The Krakow Diaries

75 days in Krakow. On a literary grant from the German Kulturstiftung der Länder. In the Guesthouse of the 16th century Villa Decius, with 10 other writers from Poland, Germany, Belarussia, Ukraine and Georgia. Beautiful city. Nice Krakovians. Fun nightlife. Beautiful women. And in the guesthouse: Meetings of the minds. Too much vodka. Good friends. One of the great pleasures of my life.

Farewell, Mirek Nahacz

I've been trying for a while now to find out for sure how Mirek Nahacz died, why, and whether his fourth book is being published. But the Polish media seem to have dropped the story after the initial reports in July that is was suicide and besides, I can't read Polish, so the end of his story will remain closed to me as if it had happened on another planet, just as I will never know his books, which were never translated into English.

In the last days of July, they found his body in his apartment in Warsaw. Though I waited a while to find out more details and asked a Polish-speaking friend to comb the papers for additional news, all I could out was that the police believe it was suicide. I will probably never know more. The language barrier is complete. I will never know what happened; I will never know what happened to his girlfriend or speak to her; I will never know if his fourth book was published or will be published or if it worked out to be the masterpiece he wanted it to be.

I liked Mirek and I was jealous of him, too. I liked him because, from talking to him in his broken English, it seemed that he had a similar taste in literature as I did. He liked the American post-modernists; we were both fans of John Barth; he liked the beat generation more than I did, especially William Burroughs. I asked him about his new novel, the one he was working on – his fourth – and I liked what he said.

It was to be a science fiction novel with a real page-turning plot and written in a prose style with high literary standards. I too had always dreamed of that: combining the genre adventures I loved like Tolkien and Conan the Barbarian and all those things with a literary quality that lifted them up to the level of Shakespeare (after all – in a way, isn't that what Shakespeare did?). Though I could not read his books and never will be able to, I felt I was speaking with a kindred spirit. And I felt that perhaps he would succeed. That gave me hope, for I knew that I would never succeed in that one goal.

And I was jealous of him. I was jealous of his gung-ho, all-or-nothing personality. He would drink early in the morning. At night I would hear techno music blaring in his room. He would write all day and all night and then he would go out and party hard. He was a full-our worker and a full-out partier. He was extreme and radical and never let up, made no excuses, made no compromises, took no prisoners. I always wanted to be like that and never could.

You can say: "Yeah, but look, now he's dead and you're alive," but that makes no difference. He was still the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Now he is gone, disappeared behind a language barrier that will forever hide him from me. Goodbye, Mirek. I wish I could have known more of you.

Here are two excerpts - from his first two novels - taken from his website, which was recently brought to my attention (see comment below):

From the first novel "Eighty Four" (translation Antonia Lloyd Jones):

We knew that even so one day it would all end in wives, families, homes and banal, tidy little vicious circles. One of us could land in the shit, of course, but probably not. We knew that very few people manage to end up any other way, and that those guys become legendary. We also knew that in spite of all we were just as stupid as everyone else, no different from our whole spoiled generation and that you don’t win just by talking about it. But you couldn’t win anyway, coz there was nothing to fight for. All the better, coz nowadays who’d want to anyway? Andrew was loaded, none of us was dying of starvation, nor could any of us truly say we lacked anything, or someone had abused us, our father had been an alcoholic or we’d been beaten at home. The problem was often it was an illusion of normality—in spite of all, something wasn’t quite right about this reality, some element of it was extremely fucked up. Something wasn’t working the way it should. We’re sure to grow out of it, we’ll forget, we thought. What bollocks! If nothing happens, we’ll end up fucking this planet to bits. It’s even stupid talking about it some-times, because it really does go against all logic—nothing has happened, no war like for the poets of the resistance, no regime persecuting freedom of thought like our parents had, nothing. We had something to eat, admittedly the work situation was a bit shaky, and consequently so were our future prospects, but the problem wasn’t in the shape of reality, it was inside reality itself, in its basic foundations, in its substance perhaps, I don’t know any more, maybe the Creator of the Universe fucked something up.

