Discussed in this essay:
A Thousand Peaceful Cities, Jerzy Pilch (trans. David Frick). Open Letter.
This essay accompanies our serialization of a chapter from Jerzy Pilch’s forthcoming novel, A Thousand Peaceful Cities. The serialization can be read here.
In 2010, Open Letter will publish Polish author Jerzy Pilch’s novel A Thousand Peaceful Cities, his third novel to be translated into English. A Thousand Peaceful Cities bears the hallmarks of Pilch’s prose—it is alternately reflective, zany, and gloomy, as he pulls from his own life to create another short yet potent novel. For this book Pilch focuses on his adolescence to tell a coming-of-age story set in the small southern Polish town of Wisla during Soviet rule in the 1960s. Structurally, the novel is composed mostly of dialogue in order to evoke the contentious and entertaining discussions that took place between the young narrator’s father and a family friend, the trouble-making but lovable drunk Mr. Traba, who is as addicted to booze as he is to philosophizing and political rants. Traba’s outlandish plot to go to Warsaw and kill the Communist General Secretary Gomulka provides the novel’s loose framework, in which Pilch skillfully arranges a series of anecdotes about hopeless political resistance, the Lutheran religious minority in Poland, the mysteries of young love, and rampant alcoholism in Wisla, where Pilch was born in 1952.
The story, like Pilch’s other works available in English, feels highly personal, like a true-life novel, though not a memoir. It is narrated by a boy named Jerzy at age twelve or thirteen, with the occasional shift in perspective to show Pilch commenting as an adult on his memories as an adolescent. To justify the use of so much dialogue, we are told that young Jerzy constantly wrote what he heard in a notebook, and he played a game in which he would guess at what his father and Mr. Traba would say next in their daily discussions.
Pilch, who now lives in Warsaw, was a prominent and celebrated journalist and columnist for decades before he began writing novels, which have sold very well in Poland and earned him several accolades. One could argue that his work as a journalist has had a strong influence on his fiction, in that by spending so many years reporting on the news of people’s lives he became, artistically speaking, more interested in realism than any other mode of fiction. In 1989, at age 37, his debut novel, the title of which translates to “Confessions of an Author of Illicit Erotic Literature,” won the Kościelski Award, which honors and encourages writers under the age of 40. He has also been nominated four times for the Nike Award, Poland’s highest literary honor, winning it in 2001 for The Mighty Angel.
Virtually all of Jerzy’s memories are of the dynamic, singular voices of Mr. Traba and the narrator’s father, voices Pilch has recreated with painstaking care. The men we listen in on and watch with Jerzy are not privileged or educated, and, being unemployed, they spend their time exhibiting strong political and moral passions while drinking near-constantly—this last fact something Jerzy presents without judgment, as if drunkenness were commonplace, perhaps even necessary to endure life under Communist rule. Their banter, reminiscent of the neurotic moralists found in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, is reproduced at such length that it becomes clear that Pilch has written this novel to memorialize these men. And his goal is to try to mesmerize his readers like these two men mesmerized him as a boy growing up in a small house filled with their chatter.
The book’s themes of love, politics, religion, and drinking are Pilch’s main concerns in his two other novels currently available in English: His Other Woman (Northwestern University Press, 2002) and The Mighty Angel (Open Letter Books, 2009). The Mighty Angel focuses entirely on alcoholism and the effects of addiction on creativity, and it is more postmodern, to the point where the narrator, also named Jerzy, begins to argue with the voice of alcohol itself. In Peaceful Cities Pilch lets the conversations in Jerzy’s households reflect the political and religious atmosphere of Poland at the time. However, the novel does not aim to be social commentary. Pilch is most concerned with his characters’ meandering thoughts and worries as they struggle to attain an elusive sort of happiness. We gain a sense that most everyone in the town is coping with a pervasive, unspoken yearning to escape private misery. The emotional reality of what it must have been like to live in this small town in the 1960s becomes a subplot beneath all the talking, as we begin to seek a cause for it as we read. And Pilch’s light touch is skillful enough to interject humor at just the right times, and counterbalance the reality of the Soviet weight bearing down on the people of Wisla with a playful attitude toward the ways individuals evaded societal oppression.
