By Jerzy Pilch
Translated by David Frick
Open Letter Press
July 4, 2010
"As a Protestant who doesn't exist, I can kill without hesitation, since the act will remain in the realm of nothingness. If, as some say, Poland is a Catholic country, then, there you have it! It follows clearly from this that, if lèse-majesté is perpetuated in a Catholic country by a non-Catholic, that is by nobody, or by a foreigner, then the good name of our holy fatherland, the holy mother of all fatherlands, to whom the tradition of assassinating kings is foreign, will remain unsullied, and at the same time she will gain the name of the one who, as the first of the oppressed, raised her hand against the usurper. You don't appreciate the precipitous dialectic of my patriotism."
Jerzy Pilch is one of Poland's top contemporary writers, known for his novels and long-running humor column. He has been nominated four times for the prestigious NIKE Literary Award and finally won in 2002 for The Mighty Angel. Despite Pilch's international reputation, A Thousand Peaceful Cities is only his second novel to be published in English, following His Current Woman from Northwestern University Press.
A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a satirical comedy that takes place during the post-Stalinist thaw of 1963. Young Jerzyk shares a house with his parents and a pair of female "morphinistes" who occupy the attic and are notorious around the neighborhood for their "Babylonian" beach blanket. His father's best friend is one Mr. Trąba, an eloquent and well-mannered alcoholic who believes that his end is imminent. But before that happens, he has resolved to kill someone whose death will surely be of benefit to all mankind. Since Chairman Mao is out of the question, Mr. Trąba has set his murderous sights on Władysław Gomułka, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party and de facto head of state. Jerzyk, meanwhile, faces the universal trials and travails of adolescence and entering adulthood.
Nearly all characters, including Mr. Trąba and Jerzyk's family, are members of a small Lutheran community in a deeply Catholic society. It is a consequent feeling of invisibility that also propels Mr. Trąba's assassination plot. He explains that, due to his physical appearance,
"Always, everywhere, and everybody, Chief [Jerzyk's father], everybody took me for a Jew. I never regretted this. On the contrary, I was happy about it. Although we both know that being a Lutheran in Poland means having an even more subtle existence than being a Jew in Poland. There were once Jews in Poland, and now there are none; but once there were no Lutherans, and now there are none of us too."Despite communism's association with atheism and materialism, A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a very religious book. Not in terms of traditionalism, but in the characters' cultural identification with their minority faith. Plans, ideas, and observances are often articulated in biblical terms. Jerzyk and Mr. Trąba's neighborhood is centered on religious observance and the local Lutheran church in such a way that recalls Poland's pre-WWII Jewish population. In this context, Mr. Trąba's semi-identification with the Jews, despite Poland's long history of anti-Semitism, is perhaps not surprising. According to a convoluted lecture given to Commandant Jeremiah (a Jewish supporter of Mr. Trąba's seditious goal), Mr. Trąba firmly believes in the superiority of an alliance between their two peoples. And furthermore, he adds, it has been foretold the Jews will eventually convert to Catholicism but will become disgusted with Rome and end up switching to Lutheranism. Hence, they are virtually the same people!
With Jerzyk as the narrator, A Thousand Peaceful Cities is also a coming-of-age story. In addition to political and religious matters, Jerzyk's narrative is deeply concerned with the women he is in love with and his intermittent frustration with being seen as a kid. For all the ridiculousness of Mr. Trąba's plan, which involves a Chinese crossbow and Jerzyk going around Warsaw in a feathered headdress, the very fact that Jerzyk has been invited to participate and given an important role is very exciting to him. It turns out that the significance of Mr. Trąba's plot is not the singular act of assassination but something more holistic than that. It is a declaration, an assertive, decisive gesture from an obscure alcoholic and an overlooked minority group that also marks one boy's entry into manhood. (Jerzyk loses his virginity immediately afterwards.) Naturally, the whole affair is too absurd to be anything other than an anticlimactic failure but the honor is in the attempt.
My experience with Vonnegut has taught me that satire is either a hit or a miss. A Thousand Peaceful Cities falls in the former category as a great Vonnegut-style novel set in communist-era Poland. Although not laugh-out-loud funny, the humor has a light, witty touch that never takes itself too seriously. The story as a whole is tightly controlled despite its many layers, occasionally digressing but always knowing when to reign itself in. And I actually had no idea there were Protestants in Poland, which certainly testifies to their inconspicuousness. Overall, I felt that I had a great introduction to Jerzy Pilch and look forward to one day checking out His Current Woman.