Little Star was thrilled to encounter A Thousand Peaceful Cities, a mind-bending romp by Polish journalist and novelist Jerzy Pilch, miraculously translated by David Frick and published this month by Open Letter. We here with pleasure offer a few choice morsels (with editorial emendations by ourselves).
IN WHICH our hero’s father’s drinking companion, Mr. Traba, engages in a discussion of his plan to conclude his life with a decisive, world-altering act. The setting is a family table in Wisła in the People’s Republic of Poland.
“Here’s the proof, Chief,” he [Mr. Trąba] shouted spasmodically, “here’s the proof.” And he produced a cheap little graph-paper notebook from his breast pocket, one of a thousand identical notebooks in which I had recorded a thousand mathematical puzzles, and in which I had recently begun to record the sentences I heard.
“Here’s the proof, Chief.” Mr. Trąba flattened the sheets and calmed his breathing. “As I approach the end, I have decided to put my experiences in order and to write down my opinions, at least the most radical of them. I also wanted to produce my biography and a memoir about my honorable ancestors, but I abandoned that idea. After all, as you have correctly observed, all my life I was in the clutches of addiction, and I owe all I have attained in life to that addiction. But writing about this presents a problem, and also shame. Not so much shame before future readers of this worthless copybook as before myself. Similarly, I am uncertain whether my Papa, God rest his soul, would wish that it be made public that he too, for his entire life, was caught in the clutches of an addiction—and there is no way not to make this public, since my Papa was occupied with nothing else. And my Mama, God rest her soul, was caught, and both grandparents, although allegedly Grandpapa on Mama’s side got caught late in his life. In any event, on account of a certain, so to say, aesthetic monotony, I abandoned the idea of memorializing my honorable forebears. […] I know more or less what I should do for humanity with my last deed. Except that my knowledge is general, and my deed must be concrete.”“Mr. Trąba, if I were in your place . . .” Father’s voice echoed with a gravity and a puffed-up didacticism that I couldn’t stand. “If I were in your place, and if I truly knew, let’s say, that I would die the day after tomorrow, I would live tomorrow just the same as yesterday. I would eat breakfast, I would seek out the truth between the lines in The People’s Tribune, I would work in the garden . . .”
“I appreciate the beauty and nobility of the idea of living tomorrow like today or yesterday, but that sort of beauty and that sort of nobility have nothing to do with me. From birth, Chief, I have lived my life under constant pressure for change. For as long as I can remember, I have promised myself that tomorrow would be different from yesterday, next week different from the past. For as long as I can remember, my today is always supposed to be a caesura between the old and the new life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying, every day, to change something. And now, when an unavoidable change is approaching, when my presence will quickly change into my absence, I intend to do something for the world as long as I’m still here, something which—I won’t hide the fact—will relieve the monotony of the final act of my existence on this vale of tears, with respect to both form and content.”
“What exactly will you do, Mr. Trąba?”
“Well, what can you do, when nothing is to be done, when it’s clear that I won’t build a house, I won’t establish a family, I won’t raise a child, I won’t put my opinions in order and write them down, I won’t render the proper respect to my forebears, and I won’t even give up my addictions? What can you do, when a terrible lack, a void, a road drowning in Asiatic grasses, a precipitous bank, nothingness, and nausea suddenly declare themselves? What remains, when nothing remains? . . . Kill somebody—that remains.”
Father impatiently shrugged it off.
“A pathetic joke, Mr. Trąba, and if it isn’t a joke, then you really must be suffering significant losses in the lateral occipital lobes.”
But Mr. Trąba had plunged wholeheartedly into the inexorable logic of his own deduction.
“Kill somebody—that remains. Kill somebody, whose killing will be for the good of mankind. Who? Obviously one of the great tyrants of mankind. As of today, the situation with the great tyrants of mankind looks as follows: Adolf Hitler—passé, Joseph Stalin—passé. Who remains? There remains, irrefutably, Chairman Mao Tse-tung.”
Father exploded in artificial, affected, overly ecstatic laughter.
