Andrzej Stasiuk: Biały kruk (White Raven)
This book had a considerable reputation in Poland and was considered as speaking for a generation of Poles, in the same way, though for different reasons, Trainspotting, published in the year in which this novel is set, spoke for a generation of Scots. It is set in 1993 in post-Communist Poland and tells the story of five men who had grown up under Communism but now had the freedom they had sought. However, they see their lives as drab, going nowhere and with no meaning to them. The five had been friends since school. Two of them are known only by their nicknames – Goosy and Shorty, while two have real names – Kostek Górka and Vasyl Bandurko. The narrator is never named, people addressing him only as you. Vasyl is younger than the others and, when they were at school, the other four had regularly beaten him up. His mother, a Party member and a professional theatrical set designer, had complained to the school but Vasyl never said who beat him up, so no action was taken. Eventually, the other four had a grudging respect for him and included him in their group. This was cemented when Vasyl had his leg broken during a football game and had to spend two months in bed recovering. The other four took to visiting him in his house and were impressed by the house as well as by Vasyl’s possessions, such as a real Philips record player and classical records.
As boys they did the things that boys do – ferret around in the rubbish dump, smoke and drink, look at pornography and admire the breasts of the female students. Now they are older, they do not seem to have advanced much. Only Goosy is married. They have dead-end jobs, few prospects and no real interests. They still spend time together, drinking heavily, smoking heavily, doing occasional drugs and occasionally chasing girls. It is Kostek who realises that they have to break out and it is he who suggests they go off for a week in the Polish countryside during the winter, sheltering in tents and huts. All accept the challenge, as they share the view that their life is meaningless. However, as we soon learn, there are different views on what the purpose of the holiday is. For Goosy, Shorty and the narrator, it is just that – a holiday. For the other two it is something more challenging. Guerrilla warfare is what Kostek calls it. We follow their journey at the same time as Stasiuk tells us the story of their earlier lives and friendship.
Things do not start off well, as Kostek and the narrator have their bags stolen while they are asleep on the train. But they seem to take it in their stride. Much of the account seems to involve them traipsing through heavy snow, not entirely sure where they are and where they are going, as well as sitting smoking and drinking in some form of rudimentary shelter. They seem to take it in their stride, walking long distances in the snow. Then things start to go wrong. Kostek and the narrator are walking near the Polish border when they are accosted by a border guard. He is quite pleasant and friendly but asks to see their papers and to check their baggage. Kostek’s response is to repeatedly strike him and, when he is unconscious, tie him up. We later learn that he might have died. The narrator is somewhat concerned about what Kostek has done – it is at this point Kostek mentions the guerrilla warfare – but not overly concerned. However, they realise that they must flee and they steal his car and leave it in a housing estate. Kostek’s act is clearly a acte gratuit of which Camus would have been proud. While his friends grumble somewhat, they all seem to more or less accept it and its consequences. When Kostek and the narrator track down their friends sheltering in a rudimentary hut, they find that Goosy is feverish and clearly not well. Nevertheless, they all accept that they have to move on as the police will soon be after them.
Things soon get worse. They hear what they think is a helicopter. It might be after them but it might not. In any case, they run to hide from it and, while doing so, Shorty falls and badly cuts his chest They try some basic medicine on it, patching it up but it never seems to heal and Shorty is clearly in pain. Eventually, they find a semi-abandoned village, where they find shelter with an old man, who claims to have been there since the war (though he later seems to be Ukrainian). The old man remembers the war, as the village used to have many Russians living there but they all seemed to have returned to Russia. The old man has no time for either the Russians or the Jews but a grudging admiration for the Germans. They move on to a hostel where they rest and where there are girls and some unpleasant male characters but have to move on when they learn that the police are coming.
The Polish love for the countryside and nature is cleverly linked to the sense of a lack of purpose and lack of meaning to life that these men feel post-Communism. They seem to take much in their stride, particularly the physical hardships, while, at the same time, reverting to their standard way of life, even while out in the wilderness, of hard drinking and hard smoking. The author seems more bitter, in his comments, than his characters who, while not happy with their lot, generally do not feel that there is much that they can do about it, except for Kostek’s guerrilla warfare, an obviously extreme response. But you can also see why this did have an impact on a generation of Poles who can escaped Communism, expecting something better and not getting it.
First published 1995 by Obserwator
First English translation 2000 by Serpent’s Tail