Chasing the Unattainable
Sometimes, I like to try to read a book that seemingly is entirely outside of my interests. It happens that I’m defeated by a not-too-ambitious volume, but equally often I stumble upon something I simply cannot tear myself away from. This is how I came across this novel. It enchanted me with an original story and swept me off my feet with emotions included within.
The story begins unremarkably, with childhood memories of the protagonist. An apartment in an old tenement and a grandma telling various stories; on the wall – grandpa’s portrait, lost somewhere after World War 2. Piotr decides to solve the family mystery and find his grandfather’s grave. However, he doesn’t realize that it will lead to an incredible, almost unreal adventure, which will lead him much farther than Lviv, for Lviv marks only the beginning of this story.
Władysław Zalewski – the grandfather Piotr is looking for – used to be a famous Lviv confectioner. The delicious sweets he made held the entire city in awe, ultimately even conquering Warsaw in the 1930s. The war thwarted the company development plans – Władysław was arrested and later banished deep into Soviet Union wilderness. While looking for traces of his grandfather, he finds himself there. After a few days on the train, he reaches Tyumen, the place where Władysław’s miraculously retrieved letters were sent from. While being close to solving the family mystery, fate pushes him even further, into Mongolian steppes. Piotr slowly descends into madness, sometimes losing his grip on reality. Possessed by the lust for finding out the truth, he becomes out of touch with the real world. He is haunted by phantoms and persons from the letters, causing insomnia and resulting in an even more frenzied chase after the unattainable.
The story is intertwined with original letters, which give an insight into Władysław’s life. Glory days, the period spent in Lviv arrest, and his time at the Tyumen camp. The letters are equally important as recollections of the people Piotr meets along the way – seniors who still remember Władysław. The story of mister Kazimierz, depicting the harsh journey beyond the Ural Mountains, shook me to my core. The stories of old Mongolians have an entirely different mood – they’re full of references to legends and the traditional nomadic lifestyle.
Each subsequent episode of Piotr’s journey also depicts the country he found himself in. Starting with an only slightly exotic Lviv, to ultimately reach the entirely wild and incomprehensible Mongolia, with its scents of tea, rancid butter, and mutton meat. Inside stories from yurt life, in the sea of scant grasslands, and herds of goats, horses, camels, and yaks, are enticingly exotic, and the habits of the locals, such as the detailed description of horse slaughter, raise interest in the reader. The images of modern-day life in Tyumen are also intriguing – on the one side, we have a city that tries to keep up with the times, but on the other, it’s haunted by the burden of former gulags and inhabited by a group of descendants of Polish exiles, passionately nursing their love for their homeland.
The plot is beautifully contrived. It is difficult to believe it may only be fiction – the events seem to incredible, too abstract for them to only be a figment of the author’s imagination. Photos of characters described in the book could also serve as a testament to the authenticity of the story. The novel is very well written and I found it difficult to tear myself away from the story. With each following page, we experience an increased craving to uncover the truth that guides Piotr’s moves. Ingenious characters met by Władysław’s grandson along the way add to the novel’s authenticity and color.
I am glad this book fell into my hands. I did not expect such a thrilling and well-written story. The realities of the events presented make it difficult to read it with indifference, and new emotions will dominate the reader along with the development of the plot. I strongly recommend this book to any reader curious about the world, who potentially has a hunger for discovering a new one.
Memory Without Borders, Borders Without Memory
Bez pamięci is a touching book about a race against time. Piotr – a 40-year old Kraków native, cannot let go of the uncovered family secret and starts to chase a fleeting story that resembles a clock, melting in the heat of history. The construction of the novel basically resembles a set of Chinese boxes, telling a story within a story. Based on authentic letters of his relative, it presents the story of a Syberia exile (the deceased grandfather of the protagonist, who – just like any exiles – was forcefully deprived of his freedom, dignity, and family), but also is a kind of a travel puzzle, assembled by the protagonist himself. For half a century, Piotr thought his grandfather died in 1945 in a Stalinist prison and was buried at a cemetery in Lviv. However, one day a stranger gives him a wooden case with grandfather’s unknown letters (from the postwar period), which stirred Piotr’s imagination. He wonders how is that possible and decides to find the answers in the East.