We were semi-aware of our hopelessness; I felt like throwing up the whole time, definitely not because of smoking, because I often gave myself a break, and anyway I smoked least of all the guys. Somehow I managed. The symptoms were like a sort of permanent downer. You don’t feel like getting up in the morning and you’re gripped by the total pointlessness of it all, then somehow you truck along, and it attacks you again. God’s played a trick on us to stop things from getting boring—he thinks to himself, “You’ve got everything OK, so I’m gonna keep fucking you up with existential fears, just so you can’t ever have heaven on earth”. And everything keeps rolling along in its own sweet way—we’ll find ourselves wives, skinny or fat, we’ll screw them a few times, they’ll have some lovely little babies, off we’ll go to work, and it’ll all fall into shape. Amen.

…It had started again, something was always starting. Someone started to say some-thing, someone started to drink something or to smoke a cigarette, someone started to stop smoking, drinking, or whatever. We could only remember the beginnings, eve-rything was always starting, and the ends were always miles away, no one ever noticed them.
The drinking never ended, the hangover just started, that’s how it was with everything. The beginning and the continuing, more and more new beginnings obscured the old endings.

Patol was filling his glass, and Andrew was waiting for someone there with a carrot-and-banana juice to kill the taste of the mushrooms. Not everyone likes them raw. You felt like saying something, words were flying around, crowding the air in the trailer, you just had to reach for them and say them. But they refused to let themselves get caught that easily—either sobriety or intoxication was needed. An in-between state didn’t re-ally do the trick. We were a bit nervy—give it here, come on, quickly, hurry up, like when you desperately want to get a present and the person hands it to you very slowly while going on about something really stupid. He was crumbling the dope, mixing it with the tobacco very slowly, way beyond any sort of hurry. It made me wonder, they all made me wonder. I once spent the night at Muko’s place; we got there pissed as farts some time aer midnight. He opened the door and we went in ever so quietly, or at least that’s what we thought. We went to bed and there was total hush. And in the morning, my God, it was like a film straight out of America, the kind with the perfect modern family, two plus one and the kid’s friend from school. So how’s it going? How’s school? More cheese on your bread? Mummy, Daddy and Muko. Something about that image grated on me, coz it stayed in my head for the next ten hours or more as he spewed along the way and paid a couple of visits to the ditch. Totally abstract. Now it’s just “yes mum, yes dad, don’t joke, don’t say more, it was great, we’re just terribly tired coz we had to help Adam clean up the cellar”.

…Patol and Andrew must have been inside by now. They were seeing things different-ly—eyes like those can’t possibly see the same way. Sitting was getting uncomfortable, the filth in the top right corner was really obvious and I couldn’t stand it any longer, I wanted to get out, to escape, I was seized with frenzy, I wanted them to stop being, talking and enjoying themselves. But I didn’t let it show, I just went on laughing.

I felt as if it wasn’t me laughing, just the shell of my body, with me inside, and it was just blocked up, something in it got jammed the moment I laughed, so I couldn’t stop. I was scared, until I saw my own frightened eyes and face, then I started looking at the rest of the guys as if they were crazy, watching what they were doing—we’re gonna kill each other any moment, they’re gonna start quarrelling and someone’s gonna pull out a hidden knife and stick it in my head, then ask “what have I done?”, but it'll be too late, with schizos there’s no joking, or we’ll go for someone, I don’t know, something’s gonna happen, something could happen, there’s too much tension that’s got to be released. And then Euzubiusz went off somewhere, and Andrew started singing a mantra, modulating his voice, and I knew it was bloody stupid, I was ashamed of my own voice, of what I was doing and how I was behaving, I was afraid Mama might hear me—what would I say to her? then I realized I wasn’t at home and no one was coming, but I couldn’t stop feeling scared, coz that’s how it works, the fear stays with you and grows; I went on singing, and the walls were shaking, I was bloody afraid, it was getting closer, it was just about to happen, something huge, the biggest thing ever, God and Satan all rolled into one, I could feel the presence on my skin and in my chest, it was huge, enormous, and we went on singing, trying to catch up with the ever escaping tune.

