By: Gaither Stewart
The Polish word, jestem—‘I am’, ‘here I am’, ‘present’—seems to define the life of the writer and cult figure for a generation, Andrzej Kusniewicz. On an overcast, pollution-infested Warsaw afternoon over thirty years ago in his crowded study in a surprisingly bourgeois apartment in a quiet residential area of the capital city, the poet-novelist insisted on the Polish word and the multiple occasions of his life when he answered jestem. I, the interviewer, came to feel he had earned a right to the word. For all his life he had been ‘present’—so in contrast to the past about which he wrote.
‘Jestem, I always answered when my parents called me—a Jewish child in Polish Galicia—for unusual tasks in unusual places in those unusual times.’ Kusniewicz answered ‘present’ when called to fight against the Nazi invaders of Operation Barbarossa. He was ‘present’ in the French Resistence. ‘Present’ in Mauthausen concentration camp. ‘Present’ in the Polish United Workers Party. ‘Present’ as a Polish Communist diplomat of the new post-World War II Poland. ‘Present’ as a writer in Poland. When called to act, he answered: jestem. And his life ‘presences’ were indeed many. Errant Quixote. Internal immigrant. Soldier. Resistance warrior. Death camp inmate. Communist. Diplomat. Poet. Novelist. But today, end of the 1980s, stillness reigned in his life and he didn’t seem like a cult figure at all.
In those 1980s, people of Warsaw felt the approaching uncertainties of the end of a period. Familiar spaces were becoming less familiar. In those great spaces reaching from Russia to West Europe the sense of abandonment was perceptible. East European air was contaminated like that of Warsaw. Conspiracy-infected air. Power was changing hands. People like Kusniewicz were lonely, and their number was accumulating. Lonely people abandoned in familiar spaces that were lonely too. The uncertainty of social-political loneliness spread epidemically. Eastwards and westwards it spread. Time seemed to be running out. Feelings of displacement mounted, invasive shape-shifting aliens infiltrated society. DNAs were mutating. Unaffiliated and traitorous leaders-presidents had declared war on the peoples abandoned in those unusual spaces. People no longer knew who they were. Or where they were. People no longer counted as once. Engulfed by bushfire revolts running wild. Old vigils in the East tottered; artificial infections were hatched in the Western faraway. Pandemic change-renewal infected ancient spaces, contaminating its ancient abandoned peoples. Nature too was in rebellion. Gray skies hung low in the great lonely cities. Cities themselves lonely. Pure air was found only high in the Carpathians, in the Alps, in the Urals; people were confined to tight polluted spaces down below. Nature gives and nature takes away. Animal life was oblivious. Nature neutral. Only faintly echoed lonely voices like that of Andrzej Kusniewicz.
‘Nationality has always been an enigma for me,’ Kusniewicz said. ‘Today I’m Polish, I write Polish, I think in Polish. It might seem settled. But is it?’ Which was his country? he wondered. Ukrainian East Galicia? Polish West Galicia? Russia? Austria? Nationality could change overnight in the dynamic of the East Europe of his earlier days. You could go to bed in one country and wake up in another. Nationality mutated like a virus. Such change symbolizes the time ending atmosphere pervading his works.
The 1980s were confusing times. Neither foreign observers nor participants understood what was happening in the expanses of Poland, while immense things were happening to change all of East Europe. To change the world. In 1980, Lech Walesa (Lech, the name of the founder of Poland a millennium ago), an electrician-trade unionist in the Lenin Shipyards of Gdansk in northern Poland, had organized Solidarnosc, a free trade union in opposition to the Communist government in Warsaw led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, one of the liberators of Poland from the Nazi grip. Solidarnosc had the solid backing of a powerful man and institution: Karol Wojtyla from Krakow, then known as Pope John Paul II, tough but widely loved boss of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. Devout Catholics forever, those Poles! And now Solidarnosc, the mortal enemy of Communism, had their man in Rome who dedicated his Papacy to undermining the foundations of world Communism in Moscow. Operation Overthrow was underway. In Poland, in the Vatican, in Washington.
From 1985, the new General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, launched his program of glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructuring) headed pell-mell toward social democracy and free-market capitalism. Walesa and Solidarnosc, Wojtyla and the Vatican and Washington were right on schedule. Gorby met President Bush père in Malta where the Russian easily won the battle of words and gloated over it but then lost the war: time favored Washington. And the road was paved for the savage Capitalist rape of Russia in the 1990s.
But it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Washington. In the end a powerful Russia re-emerged and the USA began its decline, as did the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Kusniewicz novel, Lesson in a Dead Language of 1977.
Kusniewicz in those times retired to his ivory tower of history and memories. ‘Yes, I do think historically; we East Europeans have a lot of it to deal with. We are living history. But I write poetically, it seems.’ He, the poet and novelist, combined history and memory and poetry in a way that made him the great writer he was. He wrote about other times as seen through his poet’s binoculars and from his memories he fashioned books for films.
Although I have forgotten details of the real him, I sometimes think of Andrzej Kusniewicz. And I hear his soft Polish pronunciation of jestem. I remember how we sat quietly in his abandoned space in which he too seemed abandoned and alone in the world. All the others were gone. All was in the past that he searched and recovered. Cold, brown walls lined by framed black and white photographs of past matters pressed against us. Desk, typewriter, mounds of papers, newspaper articles, his handwritten notes stuck here and there, double rows of books in shelves, stacks of books tottering in corners. Books in Polish, German, Russian, Ukrainian, English, French, Italian.
‘My languages’, he said, sadness in his tone. ‘But I don’t know for certain which is mine.’
From late 1980s Warsaw, backtrack seventy years to the setting woven into his novel, Lesson in a Dead Language. In Lekcja Martwego Jezyka Kusniewicz relates the past. And memories of it. Like looking at the past, at memories, through binoculars. The past remains the past, alive only in memory. And the future, dark and uncertain. We are in the last year of World War I, in Galicia crushed between Poland and Ukraine. The past flashes past in Kusniewicz’s Lesson, with little dialogue, many sentences beginning with ‘and’ or ‘while’ in Polish, his frequent references back to something cloudy that happened in the past. Memory.
His imaginary Lieutenant Kiekeritz, slowly dying of tuberculosis, is fixated on his fever. Every day at three p.m. it arrived on his thermometer, 37, or even 38°. Then went back down to almost normal. And then during the night it rose and it fell. Up and down. Measured with his thermometer.
In the field hospital the Regimental doctor: ‘All this thermometer maneuvering irritates and exasperates you. So why not just send it to the devil? How does this constant measuring help you?’
The Lieutenant stopped taking his temperature and thinking about his health in general—he got better. His non-measured temperature, offended, gave up and surrendered.
Another doctor had advised him to take his temperature three times a day, and not under his arm but in the anus. In order to really know. ‘Does where interest you so much, Herr Doctor?’ the ironic Lieutenant Kiekeritz asked.
‘Well, no, or rather yes. It should interest us both,’ the good doctor said. ‘Since I’m here to treat and cure you.’
‘Ok, treat me, that’s your profession, maybe also your pleasure, I don’t know. But cure me? You like to joke, Herr Doctor.’
Always very subtle and suggestive, Kusniewicz, in that East European way. Kusniewicz’s rhythm and Kiekeritz’ illness and death run in parallel with the illness and decline and death of the Hapsburg Monarchy.
Typical Kusniewicz description of life and nature in the novel, Lesson in a Dead Language:
The end of World War I is near. On the margin of history in a hamlet of the Carpathian Mountains. Lieutenant Kiekeritz is supposed to care for his tuberculosis corroded lungs but in reality he knows he faces an ineluctable death. Time of a last season, in a sumptuous and wild mountain landscape life deploys its pageantry for him, offering his refined sensitivity exacerbated by the illness the perfumed cocktails and the rarest of colors. That is the décor which death needs in order to appear as if its ugliness were the secret accomplice of so much beauty.
A grotesque death, absurd, of which the Lieutenant is aware, observing its ever more precise manifestations with a mixture of detachment and fascination. On his solitary walks and insomniac nights peopled by dreams and memories, he establishes with it a strange hide-and-seek game in which the reader, spellbound, in his turn enters. Under his eyes is woven a tight skein of correspondences, forebodings, warnings. Death embroils the tracks, jumbles the cards, hides its face behind that of the goddess Diane or the gypsy performing at the Colombus Circus, before finally appearing in the guise of a pure and defaced young girl. Around the Lieutenant evolve other beings, picturesque and binding, carried there by the hazards of the war and destiny, and ignorant of the drama in act.
The reader finds in Lesson in a Dead Language an original meditation about art and the times, about the destiny of the living substance and of that which one calls, erroneously, the inanimate. Objects for collection only, like Kiekeritz’s sudden attraction to a bad, dusty print of a Salomé. You find all the characteristics of the immense talent of Kusniewicz: an allusive but omnipresent sensuality, magnificent descriptions of nature, all marked by an innovative writing, rich and savory, the writing of a poet.
Slowly walking through the grass, which brings one up to the pass revealed or hiding from the bend in an alley, a pleasure garden, a lawn. Plates-bands of flowers. Fragments of unexpected landscapes, all totally unreal, in distant blue skies. A pond, almost a lake. Small benches in the shade of huge trees. Monuments and gazebos. Arbors. We could, without changing anything, encapsulate all this in a fine gold frame and hang it on the wall a watercolor; this would make a very beautiful period picture, picturesque and a little nostalgic…
It wants to taste space without
diffuse itself, diffuse itself. Then it
like desire, and in the silence of
night you hear only crickets
conversing with the stars.
Andrzej Kusniewicz (born 1904 in Polish Galicia-died 1993 in Warsaw) falls into the category of European novelists who dealt with the era of the decline and demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, coinciding with end of the Great War, World War I. The better known and widely popular in the German-speaking world, Joseph Roth, also from Polish Galicia and ten years older than Kusniewicz, wrote the famous novel, Radetsky March of 1932, which also chronicles the decline and fall of the Empire. (And the Empire it was: Austria and Hungary, and Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and parts of Poland, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova. Many reasons for the Great War are to be found in that list of peoples and in the clash among their overlapping languages, cultures, faiths and interests and in their distances one from the other.)
However, Kusniewicz’s style is more subtle and complex, more labyrinthine than that of der rote Roth (the red Roth). A fellow man of the Left, Roth was the great journalist of the era, a kind of European John Reed. The prose of both Roth and Kusniewicz exudes a charm arising not only from the sunset of an empire and nostalgia for times past, but from a Proustian recovery of a lost past which displays both the dying empire’s brilliance and its fragility and, in the case of Kusniewicz, an incomparable sensuality.
As a result, his Lesson in a Dead Language became a popular film in 1979. Directed by a major Polish cinema figure, Janusz Majewski, the film story depicts tubercular Lieutenant Kiekeritz in a sanatorium in the Carpathian Mountains searching for a meaning in life by collecting works of art that he can leave as a legacy, a film profoundly marked by the motif of death, the Austrian officer’s own and that of an empire. For Majewski, it was retro cinema, a sentimental journey to the recent past and traditions of former Mitteleuropa. A journey into the cultural mix of that part of Europe, most of which was the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, to which the film maker then added more flavors of the bitterness of the awareness of time passing: Kiekeritz’s preparation for death as a metaphor of a dying age and culture.
In those years, Polish poets saw the realization of Dostoevsky’s vision of European culture sinking in stages into inhumanity. The end of that empire was the end of European culture. Its religion, art, philosophy had been only a façade, as seen again today in 2020 as Europe disintegrates in dissension, nationalism and egoism, the heavy hand of US imperialism, and enticing invitations to turn its head to the East.
A long list of writers—poets and novelists, historians and journalists—have made Polish letters great, not only in that historical period, but also still today as well as centuries earlier: Joseph Conrad, Adam Mickiewicz, Isaac Deutscher, Czeslaw Milosz (Nobel poet, 1980), Witold Dombrowicz, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski,, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Henrik Sienkiewicz, Wislawa Szymborska (Nobel poetess, 1996) , Adam Zagajewski.
Kusniewicz’s Lieutenant Kiekeritz died his tubercular death at the same time the Austro-Hungarian Empire died. Soldiers changed the emblems on their hats from the Empire’s colors to diverse national colors of the dead empire. Only history and memories remain. Kusniewicz died in 1993 and was buried in the Military Cemetery in Warsaw. I think the ghosts of Poland’s great poets are bitterly disappointed in the Poland of today.