Set in Warsaw in the wake of the Second World War, the world Hłasko presents is one of Stalinist media control and pervasive police presence. “Do you like it or don’t you,” is the officers’ constant refrain. That is: are you content, or are you the enemy? — Adam Segal
What happens when a man is set against a narrative? There is a curious moment in the book of Job in which Eliphaz the Temanite – one of the four men with whom Job passionately argues about God’s justice – seems to tell a heinous lie for the sole purpose of maintaining his understanding of the world. Job, once the wealthiest and most righteous man in the land of Uz, has seen his livestock slaughtered and stolen, his family obliterated by heavenly fire and crushed under the weight of his crumbling house, and now sits on a pile of ash, his skin crawling with boils and filth, his every breath a burden. The only comforting thought is the infinite rest of Sheol: “My Spirit is crushed, my days run out;/ The graveyard waits for me.”
Job knows that God has wronged him, while Eliphaz knows that God can do no wrong. Only the wicked are punished, the Temanite insists, therefore Job must be a wicked man. “You know that your wickedness is great,/ And your iniquities have no limit./ You exact pledges from your fellows without reason, /And leave them naked, stripped of their clothes.” This is a lie, but it is a lie fervidly expressed, because it is his only means for conforming Job’s pain to his perception of reality.
Marek Hłasko’s 1956 novel Cmentarze, republished as The Graveyard this past December by Melville House, is full of such harrowing brushes with the dogmatic. Set in Warsaw in the wake of the Second World War, the world Hłasko presents is one of Stalinist media control and pervasive police presence. “Do you like it or don’t you,” is the officers’ constant refrain. That is: are you content, or are you the enemy? After spending the night in jail for a rare bout of public drunkenness, left overnight in a cell alongside drunkards and discouraged men – themselves locked up for singing the wrong songs and listening to the wrong radio stations: broadcasts from Madrid, the Vatican, or (god forbid) New York – Franciszek Kowalski is informed by the police that while “one would say you’re decent, quite probably a good comrade… You’ve unmasked yourself” as an enemy of the state.
This is news to Kowalski, a hardworking and contented forty-eight-year-old “assistant technical director” at a car repair plant, a single father of two exceptional adult children. He is, further, a veteran of the Polish anti-Nazi resistance. Shot through the lungs during the war, the then-young partisan fighter joined the communist party so that he might have something worthwhile for which to die. He cannot remember what he shouted, though by all accounts it must have been rather seditious. “You have insulted the People’s Poland,” says the officer at the station, “You abused the party and the People’s government in such language that I’m ashamed to repeat it… By this token you have shown what you really are.” So what is Franciszek Kowalski, really?
“Here I sit behind my desk,” muses Kowalski’s boss, the First Secretary, “everything seems to be all right; but wherever you look – the enemy is vigilant…” Kowalski survived the war, only to learn all these years later that he has may just be one such vigilant subversive.
Marek Hłasko’s cynical treatment of authoritarian censorship and paranoia carries extra weight when one considers that Cmentarze was rejected by Polish censors, and had to be published abroad by Kultura, a Polish-émigré magazine then printed in Paris. Hłasko was born in Warsaw in 1934, became a celebrated author in Poland in his early twenties, only to become a reviled public figure for his Kultura writings. In 1958 he fled Poland, beginning an eleven-year nation-hopping exile ending in his death by drug overdose in 1969. He was thirty-three years old; some call it a suicide. In photographs Hłasko always sports the same cigarette hanging off his lip; sports the same dour expression, as if he’d eaten something truly unpleasant as a child and the bitter taste had never left him.
So it’s appropriate that the Warsaw Franciszek Kowalski navigates is dismal, unwelcoming, and at times downright nightmarish. Kowalski stumbles “over empty milk bottles and pieces of junk that had lain there for years; he trampled on innumerable dogs and cats and groped in the darkness and clouds of dust.” He encounters bottomless holes in the street, hurries past posters of American soldiers spearing Korean infants on their bayonets, meets children chained to banisters by overworked mothers, looks in the puddles of dirty streets and sees that even the stars reflected from above “swam like fat worms.” The legacy of the war, during which eighty-five percent of all buildings in Warsaw were destroyed, is painfully evident. But Kowalski’s observations are also a matter of perspective: the more loss he experiences, the bleaker the city becomes. And Kowalski’s life falls apart almost immediately after his arrest.
At a party meeting, in a room so choked with smoke that “the open, smiling faces of the dignitaries in the portraits on the wall were scarcely visible,” Kowalski hopes to prove to his comrades that he is not the enemy. But first, in a darkly comic monologue showing the necessity of hewing closely to the empty rhetoric of a party narrative, Kowalski must sit through the “self-criticism” of Comrade Jablonka:
“And I went off the deep end, comrades. When I was little, I tore wings from beetles, and from flies; and I did things with cats and frogs that – well, to put it bluntly – I had fun that wasn’t our kind, the workers’ kind. Once a man died under my window… There was starvation, and misery, and capitalism; until a man named Lenin came along.”
