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Warsaw Underground

Nine

by Andrzej Stasiuk,translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Harcourt, 229 pp., $23.00

The name of Andrzej Stasiuk is unlikely to be known to most American readers, but in his native Poland, he is something of a literary celebrity. His work is widely read, critically praised, and regularly awarded prizes. To many of his contemporaries, he seems to embody a distinctively Polish style of nonconformist authenticity. He is also part of a lively and diverse literary landscape that has emerged in Poland during the last two decades. Despite some predictions to the contrary, it is safe to say that the lifting of censorship nearly twenty years ago has been good for Polish letters. Released from the constraints of covertness and the duty of high-minded dissidence, writers are experimenting with a variety of hitherto suppressed genres and formal possibilities. They are addressing a range of subjects that were previously taboo or pushed to the margins of collective memory.

In much of his work, Stasiuk writes from, and about, the peripheries of Polish life: outlying landscapes, neglected corners of society, and marginal experiences. Born in 1960, Stasiuk has a freewheeling rebel’s biography: he was expelled from high school, escaped from the army (legendarily—or apocryphally—in a tank), and did time in a Communist-era prison. He is known to be a great drinker.

Stasiuk lives in the sparsely populated rural region of eastern Galicia, near the Slovak border, where he runs a publishing house called Czarne (Black) with his partner, and which he has used as the setting for several of his books. (In this, he is part of an interesting wider trend in Polish writing, which in recent years has been produced increasingly in the country’s borderland and provincial regions.) Several of his books have come out of his journeys through the hinterlands of Eastern Europe and the Balkans—the geographical (and political) constellation once known as “the other Europe.” He has written fiction, poetry, an account of life in prison, a highly unorthodox “attempt at an intellectual autobiography,” and a number of books that hover on borders between genres, combining travelogue, personal reflections, and philosophical quests.

Unusually for him, Nine, published in Poland in 1999, and his third book to be translated into English, is set in Warsaw, rather than one of the remoter regions. Thematically, however, the novel takes us into Stasiuk’s usual territory, “the other Poland”—in this case, a world of lawlessness and danger rarely glimpsed by the casual observer, but embedded right in the geographical center.

In depicting this newly emerged underworld, Stasiuk adapts the conventions and clichés of the crime novel to his own, often darkly comic purposes. Nine recounts a few days in the lives of several small-time hustlers and criminals, following their movements through Warsaw as they seek to reverse misfortune or add to their ill-gotten gains. The main character, Pawel, a fledgling entrepreneur, in debt to loan sharks and struggling to remain on the right side of respectability, wakes up one morning to find that his apartment has been broken into and wrecked. He embarks on a quest to raise the two hundred million zlotys (the equivalent of several thousand dollars) he needs in order to repay his debtors and avoid greater calamity. In his desperation, he seeks help—not easily forthcoming—from former buddies who are now part of a murky underworld of mafias and freelance crime.

Chief among them is Bolek, a middle-rank mafia operator who lives in a garishly kitschy apartment with a wraparound photomural of the sea decorating the living room (“Boundless, blue, with whitecaps and a sailboat halfway between the armchair and the horizon…”). His other acquisitions include a very thin, very young, peroxide blonde mistress whom he keeps virtually imprisoned, and a vicious dog trained to attack visitors at the slightest wrong move. There is also Bolek’s sidekick, Iron Man, a small but fast thug engaged to perform various nefarious errands; and Jacek, a heroin addict whose dismal living quarters provide Pawel with a kind of refuge.

These characters cross and collide in a series of incidents whose connections are sometimes unclear, but which frequently culminate in perverse sex or violence. On visiting Jacek’s filthy apartment, Pawel finds another young girl and proceeds to have sex with her without any fuss or feeling. In return she shares with him New Age wisdom that sounds especially absurd under the circumstances:

Of course you prefer meat, you think it’ll make you tough and all that. But eating vegetables changes your consciousness, and then you’re living in harmony with yourself, not by some chauvinistic Christian ideology that lets people kill and eat innocent creatures….

Later, Pawel’s shy shop assistant is raped by men who make kinky use of the shop’s merchandise—ladies’ and men’s underwear. There are escapes and pursuits, punitive beatings and a car accident that leaves a body to be disposed of.

