The Mighty Angel, Jerzy Pilch (trans. Bill Johnston). Open Letter. 155pp, $15.95.
Originally published in 2000, available now in a seamless translation by Bill Johnston, Jerzy Pilch’s novel The Mighty Angel is as entertaining and engaging as it is possible to be while candidly revealing the lurid charm at the heart of alcohol addiction.
Pilch’s narrator is a middle aged, extremely self-aware and intelligent writer, also named Jerzy. As a third-generation alcoholic, Jerzy presents himself locked in battle with “the seductive beast of drunken rhetoric,” and the story of his lifelong war with language and addiction makes for hilarious, harrowing, and captivating reading.
Pilch takes aim well above Charles Bukowski’s pulp or the surrealism of Hunter S. Thompson. As literary relatives go, The Mighty Angel is the postmodernist Polish cousin to Frederick Exley’s classic A Fan’s Notes.
After two failed marriages and countless lovers lost, Jerzy is beset by a romantic view of his life and fate. When he is not lamenting, in mock-nostalgic tone, Poland’s days “under the Muscovite yoke,” he jokes of his fear that if God is watching He is not in the least amused by Jerzy’s “life of dissolution.” Early in the novel, Pilch has Jerzy showing his allegiance to booze by describing its power in reverent tones:
In the bottle that stood on the table there was still a goodly quantity of peach vodka; I went up, poured some out, drank it, and experienced illumination. My Lord, what illumination I experienced, and how it suited the extraordinary character of the day! My innards lit up with an even and benign light, my thoughts immediately formed themselves into ingenious sentences, and my gestures were unerring.
The heart of Jerzy’s story then opens up to show his long career spent in rehab—a legendary eighteen times. When in rehab, he either debates the staff, or writes. The debates let Pilch show Jerzy sharpening his wit against the weaker minds of his “she-therapists” and Dr. Granada, his rehab nemesis.
“Are you trying to drink yourself to death?” asked Dr. Granada.
“I can neither confirm nor deny it,” I responded, since I was incapable under any circumstances of forgoing a well-turned phrase. . . .
“Why do you take up my staff’s time? Why on earth do you attend the talks and the discussion groups? Why on earth do you write drinking confessions and keep an emotional journal?” . . .
“I’m not trying to drink myself to death, at least not just yet. To tell the truth, what I’d like most of all is to drink myself to death after a long and happy life.”
“You really do have the mentality of a child, and a rather slow-witted one at that.”
“Doctor, I’m aware, I really am fully aware that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”
It works out wonderfully for Jerzy’s ego that the clinic requires patients to write an emotional journal as part of their treatment:
Incidentally, when I arrived there for the first time I did not have the slightest notion that I was crossing the threshold of a creative writing program, that I was entering a community of people of the pen, of writers who were incessantly creating their alcoholic autobiographies, recording their innermost feeling in cheap sixty-page notebooks that were called emotional journals, laboriously assembling their drunkards’ confessions.
His fellows patients (whom Jerzy names, for example, the Hero of Socialist Labor, and The Most Wanted Terrorist in The World) become characters whose fates offer abject lessons. Or they simply die, fake their recoveries, or turn to “ash” before Jerzy’s poetic eye. Jerzy takes bribes to write their diaries for them, which humorously subverts the system of recovery, but also forces Jerzy to stare at the numb depths of their shared illness.
Writing other people’s diaries is a humorous touch that also works to help break up the stretches of first-person prose. More importantly, with this device Pilch is preparing for a masterful shift in the novel’s entrancing prose from entertainment to more somber reflection, as he shows Jerzy confronting the relationship between his addiction and his art, as well as his family’s alcoholism, which he offers mock prayers to (“drunken father of my drunken father”).
Almost every comic moment is shadowed by some sort of heaviness, personal or political. When visited by a beautiful woman who leans over him, Jerzy says: “I was just about to think, the most beautiful breasts in the Warsaw Pact, but the world had changed and I was now looking at the most beautiful breasts in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the most beautiful breasts in the European Union, or rather the most beautiful breasts in the candidate countries in line for membership in the European Union . . .”
As funny as Jerzy knows he can be, he acknowledges that he’s kidding himself:
When I was drunk or hung over, especially when the hangover had been mitigated by the first early morning shot, I bought considerably more newspapers than ordinarily. (Actually, I ought to say: than extraordinarily, since ordinarily I was extraordinarily drunk, while I was sober extraordinarily rarely—once again the seductive beast of drunken rhetoric raises its head. Drinking is ghastly; writing about drinking is ghastly; drinking, writing, and battling with the beast of drunken rhetoric is ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.)
That ghastly fear evolves into severe concern about looming “graphomania,” the day his writing will become automatic, or his addiction will snuff his talent, if not his life:
I, for example, conduct my inquiries in complete sentences. And this is no graphomaniac literary workout, though thinking in complete sentences is of prime significance for literature. It is with an acute sense of distress that I imagine the moment when the last paragraphs, sentences, and fragments of sentence will vanish from my head and the only thing left there will be illegible manuscripts, phantoms of names, specters, nothing more. The heroic-comic choice between dementia and death does not amuse me in the least.
Pilch begins to show that for Jerzy to defeat his addiction he must stop lying, which involves developing the heroic discipline to resist the literary impulses that have sustained him. The odds are not stacked in his favor; metaphor comes so easily, letting him cast his time in rehab in grand terms: “We were soldiers of a defeated and besieged self-style army. We were woken by the cannonade of our heart, we had been wearing the same uniform for who knew how long, we ate whatever we could find, it was only by some miracle that our canteens were always full, and an ever more primitive rotgut sustained our ever shorter lives.” Even when counseled to stop glossing over his addiction, Jerzy can only add a hint of regret as he rhapsodizes that “[the] she-therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature.”
But for each light and sympathetic metaphor Jerzy offers, he counters with an instance of ugly reality to keep his story honest. After an ex-girlfriend offers to rescue Jerzy from his addiction, he leaves to go drink, resulting in this stark portrait that mirrors the “soldiers” scene described above: “The light bulb shone above my insensate body; dawns rose and evenings fell, my insensate hand reached for the bottle and poured vodka into my insensate throat, my bedding and skin acquired a corneous exoskeleton of dried puke, destruction followed destruction across my apartment.” Other benders lead to dreams of “bestialization,” “cadaverous limbs,” “demons of hesitation” and a recurring image of “cankerous innards pulsating beneath skin that was covered with piglike stubble.”
With The Mighty Angel, Pilch has created a complex novel that deserves multiple readings. There are a few narrative bumps late in the story. The conclusion is somewhat confused and seems slightly rushed as Jerzy uses love-power to escape the cage of false language and empty hope, but overall Pilch gracefully balances narrative rapture with the horrors of addiction. He makes no bones about it: Jerzy escapes death by luck, not talent.
Matthew Jakubowski is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Philadelphia.
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