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The Mighty Angel

The Mighty Angel

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The Mighty Angel

198 página
5 horas
Mar 1, 2011


"Pilch's prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of Zloldkowa Gorzka."L Magazine

The Mighty Angel concerns the alcoholic misadventures of a writer named Jerzy. Eighteen times he's woken up in rehab. Eighteen times he's been releaseda sober and, more or less, healthy manafter treatment at the hands of the stern therapist Moses Alias I Alcohol. And eighteen times he's stopped off at the liquor store on the way home, to pick up the supplies that are necessary to help him face his return to a ruined apartment.

While he's in rehab, Jerzy collects the stories of his fellow alcoholicsDon Juan the Rib, The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Queen of Kent, the Hero of Socialist Laborin an effort to tell the universal, and particular, story of the alcoholic, and to discover the motivations and drives that underlie the alcoholic's behavior.

A simultaneously tragic, comic, and touching novel, The Mighty Angel displays Pilch's caustic humor, ferocious intelligence, and unparalleled mastery of storytelling.

Jerzy Pilch is one of Poland's most important contemporary writers and journalists. In addition to his long-running satirical newspaper column, Pilch has published several novels, and has been nominated for Poland's prestigious NIKE Literary Award four times; he finally won the Award in 2001 for The Mighty Angel. His novels have been translated into numerous languages.

Bill Johnston is Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University and has translated works by Witold Gombrowicz, Magdalena Tulli, Wieslaw Mysliwski, and others. He won the Best Translated Book Award in 2012 and the inaugural Found in Translation Award in 2008.

Mar 1, 2011

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The Mighty Angel - Jerzy Pilch

Also by Jerzy Pilch

in English Translation

His Current Woman


Copyright © 2000 by Jerzy Pilch

Translation copyright © 2009 by Bill Johnston

Originally published in Polish as Pod Mocnym Aniołem by Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000

First ebook edition, 2010

All rights reserved

ISBN-13: 978-1-934824-47-4

This publication has been funded by the Book Institute - the ©POLAND Translation Program

Printed on acid-free paper in the United States of America.

Text set in Caslon, a family of serif typefaces based on the designs of William Caslon (1692–1766).

Design by N. J. Furl

Open Letter is the University of Rochester’s nonprofit, literary translation press:

Lattimore Hall 411, Box 270082, Rochester, NY 14627


Chapter 1

The Yellow Dress

Before the mafiosi

appeared in my apartment in the company of the dark-complexioned poetess Alberta Lulaj, before they wrenched me from my drunken sleep and set about demanding—first with dissembling pleas, then with ruthless threats—that I arrange for Alberta Lulaj’s poetry to be published in the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, before there began the tempestuous events I wish to recount, there was the eve of those events, there was the morning and the evening of the preceding day, and I, from the morning to the evening of the preceding day, had been drinking peach vodka. Yes indeed, I had been drinking peach vodka, brutishly longing for one last love before death, and immersed up to my ears in a life of dissolution.

Before midday nothing had happened; moderation, even a certain measured asceticism had held sway. Before midday I laid on the couch, read the newspapers, and listened to a record by the Czech tenor saxophonist Feliks Slovák. Yet around midday, of the broad range of melodies performed by Slovák one alone began to penetrate my consciousness; it was a composition by Karel Svoboda entitled Where’ve you got your nest, little bird? I listened and wondered to myself how it was in the original Czech: Kde je tvoje hnízdo, ptáčátko?, or Kde je tvoje hnízdo, ptáčku? I was, however, unable to determine which of the two diminutives—ptáčku, the weaker one, or ptáčátko, the stronger—sounded better and more appropriate, and thus with a feeling of linguistic helplessness (though still enraptured) I rose over and over again from the couch, went up to the record player, and kept playing the piece that had moved me to the core.

It was a beautiful July day; from the twelfth floor I had a clear view of the rim of hills surrounding the city and the level country beyond—the fields, the electricity pylons, the railroad tracks, the bright flowing waters of the river of consolation, the mountains on the horizon, the Vistula like a white pebble at the bottom of a coniferous valley, the Piast Inn and the garden outside that smelled like the first mowing, the swarms of bees and butterflies over mugs of beer. Doctor Swobodziczka’s graying Alsatian laps up its allotted portion from a tin cup; the doctor died a year ago, but the dog, faithful to its addiction, comes to the pub every day, and those who are still alive fill its cup with draft Żywiec poured equitably from a mug.