This is sensational material, and Stasiuk risks unintended as well as intentional parody by exploiting it so relentlessly. But the plot is not really the point. Rather, Nine is an unsentimental journey through post-1989 Warsaw, seen here as both a familiar gritty urban landscape and a troubled moral terrain, in a way more harsh and more desolate than standard gangsterland. On one level, Stasiuk seems to want to document Warsaw’s topography, detailing names of streets and landmarks, tracking the characters’ trajectories, and sketching the city’s neighborhoods with a specificity which recalls more famous literary mappings of, say, Paris or Dublin. But Stasiuk’s Warsaw is hardly a city of romantic or sensuous imaginings.

Nine is written in disjointed segments, alternating among different characters’ perspectives; but its prevailing tone is laconic, uninflected, determinedly neutral. Pawel, who comes closest to being the novel’s central consciousness, navigates the capital on buses whose routes he knows by heart, observing its well-known sights and stray impressions with an unvarying and unsurprised detachment. The grim train station and smelly underground passages, the glum concrete housing blocks and the massive Stalin-era Palace of Culture, the anonymous passersby and the drug dealers standing around in vaguely threatening groups, are all observed without judgment or comment. From this equalizing perspective, the city is a place where all human intentions are uncertain, and tedium slides seamlessly into menace. A bum with whom Pawel shares his tepid meal at an all-night cafeteria offers to perform any criminal services he might require; a vacant-eyed young woman delivers drugs to her mafia customers, who debate how to use her.

But above all, Warsaw is portrayed here as a vast repository of items for sale, a city humming with legal and illicit commerce and spewing junk and expensive goods in equal measure. The hustlers of the novel seem to deal mostly in merchandise, and Pawel views the new chic shops and socialist-era department stores, the trendy T-shirt logos and cheap brands jumbled in sprawling outdoor markets with a jaded eye, not as objects of desire but as a currency of survival.

Indeed, the only glimmers of pleasure or excitement in Nine come from the characters’ recollections of their earlier lives. Throughout the novel, two different eras are superimposed on each other, identified through allusions to altered street names, old movie houses, and an outdated, once valuable hundred-zloty bill. Obsolete brands of cigarettes, cars, and beers function as mundane madeleines. In their more reflective moments, the thugs tell their young and ignorant girlfriends how it was “before.” The details they recall are ordinary, and the time in which they took place is not very remote, but it is nevertheless clearly demarcated from the present. Pawel recalls collecting milk bottles to earn his first money, drifting through Berlin, a city he “hated and desired,” in search of a job, and working in a fox-skinning plant, where he was seduced by the factory’s owner, a much older woman who paid him for sex, and whose elegant apartment aroused him as much as her own allure. A neighbor remembers him as a resourceful young man from a poor, religious family.

The character of these reminiscences is too humble and their tone too flat to pass for nostalgia; but the past is nevertheless remembered as having been filled with some enchantment and appetite. “A long time ago,” Pawel thinks,

…the Palace had loomed over everything, but in his heart the handful of pathetic buildings were a glass mountain, castle, Everest, and consummation always had the taste of high floors, precipitous drops and air trapped between geometric planes.

In the present, however, the characters inhabit a disenchanted world pervaded by boredom and fear, banal hopes and utter aimlessness. The women in Nine are particularly vulnerable, and are treated by the men with routine brutality. But for both male and female characters, human beings have no more value than objects, and are just as disposable. Bolek’s kept mistress longs for an expensive pair of shoes, even as she fears being discarded by her lover. The male fantasies punctuating the novel mix sex and money and semipornographic scenarios. “Life took whatever shape it wanted, and there was no point in thinking about that,” the Iron Man muses.

People did one thing or another, for different reasons…. Things were a little more even than people, since they didn’t change as quickly, but people always wanted something.

In its very inexpressiveness, the narrative voice in Nine becomes an active element, oscillating across a range of overtones. Parts of the novel verge on satire, their deadpan humor derived from the colloquial, fast-moving dialogue and the sheer triteness of the characters’ perceptions and aspirations. It is less clear whether the unrestrained machismo of Stasiuk’s characters is meant to be an object of mockery or tacit empathy.