“I hope, Chief, that your laughter is not derisive laughter, but rather the laughter of a person enchanted . . . no, the laughter of the demiurge enchanted with his own deed, the laughter of God. After all, everybody is different, but you of all people, Chief, will appreciate the dark beauty of the idea of killing Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Weren’t you debased by Moscow? Yes, or no? You were debased,” Mr. Trąba answered his own question, “you were irrevocably debased in the morals department. And since morality has gone by the board irrevocably, let’s at least go into raptures over the pure beauty of our demise. ‘Enough has been given to morality; now comes the turn of Taste and the Fine Arts,’ as a certain criminal Englishman said in his disquisition On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. Yes, Chief, the murder of Chairman Mao can be fine art, and this is irrefutable reasoning. The expedition to the Middle Kingdom itself will be a source of unparalleled aesthetic experiences. Just consider the hypothetical path of this murderous journey.”
Mr. Trąba began to trace the map of the continent in the air, with sure and frequently practiced motions.
“It would be simplest, of course, to travel to Vladivostok by the Transsiberian Railroad. There, in the vicinity of Vladivostok, to cross the Chinese border, retreat a little to Harbin in order to gain the support of the local Polish emigration—mostly I am thinking of dry rations, but also of moral support—and then, from Harbin, like a flash, through rice fields, avoiding Changchun, Mukden, and Anshan, to reach the capital of the Peoples’ Republic of China. Without a doubt this would be the most economic variant, at least as far as time is concerned. I am, however, in possession of precise information that, in reaction to flagrant intrusion upon Soviet territory from the Chinese side, the border in the vicinity of Vladivostok is so carefully guarded that a Chinese fly cannot fly over it, a Soviet mouse cannot scurry across it. And so we ought rather first go to Moscow, then from Moscow, by trains and busses, through Kazan, Chelyabinsk, Petropavlovsk, Novokuznetsk, finally to Irkutsk, and further by foot in the direction of the Mongolian border. It will be best, as I have discovered, to cross the Russian-Mongolian border around Kyakhta, and then to proceed from there by horse and cart to Ulan Bator, and then all the way through the steppes, the steppes, to Peking itself.”
“Through the steppes to Peking, you say,” Father repeated, in venomous simulation of deep thought, “through the steppes to Peking . . . And in Peking? And in Peking—then what?”
“What do you mean ‘In Peking—then what?’” said Mr. Trąba, suddenly angry. “You will forgive me, Chief, but sometimes I have to treat you like a small child. What do you mean ‘In Peking—then what?’ In Peking we will have to take a look around.”
“As I understand it, we will have to look around for Chairman Mao. But when we catch sight of him, when the Chairman turns up, when he himself comes into our grasp in some Peking alleyway, then . . .” and Father moved his hand across his throat in the classic gesture.
“We will have to look around,” now it was Mr. Trąba’s turn for venomous simulation of Stoic calm, “we will have to look around for the road leading to the Palace of the All-Chinese Assembly of the People’s Representatives. It is somewhere in the very heart of Peking, between the Eternal City and the Imperial City, right in the vicinity of the Forbidden City.”
“Yes, and then what? We reach the Palace of the All-Chinese Assembly of the People’s Representatives, and then what?” Father said ostentatiously, with the tone of the cynical psychiatrist conversing with his agitated patient.
“Then we find out whether the Chairman is inside, and if he is in a nearby teashop, we wait for nightfall. Mao, like the majority of despots, leads a nocturnal life, which means that it is more difficult to catch him sleeping, since he sleeps during the day. And besides, as you know, Chief, there’s no honor in killing a sleeping man.”
IN A LATER SCENE, Mr. Trąba has abandoned his intentions to assassinate the Chairman, and has turned his designs upon the First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party. He is confronted by the local Commandant, who has emerged from a rainstorm. Mention is made of young women of mysterious habits who occupy an upstairs room.
“I greet you, madame comrade and comrades.”
“Cheerio, cheerio,” replied Father and Mr. Trąba, one after the other, while Mother, in a carefully studied gesture, raised her head and eyes, turned away from the window, and glanced at the green-tiled kitchen stove.
“You are most welcome, Commandant.” (I had only recently realized that Mother, in her ascetic role, was a much greater artist than Mr. Trąba, who didn’t shy away from the occasional buffoonery.) “You are most welcome, Commandant. Will you stay for dinner? Of course you’ll stay, won’t you? I was just about to fry some potato pancakes.”
Only my masterfully penetrative and unprejudiced gaze noticed that Mother was not a woman who was concerned exclusively with cooking; rather, she was a captive who, in order to survive, pretended to be a woman who was concerned exclusively with cooking.
