Marek Hłasko - The Eighth Day of the Week (Ósmy dzień tygodnia)
After a long chase that went on through three countries and two languages, I finally managed to get a (second hand) copy of The Eighth Day of the Week. Upon reading this novella, I'm happy to say that the chase was worth for Hłasko's book is a good catch indeed.
I'm writing this review sitting at a diminutive table in the tiny kitchen of my little sixth floor flat in the Varsovian district of Praga Połnoc. From the window on my left hand side I overlook a vast empty space left in the middle of the neighbourhood. Down there some bald-headed guy is fixing up the carburettor of his motorcycle. Next to him a bunch of kids is playing hide and seek among the bushes punctuating interconnected communal courtyards. Above them, at the top of a grey-coloured apartment block, two guys in white t-shirts are installing (or removing) the umpteenth satellite dish. In the pale blue sky of an early September morning a lock of white doves is drawing spirals around the red-bricked buildings in various state of disrepair stretching along Brzeska street.
I wouldn't have annoyed you with all these details had The Eighth Day of the Week not been set in this very same area of Warsaw, fifty-eight years ago. The road where I live is even mentioned once and I confess how reading that name gave me a thrill. Back then, Praga Połnoc was probably the dodgiest place in Warsaw and it's no surprise that Marek Hłasko chose it as the background of this very bleak and very pessimistic novella. Not that the neighborhood is all wealthy and glossy right now. Actually, many a Varsovian I spoke with couldn't believe that I moved here of all places in town. But then again I met several people who live or lived here at some stage of their lives and love the area as much as I do.
True, the dimly lighted and drunkard patrolled Praga Połnoc popping up leafing through the pages of The Eighth Day of the Week is quite different from the one where I live and that's a relief. However, you don't need to be a historian to picture that bygone atmosphere nowadays if you walk past some hidden and half-forgotten corners of the district. Perhaps the fact that I can relate with the places Hłasko wrote about here makes me a biased reviewer, but that doesn't matter.
I liked this novella very much even though you have to be in the right set of mind to appreciate it. As I said before, this book is quite pessimistic to the point it sounds almost nihilistic in some of its parts. All characters here cannot see any hope in their present and future existence alike and thus behave like there's no tomorrow. In fact everyone here despise drunkards, but drink to a stupor nonetheless as drunkenness seems to be the only way to be sane in Warsaw A.D. 1956.
Where Marek Hłasko excels is in dialogues which are no short than masterful and imbibed with dark humour as well as with a good deal of fatalistic sarcasm. Agnieszka, the main character of the novel, develops her sense of morality through the story to the point it's hard to recognise her at the end. And yet, she always keeps consistent in not giving a damn about life, Poland and mankind in general.
Grzegorz, Agnieszka's brother, will become your favourite pessimistic alcoholic philosopher in town and is the perfect author's alter-ego no doubt expressing Hłasko's point of view on many a subject.
Pity that the other characters here are much less focused than the protagonists.
Agnieszka's father is an oddball who enjoys walking on his hands (!) and endlessly pines for fishing; his spouse got a sort of nervous breakdown which made a perennial complainer out of her. Zawadski, the lodger at Agnieszka's flat, has potential with all of his passionate temperament and his POW camp stories, but ultimately turns out to be a rather passive moron. Piotr, Agnieszka's beloved, is the greatest disappointment of them all being neither tough nor romantic, but only someone who gets ridiculed by the events.
No surprise that this book got banned in then socialist Poland as it is more than a mere J'accuse by its author, but portrays a bleak country where even young generations grew up to be cynical, harsh and disillusioned.
All in all, The Eighth Day of the Week is an interesting, if monochromatic, snapshot on some of the darkest and most desperate days of the Polish People's Republic: quite a contrast with contemporary Poland.
PS: I wrote about Mr Hłasko and this novella (in Italian) also here, just in case you're interested.