…Right then I’d much rather have been somewhere else. At home. I’d eat something nice and watch telly. Right through to zero hour. I could sit there forever, pitting myself against the scheduling. At about three a sign would appear on the screen to say that’s the end of broadcasting. I’d have beaten them. It’s easiest with the Polish programmes because the foreign-language ones are on round the clock. There’s always some guy blathering on, or the news, or a film. On the German channels they’re almost always screwing. What a nation of perverts. They say ordnung muss sein, but every night on TV after midnight there’s hanky panky. Das ist gut, schnella, schnella, ooo sehr gross, macht mir gut. Those silicone women squeal as if the muscular blond guys were stabbing them with metal skewers at least. So you sit and surf the channels. People on a pilgrimage click lady’s girdle ad click holy mass broadcast click gut gut ich liebe click two hundred people killed click take these tablets and your muscles will expand click one hundred and sixty wounded. I sit there clicking away—I hate television, I spend at least six hours a day hating it.

Tępy came over, chewing something. “I feel really fucked up,” he said.

Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that he might have been poisoned. Only now. I imagined him having convulsions, losing consciousness and his skin changing colour, going completely cold and white with his mouth open. It could happen like that, like in the films, first we’d bury him, then fuck up and all kill each other, the ultimate massacre to deal with all the insinuations.

Actually I didn’t care; I could see I should be concerned, but somehow I wasn’t getting any feeling. After all, Tępy was a great guy, and I was nothing. I did worry a bit, not to be completely heartless, and then I felt calm again. I was tired and gradually I was starting to feel ill. I didn’t realise I’d already drunk several glasses; for a while I thought I’d only been drinking one, but having a sort of déjà vu. Muko kept bringing me more, like the helpful mate he is. As soon as it lit me up, I felt like puking, or rather I felt nausea. I lit a fag and thought, “I’m hungry, that helps, I must just be careful not to think too hard coz usually when we’re hungry we imagine food, and if I do that it’ll all come flying out of me.” I knew that was how it’d end, but I didn’t want to throw up just yet, at any rate I didn’t want to be first.

Everyone was talking about something, but all I could hear was a buzzing noise, like the radio in bad weather or when you’re trying to find a channel. The only way out was to throw myself into the swing of the rave, keep chatting to just about everyone without stopping, listen to the music, and for it to be thumping loud and strong, no thoughts, just dance and think about nothing but bullshit.

I got up and went to the tent, just like that, leaving them by the bonfire, without saying anything or looking at anyone. I neatly avoided the obstacles, I got knocked over once, but I tried to be tough. In the hangar-like tent I was surprised by what I saw. Tępy was lying in the corner holding his belly. I was convinced he’d stayed by the bonfire. It completely threw me off kilter. On top of that Połka was tinkering with some sort of gadget fixed to the socket and the tape recorder. He should have been by the bonfire too, not here. Połka was big and dumb, but terribly nice. He always went about in the same track suit, black with yellow stripes, and he had catarrh. I liked chatting with him because he always talked in such a funny way.

“Hi, Połka, how’s it going? what’s that you’re fiddling with?” I asked casually.

“It’s a stroboscope, but the rheostat’s fucked and won’t go for long coz it’ll blow. If I had four zlotys I’d buy a better one and it’d all be OK.”

“Isn’t it better to have it unplugged from the current? Doesn’t it fuck you some-times?”

“Eeee, no problem.”

“Great, you’re a brave guy.” I decided that was quite enough chat for now. With Połka anyway. I’d stopped feeling like talking again, but it was less of a problem now. A year ago he’d finished a professional electrician’s course, he knows his stuff. He repairs lots of things for us, walkmans and stuff like that. Połka is best mates with Todek. I don’t know him all that well, coz the way it works out I only ever see him when we’re stoned and at those times he always laughs at what I’m saying. Maybe that’s why I like him, with him I feel valued and funny.