I saw it all clearly, as if I were there, and here, where I actually was, I saw everything too: the windows in the apartment buildings were open, the occasional car with an old-fashioned streamlined shape moved down some street, and at the ATM stood a woman in a yellow dress with spaghetti straps. From my position high above she seemed wise and beautiful. I suddenly had the certainty that she was the last love of my life. It was an all-embracing certainty; not only the drunken part of me but also the sober part of me, and all the other parts of my soul whose status with regard to intoxication was indeterminate—all seemed to share this conviction. I should immediately have flung on some clothes, splashed myself with cologne, and, without waiting for the elevator, rushed down the stairs and set off on her trail. For a moment I thought entirely seriously about doing just this, but the ATM, the ATM ruled out this love. If I ran down and set off on her trail, I would be acting as I had always acted: I would follow her with the energetic, unswerving step of a serial killer. I would follow her artfully and tenaciously; I would follow her for so long that she would notice me, she would acquire the alarming conviction that someone was inexorably tracking her. Then for a short while longer, already seen and noticed by her, I would continue the chase through the streets with the desperation of an unmasked criminal, until the moment when her unease, her fear, and her curiosity would begin to combine into an explosive substance . . . Then—not allowing the explosion to take place—I would quicken my step, draw level with her, give a chivalrous bow and say in the deep voice of a true male:

I’m terribly sorry, miss, I’m terribly sorry, I’ve been following you (here my deep male voice would falter, as if from bashfulness), I’ve been following you for so long that I’ve decided to come clean . . .

At this point she would burst out in rippling laughter, within which female satisfaction would be mingled with relief that the man pursuing her was not some vicious deviant pursuing her to satisfy his lust, but a seasoned connoisseur pursuing her for the sake of beauty.

Why is it, tell me, why is it you’re chasing after me? she would ask with an enchanting smile, though her voice would still betray a hint of nervousness.

Is it really so terribly hard to understand? I would reply glibly, and I would begin to speak to her with great vigor, and my speech would be like an epic poem of love that overwhelms the listener with the power of its rhythm and its imagery; I would sing for her a song of persuasion and after only a few verses she would be utterly persuaded, willing, compliant, mortally in love, mine already, mine forever, and I would lead her down the bright path of our life together.

But alas I could not do so, I could not apply the classic combination of moves at the appropriate moment. How could I follow on the heels of a woman who has just taken money from an ATM? How could I later explain to the police officer she would summon that my actions were driven not by a thief’s appetite for lucre, but by love at first sight? There was no point in even talking about it, there was no point in even trying; I gave a dismissive wave of the hand, capitulated, and looked lugubriously down from the twelfth floor as the woman who should have become my wife and the mother of my children walked away. With aching heart, I watched the last love of my life move away from the ATM, walk a little further down Jana Pawła, and turn forever, forever into Pańska. Once again in history profound sentiment had lost out to money. I was suddenly consumed with tremendous anger. I was angry at ATMs, which only a few years ago had not even existed. I was overcome by fury; I recalled the fall of the Berlin Wall and I was opposed to the fall of the Berlin Wall, for all those enthusiasts who had demolished the wall with their mason’s hammers had taken the brunette in the yellow dress from me. I was opposed to Solidarity, because Solidarity had taken the brunette in the yellow dress from me; and Lech Wałęsa had taken the brunette in the yellow dress from me, and John Paul II as he cried: Descend, Holy Spirit, had taken the brunette in the yellow dress from me, and the Holy Spirit, as it descended and altered the face of the earth, had taken the brunette in the yellow dress from me. My God, O Holy Spirit, I thought, if everything were now as it used to be, if communism hadn’t fallen, if there were no free market economy, if numerous transformations had not taken place in the part of Europe where I was born, there wouldn’t be any ATMs here now, and if there were no ATMs, everything would have worked out perfectly between me and the dark-haired beauty in the yellow dress.

No one, however, not even the Holy Spirit, could turn back the course of history; nothing and no one could turn back the brunette, who in all probability had reached the corner of Pańska and Żelazna. All that was left was suffering, pain, and the bitterness of parting from her dusky flesh enwrapped in the yellow dress. Yet I could not fail to notice that the pain and bitterness of parting intensified the beauty of all that was around me. Feliks Slovák’s tenor sax still sounded piercing and plaintive, perhaps even more piercing and more plaintive than it had before. I raised my eyes. A streetcar was passing through grass so high it could have hidden a horse along with its rider; closer by, in the imposing office buildings that overlooked the ONZ Circle, two uniformed security guards were moving from room to room, switching on the lights, switching them off again, and gazing at me through the Venetian blinds. A white cloud sailed over the rooftops and the antennas; it was a splendid day at the height of summer. It was the kind of day a person waits for all year, or maybe even for years at a stretch, the kind of day on which at any moment a person could give up drinking.