“Comrades,” said Commandant Jeremiah, without a hint of emotion in his voice, “comrades, allow me to get right down to business. I have heard, comrades, that you are preparing to direct a pronouncement against the First Secretary of the Central Committee.”
The Commandant stopped for a moment and gestured like a stump orator—indicating his essential approval, although with certain doubts and reservations.
“Very good, comrades, very good. Criticism is always necessary to our Party. Criticism strengthens the power of our Party, cleanses its ranks. But you must—we must—remember, comrades, that it must be constructive criticism, that is to say, criticism that is, of course, criticizing, but, generally, approving . . .”
The Commandant began to get tangled up. You could see with the naked eye that he wasn’t an expert in dialectical argument, nor did he possess sufficient agitational fervor.
I was curious what polemical phrase Mr. Trąba would employ and how it would be constructed. “Complete approval,” I recorded in a flash in my notebook, for, according to my predictions, Mr. Trąba’s argument should conclude with precisely this phrase. But Mr. Trąba didn’t conclude his oration with the expression “complete approval,” nor with any other expression. He didn’t conclude his oration because he didn’t even begin it. He remained melancholy and silent the entire time.
“I understand, Commandant,” Father spoke up unexpectedly, “I understand, Commandant, that news spreads like wild fire, but, as you know, speed is not always accompanied by precision. You see, I’m not certain whether our intentions were properly understood.”
“Precisely,” said the Commandant, “precisely. Let me explain.”
He extracted a small Orbis Travel Agency datebook from the side pocket of his uniform, and he began phlegmatically turning the empty pages, which contained only printed dates, saints’ names, and names of the days of the week. He finally reached a place where there were some illegible hieroglyphs and secret ciphers, which only functionaries of the secret services could decode—although I was looking over his shoulder, I couldn’t make out a thing. Jeremiah meditated for some time over the secret code, but then he began to mutter, as if to himself, and, slowly measuring out his words, he said:
“Yes sir, this is all correct; a pronouncement directed against Comrade First Secretary, yes sir.”
He energetically closed the datebook and covered it with his large hand, as if he wished to smother the fuses that were smoldering there, as if he wished to extinguish the gathering rebellion before it could flare up.
“Comrades,” he said distinctly, “I have received a report that you comrades are planning an attempt on the life of Comrade First Secretary Władysław Gomułka.”
I no longer remember whether Mother froze in the process of scouring the stovetop, or grating potatoes, or perhaps with a match in her hand over the hearth. Today I see her frozen in a succession of these poses. Father and Mr. Trąba exchanged the all-betraying glance of inept conspirators. In the meantime, I thought it might be worth my while to check out the room in the attic again; the morphinistes had abandoned it, and I wanted to see whether they had by any chance left anything else there, besides a ribbon, a mirror, and a nail file.
“The comrades will excuse me, but since the report seemed to me— how should I put it?—only moderately plausible, I set to work in a roundabout manner. If the comrades do indeed harbor treacherous designs upon the head of state, then please, how to put it, forgive me that I subjected to doubt their, your, so to say, qualifications in this matter, but . . .”
“Gomułka isn’t head of state,” Mr. Trąba, sounding bored, interrupted Jeremiah.
“I said, Gomułka isn’t head of state. Gomułka is only the chief of the Party. The head of state is Zawadzki.”
“So is it true after all?” he said almost triumphantly. “So is it true after all? No, no, no,” he reigned himself in. “Comrades, we have known each other for a long time. We have drunk an ocean of alcohol together. We have pronounced more than one risky opinion together. I can safely—both doing myself the honor, and telling the truth—I can safely call you comrades my tried-and-true friends, and meanwhile what do I hear? Meanwhile I discover that my tried-and-true friends are making an attempt, are ready to make an attempt, at a crime against majesty . . .
“Please tell me,” the Commandant’s voice became slightly, though noticeably, more concentrated and icy, “please tell me what, in the name of God the Father, am I supposed to do with this sort of information? Please,” the Commandant suddenly pleaded, “please tell me what I am supposed to do? I’ve come here to see—to see to what extent this matter belongs to the realm of fiction, and to what extent to the realm of reality.”
“I wish, I wish very much that my death might belong to the realm of fiction,” Mr. Trąba spoke up, “but those, I fear, are highly pious wishes.”
“But after all, isn’t it finally a question not of your death, but of fatal harm to Comrade Gomułka?”