Tępy was lying in the corner trying to say something, but for some reason he couldn’t spit out his words. Along came that so-so Heidi in the red fleece, that’s how I recognised her. She leaned over Tępy and started mothering him, saying: “What’s up, Tępy, can’t you tell me?” I immediately put in a word, telling her there was no need to worry. “He just got drunk too fast and it’s caught up with him, he feels like throwing up. I’ll help him.” I did him a good turn and didn’t let her meddle in the business with the mushrooms. Why spoil the party for others?

From the second novel "Bombel" (translation Antonia Lloyd Jones):

Pietrek’ll be here any moment and I’ll have to start talking faster to enjoy it to the full. ‘Cos I feel like saying some more, my voice sounds nice in here, bouncing off the walls of the bus stop without flying away, just drumming against the wood—it’s dry and muffled, more serious than when I speak normally. Now it’s deep, with twice the depth, like a priest saying mass, it’s inverted, vast, majestic, and partly incomprehensible. ‘Cos some-times what I say escapes me. I spout away and I’m amazed. But I’ve already said that. This voice criss-crosses itself and dissolves like the light. I noticed it ages ago. In chinks in the walls, when the sun’s shining or when a single ray falls through a knothole in the shed and reveals all the dust hanging in the air, all the tiny particles of wood, because that dust is made of wood and is tinier than anything, as tiny as air. And thanks to the knothole, thanks to the chinks I know light dissolves in straight lines. Just like my voice is doing now. Only when I get drunk it all goes bent, it doesn’t break off, well, maybe sometimes it does, but usually it bends like rubber or lino.
What’s up? Pietrek should be here by now, and I guess I’m sweating and feeling sick at the thought he might not come, ‘cos come to think about it, where exactly did I get the idea he was going to come so early? I’ve persuaded myself to go on sitting here, freezing and hoping. ‘Cos why should he come? I’ve got it all in a muddle.

It’d be best if he came before eight, before the bus comes. And then, if we’re lucky, maybe some guardian angel of mine might just be thinking, “Poor old Bombel, he’s had an awful life, his mother didn’t love him, his father used to beat him, and his wife turned out to be a whore—his whole life’s been bad luck, so I’ll do something good for him, ‘cos actually I’ve never really been bothered about him, just this one time I’ll make sure he has a good driver, who out of Christian goodness will turn a blind eye to his lack of a ticket”. And everything’ll be absolutely fine. We get into the bus, me and Pietrek, modest, but proud, good morning, good morning, what a nice day it is, yes, it is, just a bit too cloudy, then we sit down, with two nicely turned-out women in front of us; I tell them they’ve got a nice, choice bouquet of shampoo and deodorant, to which they say thank you and ask if they can sit on my knees because I’m so polite. The driver turns on some soft music, everyone’s smiling, it’s wonderful and no one’s bothered that we haven’t got tickets. It could be like that.

Worse if the bastard feels as if something depends on him, then he’ll remember he’s got a big fat wife with massive buttocks waiting for him at home—each of those enormous cheeks is like a whole separate arse—all hope of any sort of subtle sexual nuance is off the agenda from the very start, all because of that fat, which is a better defence than an iron chastity belt. And maybe it’d be all right if he couldn’t see women sent straight from heaven at every step, ‘cos these days they’re everywhere: on posters, in the papers, on telly and in calendars. And then the poor old driver thinks he’s got the biggest fatty in the world, he’s the worst off of anyone, he’s got to deal with the devil, and when he remembers all that, that great sonofabitch of a bus driver, that lord and master, that lord over life and death, that moustachioed image of destiny, then he’ll ask: “So where’s your ticket? Got a season ticket? sell you one?”, and the joker can see he’s not dealing with millionaires.

But if everything went according to my plan, we could go down to the border and buy some cheap alcohol, cheap vodka, ‘cos Pietrek’s supposed to be bringing a bit of cash, and if not vodka, maybe wine, ‘cos it’s cheaper, better and there’s more of it.

We can cross the state border now, it’s all sorted now, it’s allowed by law, we’ve got passports and everything. It’s a year since zero hour went by, fucking hell, there was so much happening then, the very thought of it makes me want to part-laugh, part-cry, in both cases with a touch of fear thrown in. Something immediately tempts me to tell myself about it, hear it all from the beginning, via the middle, right through to the end. But it was already a long time ago, a year is a long time ago, half a year isn’t, but a whole twelve months, with so many seasons in between, that’s so much time I’m amazed you can remember something for such an age. But if the days are all alike, if in all that time only the outside look of things changes, the temperature and all the other variables, it’s hard to remember anything, ‘cos it all merges together. If you spend a day drinking, then a second, a third and all the days after that too, after a while you remember the whole lot like one single day.

But I’ll always remember that outing with Pietrek, whether it was a whole lot of days or not, merging together or not. To this day whenever I see anyone darker, with browner skin quite literally speaking, I get the creeps and start looking round in case there are more of them, in case there’s one of Hitler’s secret weapons hidden in the bushes, some artillery back-up, five Gypsy ragamuffins with knives, sticks and fuck knows what other home-made weaponry. ‘Cos you never know what’s going on with darkies. My mother was wise to scare me with the Gypsies when I was still in nappies, ‘cos to this day I’ve been le with a sort of caution, a sort of instinct that tells me to watch out for darkies, so if one appears in the corner of my eye at once a red light goes on in my head to give the full alert, bells ring and I’m on my guard. Sometimes they come to the village to sell a carpet which, fuck it all, I’d bet my right hand or a bottle of wine they knocked off in some other village far away from us so word wouldn’t get round. But it gets round any-way, ‘cos they’re darkies, Gypsies, someone called them that, didn’t they? Except they’ve got hot chicks—if I had one of those Gypsy birds with the coal-black hair I’d use her properly, the way nature intended; she wouldn’t have to do a thing for me in the kitchen, I’d even do the cooking, washing and cleaning myself. I’d tie her to the bed, but not by the hands, ‘cos they’d come in very useful. But getting back to what I was talking about, they come along with that carpet, to our village, they say they’re looking for a buyer, they say this and that, it’s nice and cheap, it’s a real bargain, lady, so you think about it; on top of the carpet they’ll chuck in a ring made of stainless gold for free, so you think some more, and finally you say no, and you mean no, end of story, you don’t have to explain yourself to the Gypsies, do you? So they say they’re going now, but they’re lingering, saying lady, lady, why not buy the carpet—the opportunity won’t repeat itself… fucking right, you can be sure it won’t, ‘cos the owners won’t let their carpet get nicked a second time. So finally they leave; the house was full of people, children, the husband, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, grandchildren, the neighbour over for coffee, and then it turns out the gold chains have gone, the ones the kids got for their first holy communion and first confession in one—just as holy or even more so, ‘cos without the one you couldn’t have the other—those chains were hidden in the sideboard. Sometimes the TV’s gone—the moment no one was watching it they took it away, or it’s a man’s leather jacket that’s gone, or other valuable crap like that.

Τηεψ ωερε ηερε βεφορε τηε ωαρ τοο, σομε οφ τηεμ φορ γοοδ, Ι δον τ κνοω φορ συρε χοσ Ι δον τ ρεμεμβερ, Ι ωασ τοο ψουνγ. Ι σαιδ εαρλιερ ηοω ολδ Ι αμ, ωηιχη σηοωσ Ι χουλδν τ ηαϖε σεεν ιτ μψσελφ ανδ δον τ κνοω ωηατ ιτ ωασ αλλ λικε βεφορε τηε ωαρ. Σομεονε τολδ με αβουτ τηεμ—maybe the Captain was bemoaning their fate when he was drunk, ‘cos even though they’re darkies, even if I hate them and I’d immediately kick out any of them who came into my yard without a by your leave, the main thing is not to exaggerate. What’s happened to them is nothing but weeping and wailing.