Peaceful Cities was first published in Poland in 1997. Literary critic Przemyslaw Czaplinski mentioned the novel in his essay “Letter from Poland” (Context magazine, Issue 20), in which he discusses Pilch’s contemporaries in the 1990s, and aptly includes Peaceful Cities among the novels of its time that were constructed using a “non-epic model of prose,” a term he defines in this way:
From single words, through rhyme and poetic means, to the combination of novel and poetic forms—everything is possible, nothing is forbidden. This is a novel in which every element can be extracted from its state of epic transparency to serve as a foundation for the novel. If the author chooses action, therefore, its development takes place through the connections between words, not the succession of events—a connection based on treating verbal phrases of every kind as narrative occurrences. If the narrator is constructing, then he/she has the right, above all, to interrupt the narrative, to stray off the main path, and to subordinate intrigues and events to commentary and digressions, or to indulge in associations.
Peaceful Cities is not postmodern or surrealistic, or at all written using a Joycean, stream-of-consciousness approach. It has a fixed structure and the wildest devices Pilch uses, sparingly at that, are the flashback and flash-forward. The narrative seems to wander at times, in order to follow Traba’s vodka-fueled rants, but each chapter snaps back in line to end with a clear but small move forward in time as the young narrator ages. Because it is so deeply biographical, and includes all of Pilch’s main themes, this “non-epic model” serves him well. As Czaplinski says, Pilch has no need to rely on experimentation or abstract plot devices because doing so would not honor the reality he is trying to present: the feeling of spending years in that house as a teenager, trapped in a small town, feeling confused and fascinated on a daily basis.
With such a tight focus on a small group of people, Pilch shows he is most concerned in this book with the individual. Like Augie March in Saul Bellow’s classic, Pilch doesn’t aim to let his young narrator discover grand, universal meanings in his life, but the reader is allowed to see such meanings as Jerzy, the narrator, chronicles exact details of his life. It is also clear that Jerzy is right to stay in the house and slowly gain wisdom by enduring all the loony things he hears, because Pilch shows that life in Wisla is incredibly slow, as if the town existed outside time. As Czaplinski observes about Pilch’s writing, “[The] energy normally devoted to spinning a tale is directed towards slowing things down . . . towards leading the novel as a whole away from single metaphors, towards revealing literary and linguistic borrowings in the re-creation of the past.” In this way, Peaceful Cities is devoted to illuminating memory and promulgating the tradition of the novel as an archive of everyday people and their days, as a matter of highly personal history. Thus, people’s speech, gestures (down to the way they sit and how they cough)—and not their politics or nationalities or religious stances—are given the utmost attention. Pilch shows this is his main concern by listing physical mannerisms, as if photographing them from every angle, as if by doing so he can divine the person’s true character.
In this excerpt from the novel, Pilch delivers a scene between the Lutheran sexton, Jerzy, and a few other boys. This scene then flows into more details behind Mr. Traba’s political plot to murder one of Poland’s Communist leaders. After the religious fervor shown by the sexton, and Traba’s mad speech, the chapter ends with a hopeless and humorous twist, a hallmark of Pilch’s work that adds to the general mood of the town, a mood characterized by a fierce inner turmoil endured by pretty much everyone in Peaceful Cities. We see that they all live wanting to shout at the authorities that rule them, but are too afraid to do so. This leaves their only hope floating somewhere out in flood of embarrassing words from Mr. Traba. He alone is able to shout what others are too afraid to admit they think. And this, in terms of the novel’s logic, makes Traba an irresistible figure for the young Jerzy, someone worth spying on, listening to, and preserving for all time, by writing down every wild word he says.
Matthew Jakubowski is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Philadelphia.
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