Piotr follows is diligent and unrelenting in collecting clues that lead him straight to Central Asia. Mongolia is a notable country the protagonist visits – a wild country, devoid of basic products of western civilization, save a few towns. Thus, it describes things that can be difficult to understand to Europeans. Some eastern customs can be considered nonsensical, primitive, or even amoral, but we should respect them, just like Piotr tries to. The Orient, with its incredible tranquility, belief in the afterworld, and crudeness of mores and everyday life, overwhelms Piotr. The protagonist of Bez pamięci cannot understand this and rebels against it. For example, he explains to his friend: “I’m looking for a trace – a grave, a photo, a not, but not a phantom”; his interlocutor accuses him of lack of elementary sensibility (according to the Mongolians, at least): “You’re looking for things, but you can’t feel”. All the while, phantoms are present here and there on the pages of this book. The author is subtle in obliterating the borders between both worlds. This is his paradox: first, he stubbornly defends his own realism, the physical reality, only to lose it all in favor of reality of imagination. Thus, his incredible fascination with fate of his relative transforms into desire for self-immolation. It is said that if the human brain is devoid of signals from any of the senses, it gets bored and “generates its own images, reaching into memory” (Oliver Sachs). However, Piotr receives all the possible signals, sees things clearly for what they are, but between tangible reality and dreams, he sees (and hears) entities that are not there. A direct path towards insanity. The author deftly portrays the increasing madness of the protagonist.
Piotr is a puzzling figure, really. We do know his profession, his childhood memories, but his personality is viewed as if from hiding. One could even say that the author purposefully stripped his character of some elements that constitute his identity; however, in the context of this story, these seem less important. He is attributed with one clear purpose: to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s death. The important thing was to fill the empty space of the journey, for while moving forward, we lose sight of the starting point, the traces of ours and others, and engrams of memory. This is the core of the book, in my opinion: fading memory. Its ordinary kind – memory about people, actions, and places; for what is memory, when faced with the almighty eternity? It cannot be caught like a wasp in a jar, to buzz whenever we shake it. Memory knows no boundaries, it slips onto book pages, into the ears of those who can hear, the eyes of those who can see, and then it fades away, greys, diminishes, drips down like raindrops, to ultimately leave no trace at all. Piotr wanders through meanders of memory (both his own and other peoples’) and resurrects the dead, their words and motivations, but also shakes the living to their very core. In order to find even the smallest pieces of information, he tears through various archives, dashes like crazy through Ukraine, Russia, and Mongolia, from yurt to yurt, where almost every nook and smell cause distaste, indigestion, and disgust. He meets various Hakawatis – random storytellers, who transport him to a different time and place.
New questions arise during his journey. Piotr is lost not only in guess-work, but also in himself. The author is systematically building tension, drawing his protagonist deeper and deeper into swamps of delusion – Piotr wants to reach the destination of his journey, but there’s no destination to speak of. His will is strong, and he treats every obtained piece of information like a starving gulag prisoner, receiving a slice of bread. Even in his dreams and hallucinations, he continues to follow his grandfather’s footsteps. He’s clinging onto hope and memory like a rock and doesn’t want to let go, even though time and time again he learns that time eroded many rocks like this in the past. Where will this stubbornness lead him? To insanity (since the past eats away at his soul’s present and future)? Into a feeling of nihilistic void (since one cannot believe in something that might have never existed in the first place)? Fortunately, the mystery is solved with a happy end. In a sense, it unravels on its own, at a time when it seems that all is lost.
