Jerzy Pilch’s “A Thousand Peaceful Cities”

Reviewed by Valentina Zanca

Image of Jerzy Pilch’s “A Thousand Peaceful Cities”

Hailed by Czeslaw Milosz as "the hope of young Polish prose" and often compared with the Polish master of surrealist pranks Witold Gombrowicz, in the third of his novels to be published in English the acclaimed satirist and newspaper columnist Jerzy Pilch once again weaves fact and fiction in a memorable absurdist tale of flawed political resistance.
 
Like the dipsomaniac protagonist of Pilch's The Mighty Angel, the narrator of A Thousand Peaceful Cities shares his first name—and other biographical traits—with the novel's author. Set in 1963 Wisla (the Protestant town in southern Poland where Pilch grew up), A Thousand Peaceful Cities is told by Jerzyk ("little Jerzy"), a boy in his early teens obsessed with sex, storytelling, and the rambling philosophizing of his father's favorite dinner guest, the retired clergyman and larger-than-life drunkard Mr Traba. A virtuoso blabbermouth who claims to drink "in order to intensify existence," Mr Traba relishes his political rants with Jerzyk's father, an ex postal administrator whom he calls "Chief." During one of their inebriated conversations Mr Traba—feeling death approaching and saddened by the pointlessness of his own life—decides to perform one single act of heroism that would redeem his entire existence and benefit mankind: he will kill one of the great tyrants of his time. It would be highly impractical to travel to distant Beijing to slay Mao Zedong. Nikita Khrushchev will almost certainly be purged before his assassin can make it to Moscow. Therefore, the designated victim is the Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party (and Moscow's puppet), Wladyslaw Gomulka. Mr Traba and the Chief will journey to Warsaw and spend the day sightseeing until the moment is ripe for tyrannicide. Jerzyk will accompany them and carry their weapon of choice: a Chinese crossbow.
 
Mr Traba's quixotic plan is mainly a pretext to unleash his exuberant digressions on Lutheran theology, female beauty, and the art of drinking, and for Pilch to discuss political apathy, the meaning of art and the constraints of life under a dictatorship in his trademark mixture of playfulness and seriousness.
 
The Thousand Peaceful Cities are the "land of laziness" Jerzyk's first love (a woman he rather pompously refers to as "the angel of my first love") sees in the boy's eyes—a powerful indictment of Pilch's compatriots' political apathy under Gomulka's initially benign rule in the early sixties. As long as he feels safe in his "peaceful cities," the narrator (and Poland with him) will "sleep his entire life away" and favor subservience over resistance against foreign domination. Jerzyk is already comparing himself to "a man sleeping for eternity in a Dutch painting, or an apparatchik of sleep." As the "angel of his first love" says, "to live or to sleep, that is of course the question": the choice lies between kowtowing to the authorities for the sake of some (illusory) peace in one's own backyard, or rebellion in the name of ideals greater than oneself—ideological freedom and political independence. The lukewarm Bolshevik Commandant Jeremiah's tolerance of "criticism" only if "approving" and (allegedly "the richest man in the world") Grand Master Swaczyna's opportunistic take on the issue of colonial rule ("If the Czechs come here, I'll do business with the Czechs. If the Germans return, be my guest . . . I tell you, Jerzy, let the Hottentots come here: I will also occupy a seat in their Hottentot Grand Council.") epitomize the paralysis of a society where everyone wants to shout at the authorities but is too afraid to do so. On the other hand, the residents of Wisla see the end of Communism as inevitable and are therefore unwilling to rebel.

In spite of its preposterousness, Mr Traba's anarchist machinations risk seeming like a laudable attempt at breaking free of the shackles of political inaction. And yet, the author is suspicious of his character's pseudo-Romantic dream of being associated with the greatest tyrannicides in history. Pilch looks with sharp skepticism at the solitary act of terrorism the sole purpose of which is to boost the perpetrator's ego ("being a murderer is the guarantee of a stable identity") and grant him fame. Mr Traba's vision doesn't encompass the revolutionary mobilization of the Polish masses. He's simply looking for a shortcut into history "by the narrow path of the barbarian" and hopes to be remembered by making the headlines. He regards tyrannicide as "fine art" and yet he is aware of its vacuity, as his slapstick fantasy of murdering Chairman Mao eloquently shows. Besides, Mr Traba and the other conspirators are part of a religious minority in a largely Catholic country—given that as a Protestant he "doesn't exist," he "can kill without hesitation, since the act will remain in the realm of nothingness." His (botched) assassination attempt will end up not even making the news, bumped by the (successful) killing of JFK in Dallas.
 
If violence is doomed to failure, art seems the only escape route. Jerzyk is a compulsive writer and an indefatigable dreamer. When we first meet him, he is copying down Mr Traba's words in the margins of a mathematics notebook. He claims to possess a "secret talent for guessing words" and ends up transcribing not just what the garrulous alcoholic and his father are saying, but also what they are about to say. He thus hopes to puncture the surface of their conversation and reveal the hidden meaning of their words. The discrepancy between the false narratives of the regime and reality—and the Kafkaesque absurdity that derives from it—is a recurring theme in Eastern European literature dealing with the Communist era. This discrepancy creates a schizophrenic chasm in the psyche of people living under a dictatorship: what you really are is the opposite of what you show to the external world. By attempting to bridge the gap between propaganda and truth, Jerzyk's obsessive writing is the ultimate insurrectionary force and mimics his eponymous creator's artistic efforts. But art doesn't just bring truth to light—it can reinvent the world from scratch. Pilch seems to think that "making up one's own story" and recreating one's world solely according to the laws of imagination is a moral duty when freedom of expression has been eradicated and tyrannical rules have been imposed. From this point of view, everyone in A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a dissident storyteller, alternately spinning tales or being enthralled by them—tales about two sensual morphinistes and their Babylonian blanket, or a stained-glass window with the Apostle Paul looking like Lenin, or again the most beautiful woman in the world standing on Wilsna Street in Cracow.
 
In Mr Traba's words, "the invention of stories about oneself is the duty of the true man" and (unlike his failed assassination attempt) "the sign of the winner." True resistance is the achievement not of the terrorist, but of the artist: as Mr TrÄ�ba's imagined killing of Chairman Mao demonstrates, it's the pen—and not the crossbow—that slays the tyrant. Jerzyk's (and Jerzy Pilch's) Thousand Peaceful Cities are ultimately not the inescapable outcome of a passive acceptance as divined by the angel of his first love but the unruly, wonderfully erudite, and hilariously surreal product of a boisterous imagination set loose.