It Takes a Village to Kill a Tyrant

Tyrannicide and its philosophical ramifications might appear to be the sole thematic anchor within Jerzy Pilch’s recently translated novel, A Thousand Peaceful Cities. Long revered in his native Poland for his satirical journalism as well as his prose fiction, Pilch’s second novel to be translated into English resists our attempts to pin it down to the theoretically significant. He has a tendency to paint only the negative space. The rooms of his prose are dark, save for spotlights picking out relatively insignificant objects. The plot is skeletal, and it takes time for the reader to become fluent in the narrative, switching as it does between abstract experiential exposition and passionate diatribe. Readers must pick their way though the text following a trail of imagistic and philosophical breadcrumbs. But despite the novel’s somewhat intangible, unrecognizable aspects, the payoff at the end of the trail is satisfyingly majestic.

Our narrator, little Jerzy (the text is riddled with the metafictional) lives in a small, coastal holiday town in Poland. It is 1963. His mother is an avid sender and receiver of letters to her Bishop. She is “not a woman who was concerned exclusively with cooking; rather, she was a captive who, in order to survive, pretended to be a woman who was concerned exclusively with cooking.” His father, the Chief, is a postal worker forced into early retirement for illegally mailing veal.

Jerzy is a funny little fellow, lusting impossibly after older women and carrying around a notebook in which he attempts to transcribe the last words of people’s sentences before they say them. Much of Jerzy’s life takes place around his kitchen table watching his father and their neighbor, Mr. Traba, an alcoholic layabout, talking God and politics and drinking prodigious amounts of schnapps. And through this God talking, schnapps drinking discourse, the Chief and Mr. Traba hatch a plan to assassinate the First Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party, Wladyslaw Gomulka, the effective Soviet hegemon of Poland from 1956 to 1970.

Mr. Traba, whose character is not so much enriched as engorged with personality, is the central plotter and assassin. He drunkenly teeters through the pages, ranting like the world’s most intelligent madman. A mock-heroic Falstaff with “nine prewar semesters of theology,” Traba lurches from scene to scene, debating his tyrannicidal plans with all who will listen. The novel’s ideological—one might even say allegorical—chapters are given in dialogue. And Traba, the tyrannicidalist-to-be, holds forth at these symposiums with elegant insanity. “…[W]hat can you do, when nothing is to be done,” Traba says to the Chief,

when it’s clear that I won’t build a house, I won’t establish a family, I won’t raise a child, I won’t put my opinions in order and write them down, I won’t render the proper respect to my forebears, and I won’t even give up my addictions? What can you do, when a terrible lack, a void, a road drowning in Asiatic grasses, a precipitous bank, nothingness, and nausea suddenly declare themselves? What remains, when nothing remains? . . . Kill somebody—that remains.

Traba is not the only character possessed of a healthy dose of the absurd. The entire town gets in on the assassination plot, and tyrannicide becomes a community activity.

Perhaps the novel’s best scene occurs when all the characters gather in a woodland setting for a jubilant discussion of assassination and its moral, philosophical, and theological implications. It is a kind of communal dream—a vortex at the center of the narrative. Secretiveness has no place in Pilch’s novel. Even the local policeman takes part in the debate. The entire community is an accessory. It is culpable. Moscow has turned them all into radicals, all into enemies of the State. As Jerzy’s father says to Traba, “The nation learns, by heart, from childhood … ‘Get away from me! I am the murderer of Tzars.’”

Most of Pilch’s characters are also Lutherans—Lutherans in a Catholic country, maintaining their fifteenth century radicalism surrounded on the one side by Mother Church and on the other by Mother Russia. They possess an especially radical streak within an already radicalized populace. Like all revolutionary peoples, the Lutherans of little Jerzy’s town are immersed in the romance of their designs. The assassination is preceded by a sumptuous feast—Bacchic in its sylvan surroundings—like a banquet out of The Faerie Queen. The murder itself is performed with a handmade Chinese crossbow, made from “beech wood, buffalo horn, and ram’s tendons … little circles and rosettes of ivory … a silver ball filed off of Mrs. Chief’s souvenir sugar bowl.” In the end, the murder attempt becomes as much an artistic gesture as it is a meting out of justice.

The words absurdism or surrealism don’t quite capture Pilch’s lack of realism. His marriage of the abstract and the adorable is unique in this reader’s experience. Its jaggedness contains a thousand reflections and refractions, a jumble of subjectivities maintained inside the mysterious mind of young Jerzy.  A Thousand Peaceful Cities is also a coming-of-age story, one that just happens to take place around an assassination attempt. Jerzy grows up, falls in love and takes his first sip of vodka. Aside from his talents as a prophetic transcriber, he appears to be a regular teenage boy. The only effect the assassination attempt on First Secretary Gomulka has on his adult life is that afterwards, he is unable to eat cream pastries. The murder attempt and its preparation are merely the incidental music of young Jerzy’s adolescence.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities does not allow the reader the familiar landmarks she is used to—which is as it should be, because A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a novel about salvation. It takes us beyond assassination (with its easy Marxist dialectic), and even beyond revolution. And it shows us the way to salvation down the modest path of the ordinary. Building a city on a hill by way of the mundane.

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