The images of the reality that the author gave us in his novel are marked by suffering, death, sentimental memories, but also by the exoticism of the landscape and the magic of the Orient. And since it is a modern East – it is more interesting for the reader. The advantage of these two intricate stories – the Siberian and his grandson – is the lightness of the story, but also the attention-grabbing dialogue and the intriguing aura that nests deep in the heart. The author exquisitely frames foreign cultures and shows us great scenes from the East. The realism of this prose makes the world possible to smell, taste, feel and turn like an apple we just grabbed with our hand. And everything is described with disciplined, accurate, precise and malleable language, which can be seen by every reader by comparing the text with the photographs in the novel. The book creates a coherent whole in terms of both narrative documentary and style. For me, this is a beautiful story about the fight against time and the determination of a man who, as Maria Janion would have said, loses his life through living. Only to recover it again.
Traces on Sand
Paweł Daniel Zalewski once again uses his natural talent for catching the surreal elements of life, considerable travel experience, and synesthetic reception of reality. After his debut Ściana (2010), he presents another novel that holds the reader in constant suspense, not only with a well-designed plot, but also – or even above all – with incredibly vivid descriptions, full of diverse details.
The author is very skillful in using words to paint even the most complicated images, such as ritual horse slaughter somewhere in a village on Mongolian steppes, or phantasmagorical visions of the protagonist, which are a compilation of his adventures. Zalewski creates realistic images of people, attire, food, rooms, landscapes, situations, and interpersonal relations. What’s more, the author uses his numerous travels and imagination, shaped by his family, to present varied but authentic accounts, closely related to described time and space. Thus, when Piotr – the protagonist – visits Lviv, the reader can actually feel the atmosphere of streets and bars in the city. When he’s riding the Trans-Siberian Railway, the reader sits next to him. When he traverses the Mongolian steppes or stops at one of the yurts, the reader almost feels the infinite barren lands, and the cramped, stinking yurt.
The plot of the story is equally intriguing. Childhood memories, nursed by his grandmother – a woman forced by the tides of history to leave her hometown of Lviv and take root in Kraków – lead the adult Piotr to looking for his grandfather’s grave at Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery. However, just like in a true crime story, the task turns out to be more difficult than initially expected, and successive characters met along the way convolute the mysterious past instead of unraveling it. The man uncovers subsequent deceptions, which force him to keep on exploring through time and space. Letters received from a stranger seem to transport the ancestor’s burial site into the obscure reaches of Asia. One might have the impression that a clue, convincingly left by someone a second ago, soon becomes a desert mirage, error of history, or a trick of someone’s mind.
Piotr’s search reminds an attempt to catch one’s own shadow, which is why the author emphasizes the illusory nature of reality by juxtaposing realistic descriptions with rich fables, mused by characters Piotr meets along the way. Thus, one of many truths that can be found in Bez pamięci is revealed. Both history of the world and personal history are a mix of facts and tales, truths and interpretations, tangible details and fleeting essence of events. It’s a collage of actual memories and fairy tale wishes and desires. Zalewski’s book also teaches us that the closer a goal is, the more mysterious it becomes. It also holds a kind of warning of fulfilling all of our dreams, for some of them should remain unattained.
The novel is supplemented by a rich photo annex, which is a worthy documentation of Piotr’s history, at the same time suggesting that the plot may be autobiographical. Does the actual story confirm that suggestion? That is something the reader must find out on their own.
Unique, different, amazing – you can keep looking for words, but nevertheless none of them reflects the multidimensionality of this book. This is what characterizes top-shelf literature – it is difficult to describe in a few sentences and even more difficult to classify. By reading, we delve into the dark and deceptive labyrinth of family secrets. The more we learn about them, the less we know, and ultimately we end up nudging a thin transparent line that separates us from madness. We traverse snow-white Siberia, bury ourselves in the sun-drenched sand of Mongolia, drink vodka in dingy bars of Lviv, and lose our sense of reality in the spleen of Krakow, all without a moment’s respite. Much like a 3D film, the malleability of the narration puts us in the middle of the image, not to the side. The reality of the experiences pervades the senses, which is absolutely unique in the world of modern literature that is one-dimensional and flat like an empty piece of paper. First you cannot put this book down and then you cannot forget about it – that is why you simply have to read it, just like you need to taste life if you do not want to just vegetate.
