that he was weeping. Very loud. That was the only sound I can remember.”
From beyond the trees came the creaking of a two-wheeled gig. …
“I’m not looking for Grandpa’s grave. I think I know where he’s buried.”
“In our garden, so I imagine. Because we had a garden, a wonderful one, the loveliest in the world, full of sunlight, and fabulous trees grew there, and the birds sang, but I wasn’t allowed to go outside, I knew I had to stay in the room beside Grandpa and watch him write out the holy scrolls, sheet after sheet. But out there, beyond the window, out there was the real brightness, the light came to a stop in the goblets of flowers, which before the spring had yet settled in for good were all but bending under its weight. It looked as if they were just about to burst, swollen to the absolute limits. That brightness even tempted me later on, when the Days of Awe were approaching and the golden remains were fading, tangled in gossamer threads just above the sun-scorched grass. Sometimes I would sneak out there on a Saturday after dinner, when Grandpa had dozed off and stopped guarding us for a while. If the gate was locked, I would squeeze between the boards – there was a narrow little passage there, a sort of chink, nothing more, but just the right size for me. Grandpa knew nothing about it – he’d have been very angry that instead of sitting over Rashi’s commentary, I was wasting time on nonsense. Fear Ye the Lord! Sin has infested my house. Sin has slipped through a hole in the fence, you treacherous spawn, I only have to take my eyes off you and at once, nettles and thistles! He’d have shouted all evening, heedless to the fact that one should bid farewell to the Sabbath Queen with due respect, for it is said that he who flies into a rage has perpetrated a form of idolatry. Meanwhile it was I who was the idolater, I the apikoros, Elisha, who had attained paradise…”
“…and there he saw a black angel on God’s throne and lost his faith,” Sztajn interrupted sternly. “That is why we owe obedience to rabbi Akiva, who taught that tradition is a fence around the Torah.”
“…and silence is a fence around wisdom. I know, I remember, we repeated it every Friday at table. But which side of it does wisdom come from? I would lie down there on the ground, like a pagan, or maybe like an ordinary boy craving sunshine, I would lie there for hours, so it seemed to me, although they were only short intervals. I would absorb the fragrance of wild herbs and gaze at the branches of the apple tree, where the first fruits were budding. Something would awake in me just then, a sort of yearning, my head would be flooded with heat, my body would be straining towards life…”
“Sinner!” jeered Sztajn. They both began to laugh. It went on for a good few seconds; perhaps they didn’t want the high spirits to leave them. But Eliezer went straight back to his previous mood.
“Now it has no significance anymore,” he said, running a hand across the nearest gravestone. The marks of his gnarled fingers were left on it. “Yet it bothers me. Could it be that my Grandpa, of blessed memory, could it be that he lost his sight in vain? Or maybe not? How can one ever know? Even I, as I lay there in the grass, was unable to forget the parchment and the candle, I could still smell the ink and our dark room. They blended inside me, the smell of the garden and of the calfskin, I felt as if the one could not exist without the other, so as I stood behind Grandpa watching him inscribe the sacred letters, in my thoughts I would escape to the other side of the fence, but once I was really there again, I would be drawn to Grandpa’s study, and words and whole sentences would whirl before my eyes. Until it all melted into one.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones