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Book Review: Coming of age as all else unravels in 'A Thousand Peaceful Cities'

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A Thousand Peaceful Cities

A Novel

Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by David Frick

Open Letter: 144 pp., $14.95 paper

There's a serious question at the center of Jerzy Pilch's comic novel "A Thousand Peaceful Cities": Is political violence ever justified?

"There must be punishment, and it is the superior authorities who are to punish," a drunkard named Mr. Traba declares midway through the book, which takes place in Poland in fall 1963, a relatively liberal period in the country's communist history. "If injustices should not cease, make report about this … to your superior authority, your father or whomever is placed over you to exercise office: it is their task to punish according to righteousness."

The irony, of course, is that Mr. Traba, a retired clergyman — dissolute, self-deceiving and larger-than-life only because of the smallness of his circumstances — has appointed himself just such a superior authority. In the name of Polish patriotism, he hatches a plan to kill Wladyslaw Gomulka, first secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party. (Gomulka is a historical figure who ruled Poland from 1956 to 1970.) This plot, concocted with the help of his best friend, a retired postal administrator, motivates the novel, although the narrative takes full shape only once the men involve the latter's son, the teenaged Jerzyk, in the conspiracy, with the idea that it will help make him a man.

While the idea of a quixotic assassination attempt as rite of passage seems ridiculous, it offers Pilch — a prize-winning Polish novelist and newspaper columnist — a way to get at the absurdity of politics, the unbridgeable gap between public and private life. Before the fall of communism, life in Eastern Europe was often defined by the cautious discourse of the outer world, a discourse that concealed something more complex and personal. Everyone was a dissident of a kind. That's the subtext to "A Thousand Peaceful Cities," the way that, as we come to an adult awareness, we begin to trace the contours of this divide.

In that sense, the novel is very much Jerzyk's story, with Pilch relying on the boy as a narrator and interpretive guide. When we first meet him, he is listening to Mr. Traba harangue his father while copying down their words in the margins of a mathematics notebook. The more he listens, the more he begins to anticipate the dialogue, to transcribe not just what the men are saying but also what they are about to say. Sometimes he gets it right and sometimes not, but either way, the exercise hints at his desire to see inside their interactions, to peel back the surface of the conversation and get at the hidden meanings underneath.

And what are these hidden meanings? Here, we see the strength of the novel, for there are none other than those the characters themselves assign. Again, we come face to face with the absurd, a common theme in Eastern European literature, especially that which deals with the communist era. In such a society, the official stories are so disconnected from the daily existence of the people that inner life becomes disconnected as well.

Mr. Traba is a perfect example, with his grand fantasies of political retribution, his sense of himself as a heroic force. "For as long as I can remember," he says, "I've been trying, every day, to change something. And now … I intend to do something for the world as long as I'm still here, something which — I won't hide the fact — will relieve the monotony of the final act of my existence on this vale of tears." The conceit is that he's dying, but everyone knows that this is not the case. Rather, Mr. Traba is simply trying to raise the level of the drama, to add an epic dimension to what might otherwise appear to be the most ordinary and circumscribed of lives.

The result is a vivid tension that is only amplified by the exuberance of the book. In Pilch's treatment, Mr. Traba becomes almost a Falstaffian figure, full of highhanded advice on the art of living, rewarding himself with a drink for each bon mot. The beneficiary is not so much his friend as it is Jerzyk, whose desires are equally indistinct. Jerzyk is subject to infatuations: As the novel begins, he is flirting with the married woman staying across the street, putting a sign in his window that asks, "WHY DON'T YOU SMILE?" His pursuit of her is, in its own way, as unlikely as Mr. Traba's desire to free the Polish people by killing their leader; both are efforts to break the shackles of convention. It's no surprise, then, that although he is not a true believer, Jerzyk goes along with the attempted assassination, even carrying a crossbow through the streets of Warsaw, where, because of either his age or the fact that his father and Mr. Traba have dressed him in a ridiculous get-up ("My head was adorned with a colorful headdress. … I had a Finnish knife in my belt. On my breast sparkled a plastic sheriff's star"), no one recognizes him as a threat.

And yet, Jerzyk is a threat, if not quite in the way Mr. Traba intends. He is a representative of the life of the imagination, of the possibilities inherent in everyone. Ultimately, that makes him the true insurrectionary force here, with his notebooks and his romantic longings, not to mention the subtle inference that he may be a stand-in for his creator; Jerzyk means "little Jerzy," after all.

This is not to say that "A Thousand Peaceful Cities" is autobiographical, although Pilch grew up during the period he describes. More to the point, the book is a testament to the primacy of art, not violence, in the preservation of a culture. Certainly, that idea was essential under the communists, who sought to vilify visionaries as dangerous to the status quo. But if "A Thousand Peaceful Cities" has any larger message, it's that such vigilance is no less essential now.

david.ulin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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