Izabela M. Michalska
I am incredibly impressed by your book.
When you told me about it at the castle, describing it as part-fact, part-fiction, I decided not to read it. Not that I was afraid I’d encounter dragons or princesses, I figured it wouldn’t be that bad. But I was afraid that someone will paint a drone flying with the storks on a Chełmoński painting. I guess it’s a kind of professional anomaly – either something is real, or it isn’t. By the way, the issue of authenticity of works is so important to me that I’m writing a third piece on the subject – for me, it’s not even about deliberate forgery or threats poised by the parallel virtual world, or at least not only about that. However, the Master brought me a book – I felt it was seemly to read it. I don’t read a lot, and slowly at that – at a pace one reads aloud to a child with a short attention span – with modulation, accents and all that. So it took me a while.
Your book is astonishingly real and true. Complete. It is not divided into documents and fantasies. It is a portrait of a man raised by his grandmother, who was the most important, constant presence in his life. He is not looking for the traces of his grandfather – he’s looking for something authentic for himself, something that escaped him thus far. Everything begins and ends with “I, me, mine”. Moods, experiences, pursuits, escapes, “nature portraits” – always more important than descriptions of people.
I’ve known quite a lot of people raised by their grandma or grandpa. The grandson is always at the center of the world and wants to remain there. And then, suddenly – the grandparents are gone. As the old saying goes, “he who laughs the last – laughs by themselves”. The protagonist is not looking for the footsteps of his grandfather. The grandfather is a pretext for running away from his own tail. He is looking for something just for himself: interest, acceptance and love, which he misses so much. True love (I don’t think I have to add that even junior high school students don’t mistake sex for love). Surely he hasn’t found it before, because in the wilderness he is not looking for a network signal to ensure someone that he is safe, fascinated or resigned by his searches. No one is awaiting his revelations or playing hide and seek with themselves. On nightmarish, lonely nights, he does not pretend to hug someone or to fall asleep while sharing his feelings.
The character is a perfect manifestation of a new era, full of Euro-orphans nobody can or cares to count. When they grow up, they will go out to seek everything that they have missed, probably oftentimes sacrificing a piece of their liver to get hammered during this journey to nowhere. However, our protagonist manages to finish it successfully – he finally finds what he was really looking for – a real brother, the first authentic person he met since his grandma passed away.
The book is wonderful. It’s a ready movie script, or even a multi-episode series. It won’t be ass successful as “Ida”, of course, what with these descriptions of Zakopane guesthouses, but if my words prove true and a film is made, I assure you – that part will be thrown out right away!
I wish you follow-ups, whatever that might mean.
I don’t know if you’re in the motherland or you’re wandering far away from here, however you might have Internet (and thus e-mail) access, so I thought I might write you even if you’re not in Kraków at the time.
Among all my books, magazines, and various other texts, resides your Bez pamięci, placed at the “to be read” spot. Teresa read it in its entirety, only skipping scenes and descriptions she deemed too drastic for her tastes. However, she was so absorbed by the book and fascinated with its contents that she was truly there’s no more text at the end of the book, longing for more when she was done!
Intrigued by her opinion, I grabbed the book at first opportunity, and even though I only read the very beginning (since I have no time whatsoever to leisurely read anything), I was captivated by the style and language of your work, which definitely encourages and motivates me to read on. Besides, according to Teresa, the contents of the book touches on entire fragments of history recent and ancient, uncovering many details on specific periods, casting light upon the background of old days and latest history.