The crowd of course erupts in cheering and applause. But Kowalski, unable to invoke the savior Lenin in such a way, finds no support. Instead, he is kicked out of the party.
“Who is right,” asks Kowalski’s son Mikołaj, “you or the party?” Kowalski insists on his rightness, but the son is unimpressed. “Whom shall I believe – you, an individual, you who shout something you don’t feel, something you can’t account for – or the party?” Kowalski tepidly agrees, “We must believe in the party.”
Why is it so essential to believe in the party? Because there is little else to have faith in, evidently. In a flashback to the day he first joined, Kowalski recalls a conversation with his partisan commander, Jerzy, who sees communism as the only bulwark against innate human badness. “People are nothing but a herd of swine wallowing in a sea of shit… [Man] is infinitely beastly; he is capable of everything; he’ll believe everything and befoul everything. Courage in the truest sense is the ability to find a man’s upper, ultimate limits… That is how I understand Communism.” Mikołaj, in the present, echoes this sentiment: “If they tore the fronts off the houses, we’d see pigsties. I can’t afford to believe any individual. I can only believe the party.” Mikołaj disowns his father and moves out, promising only to return if Kowalski can clear his name. A test of faith, thinks Kowalski. He sets out to find his comrades from the war, certain they will help to redeem him.
Kowalski enters those houses, finding behind the façades not swine but phantoms; mere projections of men. Hłasko’s Warsaw is a junkyard of a city, but the men who occupy it are themselves derelicts, broken down and hollowed out by Soviet oppression. “Bear” is so fearful of informants that he ceaselessly plays music lest neighbors equate silence with conspiracy. Warding off suspicions now by forcing his son to recite vapid Soviet poetry, the hamstrung Bear insists Kowalski give up his fight and make way for “something beside which we mean nothing at all,” asking “can’t you die like a strong animal, alone and in silence?” “Birch” has chosen another route, securing his safety as an interrogator, a communist lecturer, and a propagandist. Birch despises the working class and has no real faith in the narrative he is perpetuating – the man makes Kowalski listen to a speech of his while simultaneously admitting to its outright falsity – but he is happy to keep the myth alive so long as it keeps him comfortable.
The novel’s second half sheds the chitinous outer shell of cynical humor that characterizes its earlier scenes. Gone are the drunk tank pranks and the hypocritical concerns of workingmen in smoky chambers. Humor, in Hłasko’s Warsaw, is a product of the crowd, and here Kowalski finds himself alone with his former comrades, alone but for the looming specter of the repressive state. Granted, the final sequence – Kowalski engaging his former comrades sequentially, driving inevitably toward an encounter with Jerzy – does feel a bit predictable and hurried. But it’s also the novel’s most exhilarating portion. Hłasko expertly narrates the verbal skirmishes between these damaged men. And Hłasko’s chronicling of Kowalski’s ideological development is likewise impressive, particularly considering The Graveyard’s brevity.
Hłasko uses his protagonist’s drunken outcry to great narrative effect. The original complaint – recall that Kowalski has no actual memory of it – was initially denied, then justified to Mikolaj as something he did not mean. But soon he is explaining to Birch “I said that I didn’t believe that… it was possible to build anything valuable by means of crimes and lies, by destroying human dignity, by transforming Communist loyalty into slavery.” By imposing his newly discovered oppositional politics on the earlier complaint, Kowalski is suggesting that he really has been the enemy all along.
So, do you like it? Or don’t you? The embattled protagonist is soon challenging the preposterous binary those questions suggest. “Ah, my friend,” says Kowalski to the arresting officer in a later encounter, “if you had gone through what I have, you’d realize that it isn’t enough: you like it, you don’t like it.” Kowalski’s concerns soon extend far beyond the abuses of the current regime, which only hint at the greater problems facing mankind. “I raised my hand against things which neither conscience nor reason can grasp, which are beyond human understanding.”
Return, for a moment, to the book of Job. The man’s complaints are full of blasphemy against God, but there is one particularly subversive passage about the powerlessness of mankind against the unknown. God is so powerful that “though I were innocent,/ My mouth would condemn me;/ Though I were blameless, He would prove me crooked.” To Job, God transcends questions of right and wrong merely by being a superior entity. This is a fairly accurate prediction of what occurs when God finally appears to settle the debate. God’s argument is less about proving his point through reason than it is about establishing superiority and unquestionable power. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations,” the deity asks, “Speak if you have understanding.” Job capitulates, and is rewarded.
Franciszek Kowalski is the more compelling character. Do you like it? Or don’t you? “No,” he finally admits. “I really don’t.”
Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.