Sometimes when I’m drunk I feel pity for the lot of them welling up inside me, tears squirt from my eyes unasked for, then all you can do is huddle up to a mate and cry on his shoulder, with all the darkies before your eyes, all the people who used to be alive but aren’t any more.

The Villa Decius Writer's Guesthouse Rogue Gallery

But before we start, let me introduce you to the players.

Writers, always secretly aware that they really have no social standing whatsoever and forever striving to improve on that condition, are constantly competing among each other to be cool.

It's in the way we dress (or refuse to dress well). It's in the way we talk about art. It's in the way we seek out the perfect description for a leaf and hope it will be recognized as much better than someone else's description of a leaf. It's in the way I try to tear down sacred cows and provoke a fight by claiming that everything about art is crap. (It's not true of course – as Sturgeon said, only 90% of everything is crap. Nor did it work. My game is an old game and no one took it seriously, alas.)

It's a competition that is never spoken, never acknowledged and is often subconscious, but deep inside we are always competing to be Coolest Writer. So now that the competition is over, here are the winners.

One more thing: Over nearly three months I learned to respect and love all these people, though I hardly know most of them and will see few of them ever again. In some way I consider all of them friends. The Villa Decius experience was only partly about Krakow. Mainly, it was about them.

Most Mystical: Ambrosi Griszikaszwili

Ambrosi won the prize hands-down for Best-Dressed Man, which automatically puts him in close competition for Coolest Writer. But he is disqualified by the fact that he has already won the prize for Most Mystical Personality.
Ambrosi looked good in a three-piece; he had taste in color combination, a woman would not fear to venture into the opera on the arm of this man. In fact, he was always going off the opera or something like that. He looks not only cultivated, he looks like he has a job. Hell, he does have a job. He is an economist, works in the public relations department of the National Bank of Georgia (next door to Russia, not in the Southern US) and is a regular contributor of learned articles on the economy to various Georgian publications. So what is he doing in a literary charity house with a bunch of loser-poets?
Ambrosi's true love appears to be literature and he indulges his love by translating literature from the Polish into Georgian. Translation is a money-losing proposal in most countries, and it is that even more so in Georgia with its population under 5 million people. But Ambrosi has found a way to do it and finance the venture as well: He translates books (in this case, a book by a great Polish journalist) at his own expense, then he pays for the printing as well, bypassing a publisher altogether.
Then he takes the copies to the Polish ambassador or other Polish institution and hawks his books to them, who buy the books in order to redistribute them to their contacts in Georgia – for them, it is a way of spreading Polish culture. Does he actually make any money this way, or does he simply cover his costs? I have asked him that several times, but I don’t think I got a straight answer. But he is an economist, he must know what he's doing. Maybe all writers should start out as economists.
One day he cooked for us. That is, he imported his ex-wife and son, and she cooked for us, a Georgian dish they called "cold meal." It consisted of cold chicken in a cold sauce of nuts and something else. Whatever else it was, it was fabulous. She gets the Prize for Best Meal Cooked in the Villa Guesthouse.
Ambrosi speaks limited English and my Georgian is also limited, and that difficulty of communication did a lot to form his personality as perceived by those of us who did not speak Georgian. Whereas lack of language would make another man seem simple, it lent him an aura of transcendency. With or without language, Ambrosi was forever calm, satisfied and grounded, but he employed his English to make himself seem wise. Though he was often a good sport enough to join us at the table and try to communicate in English, just as often he .limited his language to a knowing "Ye-e-s." There was something about that "Ye-e-s" that radiated calm, even wisdom.
For a long time I thought he was using that "Ye-e-es" in the sense of "Yes," but after a while we learned that there was more to it than that. Andi picked up on it first. We passed Ambrosi as he was leaving the Villa on a bike and asked, "Where are you going?" He answered: "Ye-e-s." Andi asked me, "Did he not understand the question, or did he understand it better than we?" Yes, there is a there. There is only one there. No need to say where it is, it is the only there where worth going to. The question is only whether we are going. And yes, Ambrosi was going there. He was perhaps the only one of us who knew that the there was there.