“Unfortunately, Mr. Commandant,” replied Mr. Trąba, “setting all my vanity aside, I must put my own person in the foreground and assure you that, above all, it is a question of me.” And Mr. Trąba expounded upon his deathbed ambitions in a few sentences, hiding nothing.
Commandant Jeremiah listened carefully to Mr. Trąba’s implacably logical arguments.
“If I understood you correctly, comrade, you expect a quick departure from this world, but in fact, what reason do you have to expect this departure?”
“One general and seven particular reasons,” retorted Mr. Trąba, and he began to count on his fingers. “First, cirrhosis of the liver; second, a bursting pancreas; third, severe inefficiency of the kidneys; fourth, a weakening heart; fifth, stomach ulcers; sixth, delirium tremens; seventh, and the simplest, choking on my own vomit. These are seven good reasons, not subject to falsification, each of which individually, and all of them together, are identically effective, and all of them,” Mr. Trąba raised his index finger decisively in the air, “are already prepared. The seven beasts are already in readiness, seven chimeras already lie waiting to jump. Yes,” he bellowed suddenly, “the seven pillars of my death have already been erected!”
“St. John of Damascus divides anger into gall, mania, and fury, and you, Comrade Trąba, you are most clearly in the phase of fury,” said Commandant Jeremiah, leaning backwards as if to avoid immediate danger.
“I didn’t know they covered St. John of Damascus’s typology of anger in Marxism night-school. I approve. I approve, and I congratulate you. I, however—and now I will allow myself a polemical interpolation ad vocem—I am not in the phase of fury according to St. John of Damascus; rather, I am in the phase of anger with voice, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Gregory of Nyssa, as you know perfectly well, divides anger into anger without voice, anger with voice, and anger expressed in voice. One way or another I am—I often find myself—in the pre-delirious phase. Vodka-induced psychosis is already knocking with a finger that’s as transparent as a vodka glass; it’s already knocking on the brittle walls of my brain.”
Mother placed the first portions of potato dough on the stove top. The fire roaring below and the streams of darkness beyond the window transported us beyond climates and beyond seasons. We sat in the circle of light, separated from what was further on, and further on were ice and darkness. The Commandant’s uniform steamed slowly. Jeremiah dried and glimmered, like a prodigal deserter returning to the ranks of his home unit.
“And what would you think,” he said slowly, “what would you think about stopping and giving it up? . . . About reducing the volumetric reckoning a little. You’ve already drunk your life’s quota.”
“Stop drinking?” Mr. Trąba neither quite asked, nor quite asserted, his voice colorless as water. “Stop drinking? Out of the question. Already in ’45 I said to myself: ‘Perhaps you will die of vodka, Józef Trąba, but if you don’t have a drink from time to time, you will certainly die.’ But now, after not quite twenty years, that paradoxical supposition has taken on a completed form. You know, Commandant,” Mr. Trąba came to life, clearly gathering narrational verve, “a man has only one good reason to stop drinking: namely, when he notices that as a result of drinking he is going stupid. Let me put it another way. A true man can die from drinking, but he doesn’t dare go stupid.”
“In that case,” the Commandant spoke most carefully, “in that case, why do you put your lofty mind at risk, Comrade Trąba?”
“You insult me, Commandant,” said Mr. Trąba with dignity. “Just why should a man live in stupidity?”
“And carrying Gomułka off with you, carrying Gomułka off with you to the grave,” Jeremiah suddenly got angry, “and carrying First Secretary Gomułka off with you to the grave—this isn’t stupidity? This is colossal stupidity! Stupidity that is pointless and historically barren. Stupidity that leads nowhere and is intellectually empty.”
“Terror is not the realm of speculation; terror is the realm of shock,” Mr. Trąba said gloomily.
“What terror? What terror? What terror?” the Commandant roared with the greatest contempt.
“Maybe our terror is not a great terror,” Mr. Trąba flared up, “but it’s still terror. Better that than nothing. Better a sparrow in the hand than Mao Tse-tung on the roof. Yes, OK, I intended to do something for humanity, but after all, if I do something for Poland, I will have done it for humanity too. Of course I would prefer a great deed on a global scale. Of course I would prefer, as I explained to you,” Mr. Trąba raised his shoulders, “of course I would prefer to tighten my tyrannicidal fingers around the neck of Mao Tse-tung. A person would get to see a little of China in the process. But we don’t have the resources for such a long journey,” Mr. Trąba sighed regretfully, “and a short trip is out of the question for reasons of ambition. You can’t expect me to humiliate myself with quasi-foreign trips around the block of the People’s Democracies. Oh no, not that, no. I certainly won’t go to Sofia to lie in ambush for Comrade Zhivkov. Nor to East Germany in order to administer justice to Walter Ulbricht. Please don’t even try to persuade me.”
