Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Drying out in Poland with 'The Mighty Angel'

As mentioned in the last post: my first port of call in my visit to Poland is a pub called “The Mighty Angel”, which is also this novel’s title; an apt starting point for this poetic eulogy by the narrator (and, one suspects, the author himself) to the euphoria and tragedy of alcoholism.

Aside from the narrator (Jerzy – who shares the same name as the author), alcoholism has become a way of life for many of the characters in “The Mighty Angel”. Indeed, much of this novel takes place on an ‘alco ward’ in contemporary Warsaw, but the fact that they temporarily have to try and dry out doesn't make much of a difference: the shadow of their overwhelming dependency hangs over everything even there. Jerzy has already been sent there eighteen times, but obviously to little effect for his stays are little more than a pause in his alcohol-consumed life. Indeed, he obviously doesn't take any lessons he might have learned very far, as every time he is released he has the same routine: he heads straight for his local pub, 'The Mighty Angel', for four double-shots, then buy a bottle of vodka before returning home to clean up his trashed apartment in readiness for his next bender.

Jerzy has his routine down pat within the alco ward, too, occupying himself there - and earning decent money and benefits - by writing the various other patients' accounts for the 'emotional journals' they are required to keep, making him: "the secretary of their minds". In his use of writing, Jerzy demonstrates that alcohol is not the only thing that consumes him. As he admits: “I was ruled by my tongue. I was ruled by women. I was ruled by alcohol.“

Whilst two of these loves are undeniable - alcohol, obviously and also language/literature - “Language is my second - what am I saying, second - language is my first addiction”, I was less convinced by his assertion that women form a triumvirate of influence on his life. Certainly, in the main of this novel Jerzy only gives a cursory reference to his former relationships (which include two failed marriages), and the relationships described in the main part of the novel (a truly poignant episode with the possibly-redemptive Joanna – over whom he chooses alcohol – and a brief, slightly superfluous brush with the poet Alberta).

However, in the alco ward he at least gets to indulge his passion for words - although he is frustrated by the need to temper his own natural style (he is: "incapable under any circumstances of forgoing a well-turned phrase") in rendering believable versions of the other alcoholics' tales. Indeed, he comes to worry that: “the unending labour of reproducing the crude style of the alcos was having an impact on my own exquisite turn of phrase”.

As such, much of the novel consists of Jerzy's accounts of his fellow inmates, both in reproductions of some of the accounts he has penned as well as in his more general own descriptions. Either way, it's all presented through his prism, an agreeable style that is amusingly at odds with much of what is recounted. The narrator neither romanticises nor demonises these characters' (and his own) weakness: it's just who they all are. And if quite a few wind up in even sorrier states (including dead), so be it. At this stage, for most of them - and despite the best (or, more often, clueless) efforts by the hospital staff - it's hard to be much more than philosophical. The very matter-of-factness of this delivery is what gives this novel a truly tragic feel, and one which is often augmented by genuinely affecting prose – reflecting the dual concerns of Jerzy: alcohol addiction and the beauty of literature.

Yet “The Mighty Angel” is also a tale of redemption.

All of Jerzy's reflections, including the sums he does of what he's consumed (the equivalent of three thousand six hundred bottles of vodka in the past twenty years) and what it's cost, in cash as well as the human toll, and all these other sorry tales he's rewritten - do make him question his mindless devotion to drinking. Yet it isn't some logical step he takes, or a determined show of willpower that finally moves him to stop drinking. Instead, it is apparently something more intangible, less definable than his addiction to alcohol that leads him to break free of his routine. Without wishing to spoil the ending, this redemption is couched in the terms of unexpectedly found love – his apparent third passion. But I am unconvinced that this is not actually a further exercise in language, and the literature of romance, that Jerzy is employing to describe something ‘other’:- and that perhaps the ending of this book is not as ’redemptive’ as it appears….

If that last statement sounds vague and unsatisfying, then that is fine. For that is how I found the last section of the book. After the initial elegiac, affecting, yet unrelentingly realistic and honest descriptions of an individual’s tragic descent into addition; I found the ending strangely abstract, oblique and – despite its seemingly redemptive nature – disengaging. I’d welcome comments from anyone else who has read this work on their overriding impression of the book which – as I say – undoubtedly displays some beautiful and heart-rending prose, despite its structural shortcomings.

That said, I think Jerzy Pilch is a very talented writer and this is an impressive work; it just left me with a feeling of a lack of consistency in terms of narrative and purpose once I’d finished it. However, Pilch is one of a growing list of authors from this part of the continent whose works I shall seek out after my global trip has concluded.

In the meantime, my journey continues! In keeping with my general policy of combining sleep with travel where possible, I take the one direct night train from Warsaw’s ‘Warszawa Centralna’ station to Prague leaving at 9:35 p.m. and arriving at 7:05 am (having made the essential reservation for a sleeping coach!).

The train arrives at the main station (Hlavni Nadrazni) in Prague, which is close to Wenceslaus Square early in the morning, and thus I arrive at the next leg of my journey: “Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia” by Michal Viewegh:- one of the most popular contemporary Czech writers - and also the best-selling one... I shall update on this work in my next blog…

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