Polish

Olga Tokarczuk


Olga Tokarczuk The September issue of Czas Kultury in 1993 contained two texts that later turned to be quite important. One of them was a fragment of Andrzej Stasiuk's "White Raven", which was later to become an international best-seller. The other was a debut short story be the then unknown author Olga Tokarczuk. Today Olga is one of the most popular authors of her generation, her are translated into several languages, including English.
Olga was born in 1962 in Sulechow, studied psychology in Warsaw and now lives in Sudety Mountains. Sudety is an area inhabited before the last war by Germans, the so-called Sudetendeutscshe, who after the war had to leave and move to West Germany. In the nineties, when Poland was no more communist, many of them returned as tourists to see the country of their youth again. This is the background of the story we present below. Wambierzyce is a local pilgrimage centre in Sudety, one of whose attractions is a huge Nativity scene with moving figures.





Peter Dieter
(fragment)


"Please, go on your own," said Erika.
She suddenly felt that it sounded solemn.
"No" he said, "I want to show you the village from the top the way I remember it."
"We came too late. I am too old, I don't have enough strength to go up the mountain. I go back to the car and will wait for you." She touched his hand softly and turned back. She heard his last words:
"Give me two hours, maybe three."
She felt sad.
Peter Dieter walked slowly, looked at the stones and rose bushes with just opening flowerbuds. Every so often he had to stop to catch breath. In those moments he looked at the fallen leaves and the toadstools on thin stems that slowly ate fallen trees. At first the path led between meadows, later entered the spruce forest. Then the forest ended and Peter had behind him the panorama he had for so many years remembered. He looked behind himself only once, afraid that he might destroy it like the precious stamps, which loose colour when you look at them too often. Only when he got to the ridge he stopped and just kept turning around and drunk this view, as if he wanted to get drunk with it. All the mountains in the world he always compared to these and none were so beautiful. They were either too big, too overwhelming, or too diminutive. He took out his camera and nailed with it everything he saw. Snap: the village spread in the dale. Snap: dark spruce forest, full of shadows. Snap: the gleaming line of a stream. Snap: the yellow rape fields on the Czech side. Snap: the sky. Snap: clouds. He thought with sadness that all the photographs are so painfully unreal.
He went still higher, reached the tourist footpath, some young people with rucksacks said "Hello" when he was wiping sweat that flooded his eyes, and went their way. He thought it was a pity they went like that. He could tell them how he was coming here when he was in their age, how in that wood just below he was for the first time making love on green moss, or he could show them from above where Olbrichts' windmill once stood. He even wanted to call them, but he couldn't catch breath. His heart was thudding somewhere in his throat and choked him. To go back now would be a waste, so with huge effort he went to the very top, where the Czech border was. He saw the white border posts from the distance. When he suddenly thought about the way back, he felt dizzy. What would happen if I died here, he thought and slowly went to the posts. For some reason he thought it would be funny. To go all this way up the mountain, to travel across Europe, to live for so many years in the port town, to have two big and strong German sons, to have built a house, to have loved to death, to have lived through the war. He laughed to himself and took a chocolate out of his pocket. He stopped and slowly unwrapped it, but when he put it in his mouth, he knew he wouldn't swallow it. His body was busy with something else, it just couldn't be bothered with eating. His heart was counting out the beats, the arteries were loosing their tension, and his brain was producing the narcotic of merciful death. Peter sat under the border post with the chocolate in his mouth, the distant horizon attracted his eyes. He had one leg on the Czech side, the other on the Polish side. He sat like that one hour and was dying second after second. In the end he thought about Erika, that she waits there in the car and is worried. Maybe she has already called the police. But now even his beloved Erika seemed to him distant and unreal. Perhaps he dreamed all his life. He even didn't notice when he died, it didn't happen suddenly, but very slowly, he was just disintegrating.
At dusk the Czech guards found him. One held his hand trying to feel the pulse, the other watched with terror the thick brown liquid coming out from his mouth. The first one took out the radio, looked at the other and both looked at the watch. Then without a word they moved one leg from the Czech side to the Polish side. As if that was not enough, they moved the whole body farther to the north, to Poland.
Half an hour later torches of the Polish guards found him. One of them cried "Jesus!" and jumped away, the other automatically grabbed his gun and looked around. It was very calm, the towns in the valleys looked like stars reflected in discarded chocolate wrappers. The Poles looked into Peter's face and talked quietly for a moment. Then in silence they took him by arms and legs and carried to the Czech side.
This is how Peter remembered his death, before his soul departed forever: as a mechanical movement here and there, as balancing on a ridge. The last image in his disintegrating mind was the memory of the mechanical Nativity scene in Wembierzyce: little wooden people move in a painted landscape and repeat the movement designed by their creator; wooden people walk and drive wooden cows, wooden dogs run, someone laughs woodenly, higher someone with buckets waves his hand, painted smoke goes up to the painted sky, painted birds fly to the west. Two pairs of wooden soldiers forever carry Peter Dieter from one side to the other and back.






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