“Just have any old handsome face, cut in any old tattoos, pierce yourself more than the others, shave designs into your stubble, tilt your hat, carry a puppy in your arms, say controversial nonsense, swear, be more vulgar than the rest – and you’re a star.”
Those are Michał Witkowski’s instructions in his latest book, Margot. A part of it is the life story of Waldemar Bacardi Mandarynka (so-called because of the solarium-induced colour of his skin), a “martyr of early Polish show business.” Here’s Waldi on the subject of the jurors at his casting, as they say in “Polish” (they mean “audition”):
They nod to themselves, he [Waldi] is stupid, it’s good that he talks rubbish, that he flaunts his stupidity and annoys all the dying intelligentsia. They’re schizophrenic – they’re kind of former intelligentsia themselves: music critics and university graduates now transformed into media people. So they hate with all the more passion those of the intelligentsia that didn’t give in.
In a peculiar replay of communist Poland’s favouring of the children of workers and peasants, the intelligentsia jurors light on Waldi’s simple, rural background. One of them has read in Gazeta Wyborcza about “przystankersi”, disaffected country youth who hang around bus shelters, roughly corresponding to the urban phenomenon of “blokersi” (“przystanek”: bus stop; “blok”: block of flats). Waldi – although he is wearing artificial finger tips (“tipsy”) and has obviously turned his back on the countryside – plays up his humble origins and his membership of this semi-mythical group of “przystankers” (I suspected Witkowski of making it up but it turns out that some social anthropologist / Sunday supplement journo really did identify and describe such a subculture) and before you know it is eating sushi in Warsaw with the best of them.
I saved the best for first because in fact Margot is a disappointment. It tells a few stories, rather chaotically, and does not really draw them together well. To start with it’s a story of the life of truckers and the prostitutes that service them (quite explicit, it’s not an ideal Christmas present for your 7-year old nieces). Half way through, in a switch of subject “coś a là w podobie” Głowacki’s Ostatni cieć (The Last Caretaker), the narrator (Margot) introduces the life story of Waldemar Mandarynka: “While the enema dripped in me (because it’s not like a pear, it’s more like a drip)* Waldi honoured us with this story.” Waldi’s story is a straight satire of the shallow, celebrity-obsessed, dishonest, cruel, Warsaw-centric etc. etc. meeja. In it we meet many too-familiar types, such as the “Aging Gracefully – Yes, Gracefully – Star”, who could be any one of dozens of grotesquely primped, botoxed and face-lifted Polish female tv personalities whose age is impossible to gauge with more accuracy than “between 30 and 70.” It’s funny, rising to a farcical high-comedy kitsch explosion at the end but, lacking any real depth, easy (easy for Witkowski, that is). After Waldi’s story (about a third of the novel’s length) the narrative thread returns to Margot, but with only seven pages left there seems little point to telling us that she wandered off for casual sex in the moonlight.
Then again, I didn’t enjoy Ostatni cieć from the normally reliable Głowacki either so maybe this kind of structure just isn’t my thing. I look forward to Witkowski’s next book and in the meantime draw your attention to Bill Martin’s English translation of Lubiewo – Lovetown. You can read an extract on-line here.
* Literal translation. I haven’t the stomach to do the research required to bring it up to scratch.