Most Enigmatic: Larysa Andriejewska

Tall and shy, Larysa wins the prize for Biggest Enigma. She levitated through the house like a ghost. She would appear in the kitchen late at night, nod and say "hello," one of the few English words she knew, and make tea, and then you would turn around and she was gone again. Leaving lots of speculation behind. Was she shy or did she just hates us all? I asked her to dance with me once – it happens once in a while when I am in a very good mood – but she declined, citing a cold.
She tended to have breakfast around 2pm and dinner after midnight. One morning around 5am I came down to the kitchen to get coffee so I could wake up and found Larysa and Tanja, both being Ukrainian, wrapped up in conversation. But Tania refused later to tell us what it was about. On another occasion, she poured some kind of vodka into a pan and lit it on fire and served us all a warm, spicey drink. After she won the Nobel Prize wager (see below), she cooked us a heaping, steaming platter of Turkish rice-and-chicken-dish and thereafter would dare to come among us on some occasions and sit and drink or smoke and nod at certain points in the conversation. It was then we began to notice a beautiful smile.
Larysa, it turns out, is a translator. I could not figure out what she translates, other than from the Polish into the Ukrainian, but I did learn that her husband is a famous Ukrainian poet and her daughter has already translated Stephen King short stories into Ukrainian. Somehow, both facts made her very cool. Here is a poem by her famous husband:

by Ihor Rymaruk

Keep talking, keep talking.
You’ve managed to utter just one word —
while hundreds of words keep disappearing,
keep getting lost forever, with no return,
the eyes needlessly
leap over the cemetery gate.
Keep talking.
Why do you keep silent?
Perhaps for years you’ve shuddered
at every knock on the door?
Or, perhaps, like a movie camera,
glory closes in on you now —
for that one word?
And so — to ennoble the film,
you’re scrubbing away everything else from your memory,
like blood from the floor.
Is this not why your spirit
is so silent and stubborn?
Just like the wax figure of Karmeluk*
standing in a refurbished museum tower —
holding a sign: “Do not touch.”

*(Ustym Karmeluk (1787–1835) was a Ukrainian rebel leader who fought against social and national injustice. A wax figure of him is at the Kamianets-Podilsk fortress.)
Unbeknownst to us, she was secretly famous in her own right. One day, Katja came back from an expedition into town and announced that she had seen Larysa outside the university surrounded by eager students. Apparently she had given a lecture there on translating, but when confronted directly about it, she admitted nothing, but instead only nodded and smiled and retreated into her room. Leaving us to speculate in an almost jealous, admiring way.

Most Heartfelt Patriot: Andrej Chadanowicz

Andrej gets the prize for Most Heartfelt Patriot

More than anything, Andrei the Patriotic Belarussian (whenever anyone said "White Russia," which is the literal translation, he immediately corrected them: "I am from Belarus") is a physical poet. It's the way he lifts his arms straight out from his shoulders, like a champion flexing his muscles or a bear about to embrace or squeeze you.

Here's a German translation of one of his poems (courtesy of, which has more of his poems and spells his name Khadanovich.)

Brief an die Freiheit

Wir sind noch eine ungeborene Nation,
wir sind Häftlinge versteinerter Eizellen,
wir sind wirr denkende Vegetation;
mancher schon ein Spitzbube, mancher noch ein Bub,

mancher schreibt und führt die jungen Männer
mit althergebrachten Phrasen in die Irre:
Kämpfer, Fleißiger, Held, Draufgänger
Titan oder Titanik der lokalen Renaissance.

