This is a masterfully constructed, contrary story. It starts like a fairy tale, not just because it opens with the phrase “Once upon a time…”, immediately followed by some animals that talk (a cat and a dog). The main reason is that it’s about the incredible encounter of two fairy-tale characters: an old woman whose owns nothing but a cow, and a handsome prince, who owns a luxury Mercedes. As bad luck would have it, this fabulous vehicle has broken down in the middle of nowhere, “at the end of the world”, in other words, on the Polish-Belarusian border, near a village called Słuczanka, where – and this may be highly relevant – Ignacy Karpowicz spent his childhood. The old woman invites the prince into her poor cottage, offers him milk straight from the cow and tells him her life story. Her name is Sonia, and the man listening is called Igor, a trendy theatre director from Warsaw who’s been corrupted by success. Igor rapidly realizes that Sonia’s fortunes are ideal material for a moving play about great love and even greater suffering, set within the real events of the Nazi occupation. At this moment the reader loses his or her bearings; s/he doesn’t know if s/he is dealing with a shocking story taken straight from real life, or a stage script that’s been edited over and over again, cranked up for theatrical effect, essentially a kitsch “product” manufactured by the crafty Igor, who knows how to win the hearts of the Warsaw public.
Sonia hasn’t had an easy life – she grew up with no mother, beaten and raped by her father, knocked about by her brothers, and chained to the housework like an animal. Nothing but blood, sweat and tears – until June 1941, when the German army came marching through the village on its journey east. Just one glance, and she instantly fell in love with Joachim, a handsome SS officer. And her feelings were reciprocated. For two weeks the lovers meet each night, and love gives Sońka wings, tearing her away from life in the strict sense of the word (all this time she never eats or sleeps, as if she’s in a supernatural sphere). The price of this transgression will be high, but for the time being the sentence is postponed: now pregnant, Sonia gets married to a young man from the neighbourhood, and gives birth to a son, who is the result of her liaison with Joachim. But about a year later she loses everyone in her immediate circle: the cruel father, the insensitive brothers, her devoted husband, the child, and finally her SS-man lover. From then on she lives alone, branded by the village community as a traitor, a whore and a witch, with domestic animals as her only friends.
Karpowicz has had the excellent idea of constantly confronting his main characters with things that are foreign to them and experiences that cannot be expressed. Sonia speaks in Belarusian, and Igor translates her story, not just into Polish, but into the language of the engagé theatre (for Warsaw snobs) as well. In her conversations with Joachim, Sonia is – as we read it – totally sincere, because she doesn’t know German, and he doesn’t know Belarusian, which means that neither of them has to tell lies. Karpowicz “plays out” this situation brilliantly: while she’s listening to the SS-man’s account of exterminating the local Jews, Sonia is fantasizing about their future happiness, imagining an idyll at the side of her beloved, while he, as he cuddles up to her breasts and strokes her hair, can give vent to the nightmares tormenting him. He tells her about the bestial acts in which he has been participating, while she listens and doesn’t listen all at once. It’s an excellent idea. It’s also quite original to include a semi-autobiographical figure in the story. It turns out that Igor is actually called Ignacy, and like Sonia, he comes from the Podlasie area, but has turned his back on his roots and on the Orthodox faith; having killed off his own rural identity, he has been entirely possessed by the idea of an international career. But typically for Karpowicz, all this is placed in inverted commas, tinged with irony and self-irony, streaked with a fear of being too straightforward, artless or sentimental. As a result we trust Sonia, but at the same time we approach it with suspicion – and that’s exactly what Ignacy Karpowicz wants us to do.
In the village people are easily found, whether they want to be or not, unless perhaps they go missing, then they sink like a stone, nobody saw it, or heard it, or sensed it, just a splash. A village is a small world, where everything is within range of sight and hearing, everyone lives so close to each other that nothing can escape anybody’s notice, and then comes the punishment, which is rarely fair. I slipped out of the cottage as usual. My father and brother were sleeping solid, heavy sleep, as if they’d taken opium. Past the gate, Wasyl rubbed against my legs. He let out a high-pitched, pitiful meow. I leaned down to stroke him. Justthen I thought I heard a noise, something like twigs snapping, someone holding their breath and a droplet of sweat welling between their breasts. But it was nothing, so I went on my way, to the bridge. I spotted Joachimimmediately: as the daylight dazzled and blinded me more and more, a clear outline reflectedin my eyes, a dark set of arcs. Two steel flashes gleamed on his uniform. To me it was as if those flashes, so close together, momentarily set alight in a blinding flare, were us.
I kissed him and took his hand. For the first time he was tense all over, hard and absent.Angular, all corners, with no circles or curves. We walked down to the riverbank, and he started to tell me a story. At first I thought it was just that, a story.
Not long from now the war will end. The front will be gone, and I won’t be needed here. I’m going to take you to my mother’s place – she has a beautiful villa outside the German town of Haradok. My father died two years ago, he was a teacher. My mother will be pleased. She’s sure to fall in love with you. My mother predicts the future and the past; she works in both directions. Then we’ll get married. Sometimes you’ll cook polnische food. Everyone will love it. We’ll have five children: Waschil, Griken, Jan, Phrosch and Schiessen. We’ll go to holiday resorts and to the seaside (the German word for the sea is Juden). We’ll have a cat called Raus. He’ll bask in the sunshine and catch Schweine (that’s German for mice). The neighbour, Herr Abramowitsch, a smart old man in a striped suit, will bequeath us his fortune. And another neighbour, Mr Buchwald, who’s also from Polen, will marry off his daughter to our first-born.