But Nine also hits deeper notes of anxiety and extreme estrangement. Throughout the novel, Pawel, who is on the run from loan sharks and the police, tries to find psychological as well as physical “safety”; and as he fails to do so, he reaches states of alienation from himself in which the quality of his own sensations hardly matters. (“The hot hand of panic slid into him and felt for the tenderest spot. He…had been walking the city, and then his mind broke free of his body.”) The shop assistant confides in her cat, having no one else to talk to, and other women fear being abandoned to extreme poverty and debasement.

The novel’s cast of unscrupulous thugs and ditzy girlfriends is hardly sympathetic, but Stasiuk also allows us to see them as hapless and very ordinary people, ejected into a new world where no security is to be found, betrayal and meanness prevail, and existence has been reduced to a zero point of meaning. The sole intimations of moral motive or judgment in Nine come from a priest who takes in a maimed cat, and a dim apocalyptic fire on the city’s horizon witnessed only by a dog. “This place…is Beirut,” one of the characters says—although if the novel were written now, Baghdad might be a more obvious analogy.

This is a picture of post-1989 Warsaw that the local Chamber of Commerce (in the absence of more formal means of censorship) would undoubtedly be happy to suppress. In some ways, Nine seems to draw on the tradition of fictional angst and revulsion, as if Nausea and The Stranger were crossed with the dyspeptic vision of Michel Houellebecq. But the combination of elements Stasiuk evokes, the small hopes and widespread corruption, the tawdriness and seductiveness of the material world, the hooligan toughness and melancholy cynicism, belongs unmistakably to post-Communist Eastern Europe. However partially, Nine reflects the realities of contemporary Polish life, and perhaps even more saliently, a certain recognizable atmosphere. Since 1989, along with a legitimate voting system and genuine economic development, Poland has acquired all the problems of advanced societies—drugs, increased crime, mafias (though nothing like on the Russian scale), and new contrasts between rich and poor.

But perhaps the most profound alteration, for many ordinary people, occurred in the elusive sphere of meaning. During the Communist decades, the food and clothing shortages, the grim Warsaw architecture, and the dreariness of living quarters could be seen as symptoms of “the system,” under which people had a perfect right to be unhappy. But no such rationales could be sustained after the Soviet bloc dissolved. The material conditions of most people’s lives remained largely unchanged, especially in the early stages, but a whole layer of ennobling interpretation was stripped away. Drab apartments, shabby clothes, and other indignities could no longer be seen as part of a larger struggle against communism, but became simply signs of poverty and hopelessness.

It is this sense of disillusionment, of reality’s impoverished flatness, that Nine to some extent captures. In its unflattering picture of 1990s Warsaw, the novel joins a small but recognizable body of writing that has emerged in Poland recently, and that might be called post-Communist noir—fiction that exposes subcultures of drugs, drunkenness, and sexual excess not easily reconciled with the sunnier images of the country as either the last defender of old-fashioned morality or a fully subscribed member of the progressive new Europe. (The best-known example of this genre is the misleadingly titled Polish-Russian War Under a White-Red Flag by the very young writer Dorota Maslowska—a punchy, tough novel about abusive druggies and punks, written in an inspired, manic voice, which caused a sensation when it first appeared in 2002.)

But Nine is too monochromatic to be entirely convincing. In his other work, both fictional and nonfictional, Stasiuk has written about vagabonds, fugitives, and lives so marginal as to be forgotten by history—but filled nevertheless with their own interest and passions. His collections of stories about his own region, Dukla and Tales of Galicia, have moments of earthy magic recalling Chagall (Dukla is accompanied by black-and-white prints deliberately evoking his work). In such books, the material deprivation of the places Stasiuk describes is compensated for by the sense of slower time, and a world not yet crowded with a surfeit of sensations.

Such textures are strangely absent from Nine, whose bleakness and casual nihilism are so insistent as to induce a mood less of existential anxiety than of emotional numbness. The conscientious translation by Bill Johnston to some extent reinforces this effect. One can only sympathize with translators of Stasiuk’s work, since his prose is slangy, condensed, and elliptical; but its sharper edges are almost inevitably blunted in the English version. Still, in Nine, as in his other writings, Stasiuk takes us into parts of Polish and post-Communist life whose day-to-day realities we might not have otherwise imagined. It is to be hoped that more of his work—as well as the work of other talented writers of the younger Polish generation—will be translated into English.

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