I turned away from the window and looked at the room, which was filled with the sounds of the saxophone. In the bottle that stood on the table there was still a goodly quantity of peach vodka; I went up, poured some out, drank it, and experienced illumination. My Lord, what illumination I experienced, and how it suited the extraordinary character of the day! My innards lit up with an even and benign light, my thoughts immediately formed themselves into ingenious sentences, and my gestures were unerring. I took a shower, washed my hair, dressed, splashed myself with cologne, and, without waiting for the elevator, I ran downstairs and set off on the trail of the beautiful and wise brunette in the yellow dress with spaghetti straps. I was prepared to walk the length of Pańska, Żelazna, Złota, Sienna, of every street, I was prepared to scour the entire city, to look into every entranceway, to ring the bell at every apartment—I knew I would find her. I knew I would find her on earth and not in heaven, in life and not after death, waking and not in dreams.

Chapter 2

The Dark-Skinned Wrestler

I dreamed I was

searching for objects on the floor of the ocean; I dreamed that, to the amusement of the rabble, a dark-skinned wrestler took a full mug of beer from under my nose. In the dream I didn’t know that he was a wrestler. I wanted to humiliate him, but in vain, in vain; it was he who humiliated me, and in the dream that had no end, and in the waking that had not begun, I was humiliated. The dreams of a drunkard are separated from the waking hours by a cardboard wall. At night the drunkard dreams of what he has lived through during the day, or rather: at night the drunkard’s daytime hallucinations appear to him. I was wading, swimming, drowning in a sea of 90-proof alcohol. I woke drenched in a brownish sweat. I checked the hour: it was four in the morning, and the face of the clock was steaming with bittersweet Żołądkowa Gorzka herb vodka.

Eighteen times I was on the alco ward; in the end Dr. Granada, in the majesty of his power and in the majesty of his athleticity, ordered that I should no longer be admitted. The fact that I was incurable was neither here nor there—no one is curable (the healthy in particular are incurable)—but I showed no promise, I lacked the will to get better, I did not want to not drink. From the tests, as complex as quantum physics, that the trembling patients were ordered to complete by soft-spoken she-therapists unbreakable in body and soul, it emerged that I had suicidal tendencies.

Are you trying to drink yourself to death? asked Dr. Granada.

I can neither confirm nor deny it, I responded, since I was incapable under any circumstances of forgoing a well-turned phrase. Too late it was that I came to understand this was not a gift but a curse. Every phone call I made became a novelistic dialogue, every greeting a poetic aphorism, every request for the time a theatrical speech. My tongue, thirsty for superiority, maybe even immortality, ruled me. I was ruled by my tongue. I was ruled by women. I was ruled by alcohol.

Since you’re trying to drink yourself to death, why do you bother us with your allegedly desperate person? Why do you take up my staff’s time? Why on earth do you attend the talks and the discussion groups? Why on earth do you write drinking confessions and keep an emotional journal? Why the hell does Nurse Viola give you injections in your insect-like veins? For what reason do we pump hectoliters of life-giving drips through your wasted body, since you’re consciously aiming to distance yourself from all that is life-giving?

I’m not trying to die.

You know what, Mr. J.? That sounds a little too ambitious.

I’m not trying to drink myself to death, at least not just yet. To tell the truth, what I’d like most of all is to drink myself to death after a long and happy life.

You really do have the mentality of a child, and a rather slow-witted one at that.

Doctor, I’m aware, I really am fully aware, that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?

Generally speaking I enjoyed my conversations with Dr. Granada, though they occasionally turned into a nightmare of hollow form. The most painful state of reality: symptomless falsehood. Dr. Granada delivered intelligent, fluent, and seemingly convincing speeches worthy of the director of an alco ward, while I eagerly uttered unsophisticated paradoxes, as if I were striving to offer the clearest evidence that a portion of my brain cells had died and been replaced with the inactive connecting tissue known as neuroglia. We both failed to touch the essence of things. We both realized that we were failing to touch the essence of things. We were both tormented by the elusiveness of the essence of things. But a drunkard, and even a drunkard’s doctor, who wishes to touch the essence of things, finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. Shakespeare touched the essence of things. Newton touched the essence of things. Tolstoy touched the essence of things. Einstein touched the essence of things. But a drunkard? It’s always harder for a drunkard.

How is it possible to live a long and happy life without drinking? I uttered this sentence, brimming with barroom grandiloquence; my face assumed a roguish expression, and I immediately felt like spitting on the very core of my soul demoralized by booze. Of course I knew full well that it was possible; it was, yes, it was possible to live a long and happy life without drinking. I personally had known people who lived a long and happy life without drinking. And even if I didn’t know any personally (because, come to think of it, I’d never personally known anyone who was happy, and I

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