At first I really did think it was just a story. The panic that fluttered up inside me when I first saw Joachim had clouded my mind so badly that I didn’t know things I actually did know. After all, people were talking. The panic was bouncing around inside me like a dried bean against the sides of a can. But with each sentence I was gradually realising that I understood all too much in my total lack of understanding; the names of our unborn children sounded suspiciously familiar, only distorted in this rasping dialect. Then I started to hear a different story, peeping out from behind the first; I’ve heard that other story hundreds of timessince, not from Joachim’s lips, but from those whohad survived or witnessed it, or had tried to beat off the nightmare like fire, waving their hands about and just fuelling the flames. Or maybe the story wasn’t about them at all, but about my brothers and my husband? Or maybe it wasn’t in the past at all, but in the future?
More than a hundred people had assembled near the wooden synagogue in Gródko, the one that stood close to the Orthodox church. It was a very hot day. The Jews were packed in a throng. They were afraid. There were some petty tradesmen, innkeepers and cobblers. Their families were there. Those who still had some possessions: not much perhaps, but still, they still had something. They had accounts recorded in notebooks, nightmares about Yahweh, because their God is even nastier than ours, they had bar mitzvahs on their minds and daughters to marry off. They were spreading their hands helplessly, shoving their hands in their pockets, and clenching their hands into fists.
There were old people, smelling of dust and kerosene from lamps; there were also young ones, smelling of sunshine and fresh sweat. Behind a cordon of soldiers, the townspeople of Gródko were gathering. Some were sympathetic, some didn’t understand, some were counting on settling a debt. Some were amused by the sudden humiliation of their better-off neighbours, some were shocked.
First the soldiers pulled a young boy out of the compact group. “Sehr gut,” said Joachim, just as he had once addressed me. The soldier drew his Mauser from its holster, put the barrel to the boy’s temple, and pulled the trigger. And that was all, a fountain of drops of blood and shattered bones.
Sonia shook her head, as if not understanding much of what she was summoning up, but hadn’t seen with her own eyes. Perhaps she had actually invented it all? Perhaps in the clash between an oral account and history it’s the truth that always gets battered? Igor was lying down, tensed. He was already taking individual suffering badly, his own for instance, which was close to tonsillitis; mass suffering, planned from above and inflicted from below, paralysed him. He was unable to listen, but just sympathised automatically, in an unconditional reflex of numb solidarity.
In the bright spark that jumped acrossto him from the cat, Jozik the Shepherd of Mice, he realised that he must memorise even more than Sonia was telling him, that he must harness his memory to the theatrical or novel-writing treadmill, in order to save himself, to tell a true story at last, to get up and fight for something. Though in fact he had sensed this from the very start, as soon as he crossed the threshold.
The boy fell. The elder kept saying that the God of the fallen will rise, and strike down the unfallen. God did not raise the boy, or press the drops of blood or the slivers of bone back into him. Could it be that the Jewish Yahweh wasn’t quite so benevolent or powerful? After all, here in Haradok He was as if in exile, far from the sands and deserts, a wanderer. Or maybe we didn’t deserve it? For the boy it no longer mattered; it was others who felt the unhappiness, it was others who needed a miracle toreassure them. Clearly we didn’t deserve a Lazarus. Though this Lazarus, in rationalterms, was not ours, and the Jew was like all the first Christians.
Apparently nobody said a word. The Germans draggedthe Jewsforward one at a time, put guns to their temples and pulled the triggers. As each one fell, several peoplebroke free of the circle of neighbours watching the incident. These people went to houses, but not to their own. Seeing the death of a shopkeeper, they headed for his abandoned shop. Seeing the death of a cobbler, they went to his ownerless workshop.
Finally there was no one left but old Mr Buchwald, the elder, and a Catholic priest. At this point the German soldiers suddenly walked away, leaving almost a hundred corpses, three men living and swarms of flies. Flies will instantly scent out corpses and shit. The Germans simply walked away, as if this incident was of no great consequence, as if the working day were over and the time had come for a rest. Almost a hundred dead, three living, and the flies.
That was, or may have been, Joachim’s story. I no longer thought Juden was the German word for the sea, that Raus was a cat, and Schweine meant mice. I felt extreme sympathy for Joachim. I loved him, and he was still alive; in spite of all I sympathisedwith him, I couldn’t do otherwise. My poor, fair Joachim, and his beautiful body, suddenly surrounded by the twisted figures of corpses.
Joachim stopped talking. To this day I still don’t know what he was trying to tell me that night: about the future and a massacre in the town, or maybe the future after the massacre, or the future without a future, I don’t know. He squeezed my hand tightly. It hurt, but that pain was nothing compared with the pain he was feeling. He had started to cry. He was talking and crying, without any connection. Then he laid his head on my breast and was silent. I breathed with a sack of stones on my chest.
We didn’t sit there for long. He didn’t even kiss me goodbye, just touched my arm, and then my breast; my nipple hardened.
I watched as he walked away: he had long since dissolved in the darkness, yet I stood without moving, wondering whether my Joachim was a nocturnal illusion, or a real man of flesh and blood.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones