Sunday, January 26, 2014

Waiting for socialism

It took me a long time to read The Graveyard, by Marek Hłasko, despite its being merely 140 pages long. It's dense with politics and a whole country's emotional baggage.

I first read Hłasko about 20 years ago — The Eight Day of the Week was just about the only book of his readily available in English. The Polish crowd I ran with couldn't sing his praises strongly enough. Hłasko is Poland's James Dean, its Angry Young Man. It's 1950s angst, but on another planet; Holden Caulfield's life of privilege shrinks to nothing when compared with growing up in the shadow of Communism. You want phoney, try on some party propaganda.
"It's funny," Franciszek said. "Man always dreamed of one thing — knowledge. That was the meaning of his eternal struggle. He dreamed of only one thing — to understand his times, his purpose, his place, his meaning, and his moment in eternity. And now that he has come closest to this understanding, knowledge is his main enemy. It's better not to understand — knowledge is a disease."

"No," the painter said. "it's death. It's worse than death. It's an encore piece, and encore to something that didn't exist, that couldn't be taken seriously." He waved the bottle joyfully. "How about a drink?"
The Graveyard was firmly rejected for publication in Poland. It appeared first in France in 1956.

It's the story of Franciszek Kowalski, a factory worker and party man. He meets up with an old friend and they go for a few drinks. On his way home, drunk, he manages to insult a couple police officers. Very soon, the exact nature of his innocent drunken outburst is called into question. A night in the drunk tank pales against the ensuing difficulties at work, with the party, and at home.

What begins with bureaucratic absurdities moves into surreal, nightmarish wartime flashbacks. And then. One by one, Kowalski hunts down his old comrades in the underground, looking to restore his faith but instead finding deeper truths.
He rose suddenly and began to pace the room. His neck grew purple, and his upper lip quivered. "Goddam it to hell!" he said. "To hell with this goddam chatter! What matters are the consequences, the final consequences. Once you've started a revolution, you have to realize that it can't be stopped, or moderated, or turned off, or delayed. A revolution can be only won or lost, and that's all. What horrifies you? The dimensions? The methods?"

"The consequences," Franciszek said. "What you said a moment ago. Is the revolution a blind, brutal force?"

Birch gripped Franciszek by the arm and led him to the window. Before them lay the wet city, bristling with scaffoldings. "Here, to this place," Birch said, "in I don't know how many years, a man will come who hasn't yet been born. He will come and he'll want to live, to have food, an apartment, children, a family; he will want to live in security and he will expect the time he lives in to provide everything a man is entitled to. I assure you that he won't be concerned with your sufferings and doubts, or mine. He will evaluate the world he finds by the yardstick of his reason. And that's all."
Franciszek wants only to know what kind of man he really is, what he really is, but what a quagmire of mistruths he stirs up. That should teach him drink vodka on a weeknight.

There's joke early on that sums up the moral-political confusion of the times:
Once again he ran in his unbuttoned overcoat through the wet, muddy streets. He stopped suddenly. [...] He heard the furious screech of brakes behind him, and jumped aside.

"What are you waiting for?" the driver screamed, "For applause?"

"For socialism," someone said on the sidewalk.

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