Your earlier book (Ściana) was also read by Teresa, but she did have some problems with the psychological layer of the book, because of which she did not recommend it to me this much. I recklessly gifted it to a friend, but lately, as I discovered Bez pamięci, I decided to take the challenge of reading Ściana with a new outlook. I was, however, a little bit disappointed and surprised (in the era of universal availability of goods and services on the free market of commerce and trade) that the earlier position is virtually unavailable in (online) stores. I had to do something about it and fortunately found a (satisfying) offer at Allegro; I now await the package with the book. This time, I’m not giving it up.
In Search of a Shadow
The book is introduced by a kind of motto – which probably is also the publisher’s marketing tool – placed on the cover of the book: “If it’s the truth, it includes a lot of fiction, but if it’s fiction – there’s too much truth in it…”. As if the author wanted to inform the readers that he will not distinguish between truth and literary fiction. Bez pamięci is a book that has some features of historical literary reportage. Although the narrator’s first name is Piotr, we know or suspect that it’s the author’s alter ego. However, it is difficult to figure out where reportage ends and literary fiction begins. Paweł Zalewski is a traveler and visited all the places earnestly described in the book –Lviv, Siberia, and Mongolia. People he met and events he witnessed are mostly real as well, but ancillary to the story. We are then dealing with a typical literary story based on biographical threads of the Zalewski family and autobiographical motifs of the author himself, a fact supported by photos that can be found at the end of the book. They’re interesting because they’re real. The author took them from the family archive, and the contemporary photos were made by himself during his journeys to Lviv and Asia. Paweł Zalewski left them without descriptions, stripping them of any documentary features. The photos begin to speak, tell a tale about themselves as the book progresses. It’s a kind of reward for those who decide to read Bez pamięci.
Paweł Zalewski takes us on an incredible, multilayered journey through time and space. It dashes to its doom while searching for the shadows of his ancestors. We touch upon the interwar period, when Poland shaped after reclaiming independence. Apart from restoring national institutions, the country was getting back on its feet economically. A manifestation of this fact was the Zalewski cluster (to use modern-day terminology), who built his confectionery empire not only in Lviv, but also in Warsaw. It was a time of success and prosperity for the Zalewski family. We know that it didn’t last long. With them we go through the drama of war, German and Soviet occupation, and the expatriation of hundreds of thousands of Poles from Eastern Borderlands all the way West to post-Yalta Poland. It was a time of drama for the Zalewski family. All of this is seen from the perspective of Lviv, their home city, Warsaw – place of residence of their mysterious cousin, and finally Kraków, where Piotr’s grandmother moved after being forced away from Lviv (and the current place of residence of the author); Tyumen, where Piotr’s grandfather was exiled to, and surprisingly – Mongolia, where Piotr goes wanting to learn about the family secret uncovered by chance. The wilderness of the country will fascinate some, others might become discouraged from a journey in that direction. The descriptions of towns, camps, and yurts inhabited by the Mongolians are priceless; we can almost smell the tea “that tastes like meat washings, flavored with salt and tallow” and visit a shaman. It is – at times – not a book for the faint hearted. It is worth mentioning here that the author’s roots can be found in Lviv, both on the side of his father (he is a renowned mural conservator, professor Władysław Zalewski, associated with the Jan Matejko Fine Arts Academy in Kraków) and his mother (Wanda Macedońska, a deceased painter, whose family also came to Kraków from Lviv).
