A Thousand Peaceful Cities. Jerzy Pilch
Praise for Jerzy Pilch
“A very gifted writer. . . . The hope of young Polish prose.”
“A highly original voice.”
“Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of Żołądkowa Gorzka.”
—Becky Ferreira, L Magazine
Also by Jerzy Pilch
in English Translation
His Current Woman
The Mighty Angel
Copyright © by Jerzy Pilch, 2009
Published with the permission of ŚWIAT KSIĄŻKI Sp. z o.o., Warsaw, 2009
Translation copyright © by David Frick, 2010
First ebook edition, 2010
All rights reserved
The quote on pg. 61 is from Adam Mickiewicz, “Ode to Youth,” Poems by Adam Mickiewicz, translated by various hands and edited by George Rapall Noyes, New York, 1944, pg. 70. The quote on pg. 75 is from Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter, New York, 1969, pg. 517. The quotes on pgs. 118–119 are based on Juliusz Słowacki, Kordian, Act III, Scene 5, translated by Gerard T. Kapolka, pg. 96. The hymn on pg. 135 is taken from an English translation of Martin Luther’s “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her” by Charles Winfred Douglas.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: available.
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Open Letter is the University of Rochester’s nonprofit, literary translation press:
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When Father and Mr. Trąba decided to kill First Secretary Władysław Gomułka, we were in the grip of an unending heat wave, the earth was bursting at the seams, and the anguish of my youth was just beginning.
The morphinistes were living in the attic, and there was no way to bring them under control. The stairway creaked; first came the vanguard of the odors, then the odors themselves: cocoa butter and something else that I couldn’t identify, but which must have been the odor of morphine and immoderation. Every morning—just like everybody else—they went out to sunbathe. They took along baskets of food, drinks, air mattresses, sunshades, bathing suits. Were they really no different from us terrestrials? Quite the opposite! They were radically different. Everyone else went to the real beach; everyone headed for pure radiance, grassy banks, and the babbling current. But they went in the other direction, into the depths of the deepest brush, to the very heart of the drought, right to the fuses of the still inactive machinery of conflagration. In short, everyone else went to the swimming pool or to the banks of the Vistula, but they went to the forests on Buffalo Mountain.
“There’s really nothing strange here,” Mr. Trąba rubbed his hands venomously, “there’s really nothing strange. It’s a well known fact that the Prince of Darkness feels A-OK in stuffy copses in the heat of July. It’s a well known fact that he is mad about the sulfur hour: twelve noon. A well known fact . . . a well known fact . . . a well known fact.”
Mr. Trąba unexpectedly lost the thread of his infallible argument.
“We know irrefutably, Chief,” he addressed Father, “we know irrefutably that they associate with the Antichrist, but we don’t know the operational details, and that worries us. Of what use to them, by a billion barrels of beer, of what use to them is that Babylonian blanket?”
Nobody knew why the morphinistes needed that truly Babylonian blanket, which they lugged along with them, in addition to their swimsuits, baskets, and air mattresses. The wildest expanses of unbridled speculation opened up in our puritanical heads. The blanket was great and luxuriant, like the canopy of a deployed parachute, crimson on one side, gold on the other. Crimson and gold like the outside and inside of a royal mantle, like the shimmering surfaces of two holy rivers traversing an empire, crimson like blood and gold like a suntan. There was no such princely covering in the entire house, to say nothing of the room they had rented in the attic. None of us had ever even seen such licentious bedding.
“No army in the world,” Mr. Trąba’s voice rose to a desperate pitch, “no army in the world has ever strapped such monstrous plunder to its saddle. Not even the victorious Red Army. By the way, Chief, do you remember how the victorious Red Army grazed in my yard toward the end of the war? Do you remember in what satins, brocades, and cloths of gold they were wrapped?”
“I don’t remember,” Father said coldly, “I don’t remember, because as a soldier of the Wehrmacht I sat in Russky bondage toward the end of the war in Serpukhov, near Moscow.”
“Oh, that’s right. I always forget, Chief, that you are basically a repatriate. Well, these krasnoarmeytsy—by the way, they were an exceptionally cultured detachment; on account of their delicacy, my ward Emilia, God rest her soul, departed this world intacta. It’s quite a different matter that the poor girl’s only chance was the confusion of war or the passage of foreign troops. In peacetime conditions her exterior was a bit too radically conspicuous. To tell the truth, I myself made some effort that she might be granted knowledge of the animal pleasures of touch on this earth. But, as God is my witness, it was impossible to ignore reality to that degree. I suffer because of this, and I reproach myself to this day. Perhaps I should have shown greater generosity, concentrated more, focused on those rare aspects of her corporality that were acceptable . . . May the earth be light upon her. Or rather, may it weigh just as much as he whose weight she was never to feel . . . So, Chief, those krasnoarmeytsy, who were grazing in my yard, carried off entire armfuls of down comforters, feather beds, and silk bedspreads from the Presidential Castle, but not even they had such a blanket. What would you say, Chief, to the phrase: ‘Not even the victorious Red Army had a blanket like the one the morphinistes have?’ What would you say?”
“A good phrase, and worthy of reward,” said Father, whose habit it was to reward Mr. Trąba’s more artful sentences with a shot of blackthorn vodka, and he approached the sideboard, took out a bottle, and poured a shot of blackthorn vodka. Then he raised the overflowing glass, glanced at the swaying phantoms of the addicts who were caught in the oily drink, and said skeptically: “But will you like it, will you like it, Mr. Trąba?”
“There is no way, Chief, no way to like it,” Mr. Trąba’s voice broke, melting like an October frost. “After all, you know, Chief, that I don’t drink because I like it; rather, I drink in order to intensify existence.”
Without a word Father gave Mr. Trąba the glass, and he poured its contents in one lightning-fast draught into his broadly gaping mouth. Not one muscle trembled in his face, neither eye flickered, no sigh of relief or of delight was heard. In making room in his entrails for the blackthorn vodka, Mr. Trąba froze and stood motionless. He became like an object, a vessel, a jug that—although it doesn’t see, hear, or feel—desires to be filled.
Not even the Red Army had a blanket like the one the morphinistes had. But what use did they have for such a lair in 100-degree heat? Why did they take that blanket to the forests on Buffalo Mountain? Probably in order to make a bed with it in a forest clearing, for it was truly as big and as fecund as a forest clearing. Whom did they cover there in the depths of the backwoods? What canopy bed, and whose, stood there among the spruces and the firs? What terrible entanglements