Monday, 23 May 2016

Book of the Month: The Graveyard (Marek Hlasko)

Franciszek Kowalski, the protagonist of The Graveyard, the 1957 novel Polish author Marek Hlasko (who, apparently, was described as the James Dean of Poland, because of the striking facial resemblance between the two), is an obedient member of the Polish communist party. A life-long communist, Kowalski has fought in the resistance for the underground during the German occupation of during the Second World War. After the end of the war Kowalski, a Communist party member, has obediently swallowed all the received wisdom: the evils of Capitalism; the ideological superiority of Communism over Capitalism, especially as espoused by Lenin and Stalin to which unwavering loyalty was expected from all the Eastern Bloc countries. Then one night, it all unravels spectacularly for Kowalski. Having met an old friend, a partisan fighter like Kowalski against the Germans, Kowalski drinks more vodka than is advisable and becomes merry. As he is walking down the street of Warsaw, singing loudly and, occasionally, shouting at passers-by, Kowalski is accosted by policemen. Kowalski, his judgment no doubt impaired by alcoholic beverage, makes a further error: he answers back to the policemen, and makes clear by his belligerent and insolent tone and manner that he does not much care for what the policemen have to say, based on the dubious reasoning that he has done nothing wrong. High level of inebriation gives Kowalski ideas beyond his station. He believes that as an individual he has the right to have a view, even if that view is to want to have the right to sing a song when he wishes. Kowalski is arrested and spends the night in the police cells in the company of individuals, who, it would appear, were labouring under the notion that in Communist Poland they had the right to not only hold opinions but express them publically. Kowalski is further aggravated in the cell by speculations of the other inmates that the real reason Kowalski was in the cell was that someone close to him must have informed on him. Kowalski takes offence at these conjectures, and unwisely gets into arguments with the speculator. He would pay dearly for this, too. The next morning Kowalski is summoned by the lieutenant in charge of the police station to the corporal’s office. There, Kowalski is informed by the police what he said the previous night in the cell, in front of witnesses. Kowalski, sober by now, can’t remember, try as he might, saying anything the police claim he said. What has Kowalski said? Kowalski, the police inform him, expressed doubt. Kowalski insulted the People’s Poland by expressing a wish to make a dash to the West. The language used by Kowalski was so vile the lieutenant was even ashamed to repeat it. The police have unmasked an enemy of the people: “what a sober man thinks in his heart a drunk says with his tongue.” Kowalski, nevertheless, is allowed to leave after he has signed the papers, knowing that he, from now on, is a marked man; the police have his number. Shaken, Kowalski, who still can’t believe that he actually said the things he was supposed to have said, decides that the only way to redeem himself is to put his case in front of the party members, about what happened the previous night, and seek their vote of confidence in him. Notwithstanding what the police claim Kowalski said when he was drunk, he wants an endorsement from the party members that his fealty towards the Communist principles is unfaltering (which just goes to show that Kowalski’s judgment is as suspect when sober as it is when he is drunk). At the end of the meeting Kowalski’s life and everything he has held dear lie in tatters. He is expelled from the party for his transgression against the party. When he informs what has happened to his son, Mikolaj, Mikolaj—a fervent believer in the party—informs Kowalsi, not without sadness, that Mikolaj going to have no truck with him. His daughter, Elzbieta, finds herself spurned by her fiancĂ©, who wants nothing to do with the daughter of a traitor, even though she is expecting his child. It does not end, here, Elzbieta is chucked out of university, and decides, having considered her situation, that the best thing in the circumstances is to kill herself. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes! Kowalski loses his job. As the novel ends we find Kowalski rip-roaringly drunk again, and meeting the same policeman who arrested him on the fateful night.
The Graveyard is a novel that is remarkable for a number of reasons. First published in 1958 (outside of Poland, in France, it goes without saying), it is a powerful portrait of the Stalinist dictatorship in the Communist countries, with the pervasive presence of police and thought control—an inevitable consequence of paranoia common to all dictatorships. “Do you like it, here, or don’t you,” is the question the police constantly throw at Kowalski and scores of innocent people like him who are arrested for the flimsiest of reasons. Hlasko presents a personal portrait of Kowalski’s journey—along which he meets his former comrades from the occupation era living life in fear or else disillusionment—with its inevitable destination: shattering of a man’s faith in the principles and ideology he has held dear. The story is very cleverly structured, with a cruel twist at the end, which, we now know, is the axiomatic truth at the rotten heart of Communist dictatorships: the regimes became so paranoid that they turned on themselves in the end.

The Graveyard (excellently translated from Polish Norbert Guterman) is a powerful depiction of a society where freedom of expression is suppressed and individuality is treated as poison. Hlasko went into exile before he was twenty-five, after The Graveyard and another novel were rejected by the Communist run Polish press. He died ten years later, before his thirty-fifth birthday, of an overdose—either deliberate or inadvertent—having spent the previous half-a-dozen years in the psychiatric hospitals or prisons of various countries. In his short life Hlasko published ten novels and a memoir. The Graveyard, long since out of print, was reissued in 2013, and is an essential reading, like the novels of Koestler and Orwell.