You read Paweł Zalewski’s book with bated breath. Page after page, as if you were accompanying the author in searching for the memory of his loved ones, who – after all – not long ago experienced joy followed by drama in the places visited and described by him. The descriptions are real, even where literary fiction creeps in. What do you call a fascinating trip through Mongolia in the company of a rather strange guide? But because of this, we get to know modern Mongolia, where eternal traditions still exist, despite being pushed out more and more quickly by the novelties of modern times. I haven’t been so fascinated by a book in a long time. Maybe in the days when I was discovering the reports by Melchior Wańkowicz, but also the early books of Krzysztof Kąkolewski, Ryszard Kapuściński, Barbara Wachowicz or Aleksandra Ziółkowska-Boehm. It’s not by accident that I mention these names, which are probably the classics of Polish feature stories. We can thank some of them for the fictionalization of this journalistic genre. Among the first authors of Polish reportage, it is necessary to also recall the forgotten Edmund Ossendowski. While reading fragments of the book on Piotr’s fascinating, but also traumatic journey through the wilderness of Mongolia, I wouldn’t be surprised if Zalewski wrote them infatuated with Ossendowski’s book Zwierzęta, ludzie, bogowie lub przez kraj ludzi, zwierząt i bogów. Konno przez Azję Centralną. However, while Ossendowski rides through the deserts of Mongolia on horseback, Piotr rushes through them with an off-road car…
Janusz M. Paluch
Following Grandfather’s Footsteps From Lviv Through Siberia To Mongolia
The Kraków-based author tells a story of a prewar conditioner, Władysław Zalewski. The products from his Lviv confectionery were famous in the city and beyond, sent by plane to the most exquisite European parties. His grandfather investigates the story of his grandfather’s death, told by his grandmother for years. The grandfather was allegedly executed by the NKVD during World War 2 and buried at a Lviv cemetery. But when his grandson visits Lviv and looks for his grave, he cannot find it. After a thorough investigation it turns out that grandfather was not executed, but exiled to Tyumen in Syberia, a fact discovered by reading letters found by chance. Władysław wrote them to his wife and family who waited for him in Lviv. Why did grandma hide this fact? What happened to Władysław after that? Have the grandparents met afterwards? While looking for answers to these questions, the protagonist follows carefully collected evidence to Siberia and later – Mongolia.
While telling the story, the author avoids writing in first person. He created Piotr – the character, who conducts the family investigation. However, his deception is not consistent, as he also includes many pre-war, wartime, and modern day photos that are supposed to validate the story.
As Zalewski said himself, it is a story about how exploration of memory can lead us to many strange places and lead to entirely unexpected, sometimes unpleasant discoveries, or leave us with even more unanswered questions. Whether we’ll take that risk is an individual decision of every man.
This is what Stanisław Lem wrote about Zalewski’s confectionery in “Highcastle”: “I remember pink pigs with chocolate eyes, and every variety of fruit, mushroom, meat, plant; and there were forests and fields, too, as if Zalewski could reproduce the whole cosmos in sugar and chocolate, using shelled almonds for the sun and icing for the stars. In any case this great master knew how to capture my yearning, anxious, untrusting soul in a different way each season, to conquer me with the eloquence of his marzipan carvings, etchings of white chocolate, Vesuviuses of whipped cream whose volcanic bombs were heavily candied fruit”.
Polskie Radio Kraków
The book was awarded the title “Kraków Book of the Month” in January.
