“Yes,” he said in a low voice, “I did something terrible, I know it’s terrible, and I don’t myself understand how it could have happened. But can one moment, in which a man is not accountable for his thoughts and words, wipe out his whole life and everything he has done? Is there really such a crime?”
A novel about a true patriot living in Communist Poland who has one drink too many one night and says something disparaging about the government. This one transgression starts a chain of events that ruins his life and his family’s life. After his fall he tries to get his life back by visiting his squad members of his partisan fighting group. Each of them have changed a lot since the war and won’t vouch for his character to the local Party.
“…Where is the dividing line between loyalty and slavery, between crime and necessity? It was always reason that drew that line, reason and conscience…now man has become only a miserable plaything of politics. We try to forget reason if we know what’s good for us…”
I have really dug into Hłasko’s novels recently. There is a refreshing honesty and simplicity to his work. Simplicity in getting to the point with great dialogue without a lot of other fluff. This novel was rejected by publication in Poland when this was written. They rejected it because “This Poland doesn’t exist.” That sort of tells you the type of place Poland was after WW2. Hłasko published it elsewhere in 1958 and drifted between a few different countries before his eventual suicide. You know that cliche you hear about having to have lived through a lot of pain to create great art? I think Hłasko fits the bill.
You see the change in the main character of this book from being a proud Party member who was even in the partisan resistance during the war to a ‘criminal’ who is totally disillusioned with the government. The ending is just great and a real slap in the face. This is political literature wrapped by an angry young man. Hłasko was a brilliant writer and it’s a shame that some of the best exit this world too quickly.
Quotes I Liked
“Courage is probably just a matter of faith. People are nothing but a herd of swine wallowing in a sea of shit…”
History has no use for witnesses. The next generation will rush headlong into whatever is expected of it. It will regard each of the crimes now being committed as sacred, as necessary.
Though he is writing about Soviet communism, it isn’t hard to relate this to Chinese style communism. It just shows you that the wheel goes around and around, and Man keeps repeating his mistakes.
He held out his hand; and both pretended not to notice that their hands avoided each other
This comes up multiple times in the book. I wonder what the significance of it is? Is he saying that the men are ghosts and can’t shake hands? Are all the words coming out of their mouth’s lies and to shake hands would be sacrilege? Maybe the squad members don’t want to be tainted by their, now tainted, former comrade. I don’t know the answer and that’s ok.
“You can go and you can give up the idea of going anywhere else, no matter where. You won’t hear anything different. But you can try to fool yourself. You may succeed. That’s what everyone else is doing.”
For these Communist forms of government to work the populace has to believe in it and avoid thinking too hard about the paradoxes of the whole system.
“No man can endure knowledge. He’s got no right to ask for it. It’s mythology, not knowledge, that holds societies together.”
Despite all his anger, Hlasko really understood how society works. All nation states have a mythology to keep them together. If people lose faith in it, the nation crumbles.
“Maybe you don’t like it? Now tell the truth, do you like it or don’t you?” Another retort that is said many times in this novel by the policemen to people who seem to be doubting how great the State is or seem about ready to point out something ridiculous about the System. It is a taunt and a provocation. The people know they have to swallow their words or they will have the violence of the state upon them. I love the ending of the book how Hlasko brings it full circle and we see how a regular man is brought down low by the State and accepts his fate.
“…Every tyranny ends more or less like a woman’s beauty: the more magnificent the facade, the more rotten the core; the prettier the dress, the filthier the body; the more talk about strength and loyalty, the more terrorism and the weak the rulers. Whores and tyrants end the same way - can’t you understand even the simplest things?…”
Oh how this is so true. Think of the propaganda spewing out of Russia and China about their strength and very tough militaries. I wonder what we will find when we look under China’s dress? We have already seen the rot under Russia’s skirt through this war in the Ukraine. China must be even more rotten than Russia.
An timeless read that makes you think about the systems of control put in place in government and what happens when a person steps outside the boundaries of what is ‘acceptable’.
Book #61 in my 2022 Reading Challenge