The Graveyard by Marek Hłasko
Translated by Norbert Guterman
Life under Soviet rule is something that turns up in an awful lot of books I’ve read; but I don’t know that I’ve come across one as bleak and dark as “The Graveyard” by Marek Hłasko. It’s a Melville House Books Neversink Library edition, and I finally picked it up after looking at it on several subsequent visits to London. It’s taken me a while to get to it, as I suspected it might be a difficult read; well, it was in places, but definitely worth it.
Marek Hłasko (14 January 1934 – 14 June 1969) was a Polish writer who lived through some of the most turbulent years of the country’s history and died young, leaving quite a legend behind him (some of which is disputed, according to Wikipedia.) A non-conformist for much of his life, he came to fame during the 1950s and his work was controversial, leading to confrontations with the authorities and the police, and spells in psychiatric clinics. Much of his later life was spent wandering the globe, flitting through Germany, France and even Los Angeles. He died in Wiesbaden and the circumstances of his death are apparently unclear. “The Graveyard” was his third novel, and like much of his work was considered unpublishable in Communist Poland.
The protagonist of “The Graveyard” is Franciszek Kowalski, a factory worker and a good party member. One night he meets an old comrade from the partisan army he fought in, and they get very drunk together. And on his way home he has a fateful encounter with some young policemen, shouting insults at them that he can’t even remember the next day. He’s hauled into the police station and spends a humiliating night there before being released. This is his turning point, and that one night leads to him being expelled from the party, losing his job and his family and setting out on a kind of personal odyssey.
The only way Kowalski can see to rehabilitate himself is to get testimonials from his old comrades, those whom he fought alongside in the name of the Communist cause. However, as he sets out on his journey through the city to find them, he discovers that they have all changed in ways he hadn’t expected and that life under the iron heel of Communist rule is enough to change anyone…
Ah, Franciszek, we wanted to take the road to life, and we’ve come to a graveyard; we talked about justice, and all we know is terror and despair … History has no use for witnesses.
“The Graveyard” turned out to be a remarkable powerful book and very different to how I’d expected. What starts off as relatively straightforward story takes a turn into a kind of Kafkaesque labyrinth, as Kowalski makes his way through the decaying city; and the book ends up telling an utterly devastating tale. As he goes in search of his comrades from the past, the journey almost seems mythical, and the horrors he encounters on the way give witness to the effects of a totalitarian regime.
The imagery Hłasko uses is stunning; Kowalski encounters children in chains (apparently for their own safety but symbolic of so much more), and the city itself is totally ruined and squalid, in contrast to the image projected by the state. Interestingly, the book was rejected by the publishers with the statement “This Poland doesn’t exist” and I imagine that no regime would have wished to acknowledge a country with cities falling apart and citizens living in hunger and fear.
There are chilling portrayals of political meetings where there is such a culture of suspicion and mistrust that it is impossible to function normally or understand what’s happening around you. And this extends into Kowalski’s private life, where his children are affected by what’s happened to their father; it’s very clear that the personal does not count, only the party, in a way that’s reminiscent of “Nineteen Eighty Four”. The book ends with final, fateful encounter with a policeman from the beginning of the story, and I was left with a feeling of horror at the cruelty and absurdity of totalitarian political systems. Kowalski had given his all in the name of a cause he believed in, a search for equality and a better world, and that belief had been completely betrayed; his past commitment, and that of his lost comrades, counted for nothing.
“The Graveyard” turned out to be a wonderfully written, bleak and remarkably powerful work; not a happy read, perhaps, but a necessary one and a stark reminder of the kind of society we should *not* allow human beings to set up. I’m glad I chose to pick this book up now, and I’m very keen to see if there are any more of Hłasko’s works available; if they’re anything like this one, they’ll definitely be worth reading.