Bitter Chocolate of the Past – Gazeta Kulturalna, February 2015
Kraków-based writer and erudite Paweł Daniel Zalewski has published his second book (the first being Ściana) titled Bez pamięci. In doing so, he has joined such authors as Andrzej Stasiuk and Ryszard Kapuściński. These authors did not like meditating in a comfortable chair at their desk-side sanctuary. They were explorers and travellers (Stasiuk still is). Piotr (the author’s alter ego) looks for the traces of his grandfather, Władysław, the rich and famous confectioner from Lviv, who delivered his confectionery to Warsaw by plane. Arrested by the NKVD, he was deported into the depths of Soviet paradise. He disappeared without a trace. In detective-like fashion, Peter follows the trail of his grandfather. He wants to discover his family secrets. This is not an easy task since all the people he encounters seem to have lost their memory. Who made this happen? And who is doing this today? This sub-dermal question accompanies the reader in this extraordinary novel. And this is just one of the advantages of Zalewski’s novel. Izabela M. Michalska wrote on the cover, somewhat perversely: “Don’t read this book if you only like flat characters and flat experiences – you’ll come away disappointed. It is impossible to tear oneself away and later – to forget about it. That is why it is simply necessary to read it, just as it is necessary to taste the life, if we want to do more than just vegetate”. His private investigation on the fate of his grandfather Władysław, Piotr reaches as far as Mongolia – a country we currently know nothing about as our media are silent on the subject of Genghis Khan’s country. Paweł Daniel Zalewski writes about this exotic country with the knack of a seasoned documentary maker. He did not spare any details while writing about his beloved Lviv, which to him is like bitter chocolate. He writes beautifully about the city, naturally transforming his prose into poetry, using the past to boldly go into the future. Zalewski knows how to be precise, even meticulous in his descriptions (that is the case with the account of a horse autopsy), ornamented with real folk gems, such as the following sentence: “He was wearing tall gutal boots made of dark-brown leather with curled toes, fashioned this way in order to leave the soil undisturbed and show it respect”.
Dr. Emil Biela
I sat next to the author of Bez pamięci in school for four years. He became a part of my visual memory 41 years ago in a provocative t-shirt with the silhouette of David Bowie (back then I didn’t know who that was). It was the year when Stanisław Szozda won the Peace Race. That was our passion back then. Four years later we graduated. Over three more decades passed and I learned that Paweł started to write. I remembered his invaluable Latin and English cheat sheets. But now, suddenly – in Polish? He’s a writer? First, I saw his short story Pole 16 in the Nie pytaj o Polskę anthology. It was neat, humorous story, with a hint of melancholia, on the country of his childhood (in it – our mutual friends) and the Eastern Borderlands. Stanisław Chyczyński noticed the story and enthusiastically reviewed it in his examination of the anthology in the “Arcana” bimonthly. During some class reunion, PAweł encouraged me to look through his “meditation album”, Gdzie śmierć nie sięga. I didn’t. There’s no prophet where you sit in class.
I did reach for Bez pamięci, though. I was intrigued – it was Paweł’s third book (before the album, there was the very well received novel Ściana). I thought it seemly to check it out. I started by sniffing the book’s back; the blurbs smelled rather trashy: “Literature of the highest order”, “Don’t read this book if you only like flat characters and flat experiences – you’ll come away disappointed”. If I wasn’t interested in what does the author have to say, I would have probably put it back after experiencing this cheap, clichéd blackmail. The front cover is a bit more encouraging – a photo of the Mongolian steppe, a Mongolian (probably) man in a russet coat, standing with his back to us. The wind is raising a disturbingly orange, thin scarf, a shawl of some sorts he has around his waist. In the foreground, between his legs – a basin, dirty from blood, with a puddle of it still at the bottom. In the steppe in the background – a tiny rider on a tiny horse. Dark sky, unrest, mystery. Does it invite to come in, to “the dry ocean’s breed”?
The book’s protagonist, Piotr, a middle-aged man from Kraków, in some way the author’s alter ego, is looking for traces of his grandfather, Władysław, a famous Lviv confectioner. Władysław Zalewski was consumed by the Soviet Union, which entered Lviv in September 1939. Thus, we begin in Lviv, but we quickly move to the place promised by the cover – Mongolia, where steppe borders the Gobi Desert. Only around the halfway mark of this quite bulky book we can find out why looking for Lviv roots (hacked away by a Soviet axe) must lead as far as Mongolia. The story isn’t linear – at least half of it loops. The initial chapters read like a great piece on Mongolian exoticism. Very violent exoticism. For a while, it seems that the author wants to shock us with ensuing scenes of killing and gutting horses, gophers, and other mammals, and similarly vivid, even acute descriptions of tripe prepared a’la Mongolaise. These certainly reveal the author’s talent for vivid, precise, and poetic depictions of things, situations, and moods. Maybe he inherited such talent from his mother, the great surrealist painter Wanda Macedońska-Zalewska, or his uncle, Adam Macedoński?
