“Warsaw 1939 – women, drugs, betrayal”. As far as publishers’ blurbs go, this one is a little masterpiece.
If this book is not translated into English right now, I honestly don’t know what is wrong with the publishing world, for it’s the best book I’ve read in years.
This novel is pretty much my literary wet dream. It is well-researched; it’s beautiful linguistically, just a tiny bit experimental, it has a gripping story and the most endearing anti-hero whom I actually somewhat fell in love with.
It has been nominated to just about every literary award this year and I am yet to meet a person who didn’t like it. In fact, if you didn’t like it then we probably won’t get a long – I don’t want to meet you, let’s stay strangers.
Enough of this rambling. Meet my new love – Konstanty Willemann. He wakes up on day, hung-over and nauseous and tries to establish his identity. It’s a question that goes deeper than the usual drunkard’s confusion. The Germans have been occupying Warsaw for fourteen days now and it’s high time Konstanty decides whether he is German or Polish. The question of his national identity never before bothered or interested him but in 1939 such ambivalence is no longer permitted. Konstanty’s father was German, his mother is a German-speaking Silesian who chose to be Polish and that’s how she raised her son. As a result Konstanty has two mother tongues and ‘two souls in one body’. Before the war Konstanty was a bon-vivant, connoisseur of fine cars and beautiful women. His mother sponsored his expensive lifestyle and his friends helped him hide his affairs and his morphine addiction from his wife.
Ah, Konstanty, is that why I love you because we are so alike? There is so much German blood in my veins, there aren’t enough consonants in my surname. Is this why I feel like I feel you? Is it because we love the members of the opposite sex so much, so much that we can’t let them be who they are, we create them in our heads according to our visions?
Initially Konstanty tries to maintain his old way of life, begs his doctor friend Jacek for some morphine (which should really go to the wounded soldiers), visits his Jewish-Russian lover Salome, drinks, eats and parties on the ruins of Warsaw. However, his life is set on a different path when his Polish wife, Hela, asks him to deliver a package to the members of the underground. He feels this is a test decides to rise to the occasion.
Almost unwillingly Konstanty joins the Underground and is assigned a task to be a spy among the Germans. Thus starts his transformation from a Pole to a German. He realises what sort of power his Viennese accent gives him and gets carried away. After discovering his father is still alive he borrows his uniform and his documents and essentially converts himself into his father. All his friends believe him to be a traitor and cut him off. It’s especially Konstanty’s father-in-law, Peszkowski, big Polish patriot who now hates him with a vehemence. No one is sure anymore who Konstanty is, even Konstanty himself. Is he really a Pole pretending to be German, or was he just a German pretending to be a Pole before? Poor Konstanty, he was not cut out for the times he had to live in.
I want this book to be translated to English very badly, but I also worry, I worry that the translator might butcher Twardoch’s style. And Twardoch’s style could charm my knickers off. It’s witty, erotic and trance-like. Despite the experimental touches, it is never confusing.
Let’s not forget about Warsaw – another hero (or is it a heroine?) of the novel. Wartime Warsaw comes alive in this book and makes you (or maybe me, maybe it’s just me) weep with all that has been lost. This is not a cheap airport bestseller - it doesn’t use war and holocaust to make you cry. When it comes to the horrors of the war, it’s almost understated. Its emotional power comes from leaving things unsaid, showing just a glimpse or a shadow. There were a few scenes that brought me close to tears because of their very gentle description of hopelessness and despair.
I swear I will sit down and translate it pro bono publico, someone just publish it, please.