“And what about Khrushchev?” Mother unexpectedly spoke up, neither asking nor quite proposing, from above an already considerable stack of potato pancakes. “Have you considered Khrushchev?” “Khrushchev,” Mr. Trąba seemed to ignore the absolute astonishment with which Father and Commandant Jeremiah looked at Mother,
“Khrushchev may be removed at any moment. It isn’t worth the effort. I go to Moscow, which, however you look at it, is also a good hike, and on the spot I discover that changes have just then taken place at the highest level of the CC CPSU, and I’ll look like a boob.”
“And if, Comrade Trąba,” Comrade Jeremiah’s voice suddenly became warmer, “and if . . . of course these are absolutely not our methods,” he suddenly stipulated in a panic, “and if, and if it could be, we could even, not so much help, that’s too strong a word, but, let’s say, we could not know about certain things, uh, even a passport, any time—and if it could be the Bloody Dictator of Fascist Spain?”
“Caudillo Bahamonde Franco is one of Europe’s greatest statesmen,” Mr. Trąba said with distinct pity. “I remind you: I wish to do something for humanity, not against it.”
It might have seemed that it was not steam that was departing from the Commandant’s drying uniform, rather it was the furies de parting from the man himself.
“Never. We will never,” he panted heavily, “we will never come to terms, Comrade Trąba. Be my guest—kill, kill whomever you wish. Yes,” the Commandant suddenly seemed to discern a deeper meaning in what he was saying, “yes, kill whomever you wish. Kill anybody at all. After all, that too will bring the decline of your life into order. Go out into the street, kill whomever, and you’ll see in just what implacably logical scheme of events you’ll find yourself. You won’t do much for humanity, but you will do something for yourself. And after all, if you do something for yourself, it’s as if you’d also done something for humanity. Don’t you agree?”
“What do you do for yourself by killing just anyone?” Father asked in a strangely high voice.
“One’s life becomes definitively ordered, especially the disorderly life, and your life, comrade,” the Commandant stretched out his hand to Mr. Trąba in what was almost a welcoming gesture, “is an unusually disorderly life. A person kills, becomes a murderer, and by being a murderer he disperses doubts and does away with choices. Being a murderer is the guarantee of a highly stable identity. First, if you should decide to go into hiding, comrade, you’d be a murderer in hiding. Then, if they should arrest you, you’d be an arrested murderer, then a judged one, then a condemned one, and then,” the Commandant suddenly stopped, as if he had realized that he was about to say something tactless. He finished in a more peaceful voice, although it still vibrated with rage: “Let’s save our breath. Be my guest. Go ahead and kill, comrade, kill whomever you like.”
“This is painful, painful to listen to,” Mr. Trąba said with a sadness that tore your heart to pieces. “Please, Mr. Commandant, don’t make me into the posthumous child of existentialism’s precursors. I wouldn’t even consider killing just anyone. I haven’t the least intention of joining that godless philosophical current. I intend to join the murky circle of the great tyrannicides of human history: Peter Pahlen, Gavrilo Princip, François Ravaillac, Jeronimo Caserio, Józef Trąba . . . Not a bad list of names,” he said, falling into dreaminess…
After further disquisitions, The Commandant raised his glass.
“Drink up, comrades.”
And when the men had inclined their heads, and then raised them up again, the Commandant said with dignity:
“For at least the last hour I have been off duty, but in spite of everything I want you, comrades, to be forewarned. I made a request of Comrade Station Master Ujejski. I made a request that he let me know if you comrades should suddenly wish to buy tickets. For instance, for the night train to Warsaw. I want you to know about this, comrades.”
Translated by David Frick
Nostalgic for the ever-fresh original? Order a pristine copy of Tristam Shandy here.
Polonophones! Read Jerzy Pilch‘s satirical columns in Przekrój and Polityka. His columns also appeared in the contrarian weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, but these are also not easily accessed by linkable search.