However, Bez pamięci is not a reportage or a mere display of wordsmith skills. It is a novel, and a very ambitious one at that. The protagonist is searching for his ancestor’s grave. We watch how the past he tried to resist and detach from, opposing it like the proud postmodern lemming he is, sucks him in completely. It must be that this pride, this distance, were only a façade. He is looking for himself, because he is lost – like grandfather, taken by the NKVD, like grandson, already immersed in the 21st century. The past presents its strength to him; what past is it though? Is it genetic memory that is reanimated through saved photos, and fragments of letters of our dearly departed? We watch how the protagonist contracts the past sickness, how his identity asthma is acting up. The character – or maybe even the author himself – is trying to heal. A vicious portrait of a Polish community activist in the Siberian city of Tyumen, a critical and very vivid depiction of Polish trade and adventures in the Trans-Siberian Railway, of fun girls and industrious boys, always able to get some alcohol and nosh – these are examples of creating distance, that may save the author from easy capitulation in the face of patriotic pathos; after all, it is a description of a journey to Siberia, similar to the one undertaken by Anhelli, who visited the “white hell” in Słowacki’s poem. In this novel, there’s no patriotic pathos to speak of. There is a path that leads through the desert towards the missing forefather, who lived not so long ago, but his disappearance takes on almost mythical qualities – it happened between 1945 Lviv and the out-of-time Gobi Desert. His grave must be found. This might be the most primal (and thus the most important) form of patriotism – patres, our fathers and forefathers, are calling; they don’t want their graves to be abandoned. Even by memories. The sensitivity to that voice is something that distinguishes us, humans, from other species.
The journey through the desert (literally and figuratively) leads to the threshold of madness in ensuing chapters. From “Ślepa żaba”, through “Dalanzadgad”, to “Na pokuszenie” – I simply couldn’t tear myself away. In these central chapters, there is an unusual courage of imagination (to paraphrase Frank Underwood) and full control over words, which express this imagination. It is not “top shelf literature”, but literature of flesh and bone. It’s a path towards the limits of literature. It reminded me of Voss, a grand novel by the Nobel Prize winner Patrick White. It is also a story of a journey through the desert, where the protagonist wants to reveal his identity, or maybe just confirm the suspicion of his fate. Voss didn’t look for his forefathers – he was looking for himself. Bez pamięci’s Piotr is looking for his grandfather, and in this search, he is also looking for himself. He finds his ancestor very unexpectedly and very close, as if cooling emotions and metaphysical visions from the Gobi Desert in the last chapter.
What is the result of this discovery? Maye that it was about the journey, not the destination. Or maybe what a poet described so beautifully a century ago: “Every seeing man at one point starts to long for the desert. To have a tiny bit of food, sit on a rock and think about heavy matters, so heavy that the eyelids begin to fall. But everyone came back from the desert to those they left before. And tried to teach loneliness to those who aren’t self-sufficient; they became tired, started to doubt themselves, and finally died a small and painful death. Meanwhile, it is necessary to cross the desert and walk on, incessantly in the same direction. Only he who will manage that will find out what lies on the other side of loneliness and why does one miss the desert. Such a person will not walk astray and will not become tired, will not die a death that leaves no trace”.
The traces left by our ancestors, the traces we leave behind and those we would like to leave behind, how these traces overlap in space and how they diverge, inheritance – that is what the book is about. If I quoted Rilke to describe the most ambitious aim I discovered in this novel, it is because this novel deserves such an exegete. Because this is one of the best Polish novels of the last quarter-century. I think Rilke would like it, I have the impression that Herling-Grudziński would be happy with it as well, maybe even jealous …
I have the feeling Paweł might be surprised when he reads these words.
Professor Andrzej Nowak
Arcana nr 122