Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2014

A Thousand Peaceful Cities, by Jerzy Pilch, translated by David Frick

A Thousand Peaceful Cities

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a textbook example of how the internet has changed my reading habits.  Ten years ago when all my reading was filtered by what was available in bricks-and-mortar bookshops, I would never have heard of the Polish author Jerzy Pilch, much less read his amusing little book or be sharing my enjoyment of it on a blog.  But thanks to a tweet from the international champion of translated fiction,  Stu at Winston’s Dad, I signed up for the First 25 deal at Open Letter Books.  A Thousand Peaceful Cities  is the third book I’ve read from the collection; the other two are Gasoline by Spanish author Quim Monzó and The Sailor from Gibraltar by French legend Margaret Duras.  My horizons have widened.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is the droll story of an attempted assassination.  Set in 1963 during the post-Stalin thaw, the novella is narrated by Jerzyk, a bemused teenager who wants to be a writer.  He practises his craft by recording the bizarre conversations around him, writing so fast that sometimes he predicts the end of sentence before it’s uttered.  The impossibility of anyone being able to do that alerts the reader that nothing in this narrative can be trusted and it’s a book to romp through without worrying about whether any of it approximates reality.

Jerzyk is a close observer of his world, which includes his aloof and cynical father, and his father’s friend Mr. Trąba, an incorrigible alcoholic.  Coming to the end of his life, Mr Trąba wants to do something of significance before he dies, so one vodka-soaked afternoon he hatches a plan to do something good for humanity: the assassination of the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka, the de facto leader of Poland (which back in the 1960s was still firmly under Soviet rule).

Actually, Mr Trąba would really like to bump off Mao Tse-tung, but there are practical difficulties that can’t be resolved, even by a man of his ambition (or Jerzyk’s imagination).

‘Maybe our terror is not a great terror,’ Mr Trąba flared up, ‘but it’s still terror. Better that than nothing.  Better a sparrow in the hand than Mao Tse-tung on the roof.  Yes, OK, I intended to do something for humanity, but after all, if I do something for Poland, I will have done it for humanity too.  Of course I would prefer a great deed on a global scale.  Of course I would prefer, as I explained to you,’ Mr Trąba raised his shoulders, ‘of course I would prefer to tighten my tyrannical fingers around the neck of Mao Tse-tung.  A person would get to see a little of China in the process.  But we don’t have the resources for such a long journey.’  Mr Trąba sighed regretfully, ‘and a short trip is out of the question for reasons of ambition.  You can’t expect me to humiliate myself with quasi-foreign trips around the block of the People’s Democracies.  Oh no, not that, no.  I certainly won’t go to Sofia to lie in ambush for Comrade Zhikov.  Nor to East Germany in order to administer justice to Walter Ulbricht.  Please don’t even try to persuade me.’

‘And what about Khruschev?’ Mother unexpectedly spoke up, neither asking nor quite proposing, from above an already considerable stack of potato pancakes.  ‘Have you considered Khruschev?’

‘Khruschev,’ Mr Trąba seemed to ignore the absolute astonishment with which Father and Commandant Jeremiah looked at Mother, ‘Khruschev may be removed at any moment.  It isn’t worth the effort.  I go to Moscow, which, however you look at it, is also a good hike, and on the spot I discover that changes have just then taken place at the highest level of the CC CPSU, and I’ll look like a boob.’ (p.43)

Mr Trąba also rejects the Commandant’s offer to turn a blind eye should he decide to choose the Bloody Dictator of Fascist Spain because (a-hem) he thinks that Franco is a great statesman…

So there they are, around the kitchen table with the potato pancakes, calmly discussing which world leaders to send to their maker, with all the aplomb of a Monty Python sketch.  The novella goes on in this vein, with an amazing assortment of digressions and diversions, all delivered with the sardonic eye of the narrator looking back on his adolescence with a kind of bemused wonder at the madness.   There are coming-of-age elements as Jerzyk tells us about his angel of my first love moments but it’s Mr Trąba who is the star of the show, a wonderful comic character worthy of Dickens.

There are laugh-out-loud moments right through this book, but it’s poignant too.  Under Stalin, under Mao, under Franco, there might well have been many kitchen-table fantasies about grasping at freedom with a well-planned assassination.  Except that all these monstrous regimes had surveillance of their own citizens down to a fine art and there were informers were everywhere, as Jerzy shows with the arrival of that genial commandant who knows all about Mr Trąba’s plot.  This book is a comic fantasy because the very idea of an insurrection was a fantasy.  For decades.

Also see the reviews at The Complete Review, and if you’re interested in Polish writing, also check out Stu’s inspiring reviews.

Author: Jerzy Pilch
Title: A Thousand Peaceful Cities
Translated from the Polish by David Frick
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781934824276
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Open Letter Books

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Fishpond: A Thousand Peaceful Cities


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