Verdrossen zählen wir den Lauf der Jahre,
Jahre im Gefängnis schleichend, lang wie Schlangen!
Wo ist sie denn, die vollbusige Dame,
mit der wir auf die Barrikaden gelangen?

Was wir besitzen, würden wir ihr zu Füßen schleudern!
Und die Wächter hören unser Flehen,
wenn wir nachts in unseren bunten Träumen
diese Beauté mal unbekleidet sehen.

Wir fällen Bäume, behauen Stein,
Wir graben Gruben, konzipieren Kanäle,
erwarten Besuch, ertragen die Pein,
zählen die Tage, vergöttern unser unübertrefflichs Sein.

Denn wir glauben, der uns umgebende Dreck
wird noch zu wunderbarem Mist in unsrem Heim.
Durch das vergitterte Fenster mit Schreck
härten wir den Atem für das Atmen in der Freiheit.
At his readings, he plays guitar: Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, the Eagles' "Hotel California" and a few others, all translated into Belarussian. He sings in a sensuous voice that has a firm yet gentle grasp of the melody, and when he gets to the chorus of Hotel California, he doesn't sing "Welcome to Hotel California" but something like,

"My heart belongs to Belarussia,
My heart is still there,
I love my native land
Like I love you."

In that moment his voice in full of longing, and you understand how close patriotism comes to love.

Hippest Pa: Serhij Zhadan

Serhij changed radically in the last moments of his stay in the villa guesthouse.

Rumors were attached to him when he came. He was a big bestselling writer in the Ukraine. A hipster, an author of cool and dangerous novels and poetry, and a rock 'n' roll singer too. He gave a reading in the Ukraine before I arrived, but the others traveled hundreds of miles to attend it and reported to me later that he was surrounded by admiring female fans. I witnessed him in action in Krakow: He shot the words off the page as if he were a verbal machine gun, chopping the air with his hand as he did it (see below).

He was stand-offish. I learned nothing about him from himself. But one night I was talking to his fellow Ukrainian Tanja told her, as a joke, that Serjih had spoken to me about her, and said that he thought she wasn't a very good writer. Poor Tanja. Always joking, never taking anything seriously – when I said that, her face dropped, she nearly choked. It was the worst thing she had ever heard and I had trouble convincing her it was just a joke. That told me something about Serhij. But he made one false move. A few days before leaving, he showed up one morning with a young blond boy in tow: Ivan, his son. Suddenly the cool chain-smoking, cutting-edge hipster was a tender, responsible father. We watched in awe as they cooked hot dogs together. And this just in (Jan '08): His book "Anarchy in the UKR" has just been translated into German and published at Suhrkamp. Spiegel Online gave it a good review and called Zhadan a "post-proletariat punk" (here) and it's available on

Best Poet's Poet: Nicolai Kobus

Kobus is a poet's poet. He dresses like one – pony tail, jackets and often in black - he talks like one, he thinks like one. He's not about turning his personal experiences into poetry, he is about poetry itself, in the sense of "There's a hell of a of poems out there and I want to read them all and nothing else." I have never met anyone who knows so much about German poems and poets. That is the world he lives in and that is the world he writes about.

I think I feared him most. He seemed most closely attached to the German high culture establishment and it was clear that we would rub. How was I to know a poet's poet could love pop culture? And have a sense of humor? And be good to hang out with? And be vodka-proof? I ended up really liking the guy, and that's when I took a second look at his poetry.

I liked his cycle of poems best called the "Calendar of Sighs," in which he writes a love poem to "Anna" for every month of the year. The first time I heard them, they seemed incredibly sexy. When I took a closer look that them, I realized that there is hardly any actual sex in them at all. It's just the language. Kobus may be describing water, rain, drainage, but his lines still exude sex. Here's one of them:

ach anna


ach anna im januar bin ich ein könig. ein könig im regen mit tropfnassem haar. Es braucht so wenig bewegung ein könig zu sein. eigentlich reichte es ohne regung als ein stein die wolkenbrüche durchzustehn und um sich die pegel steigen zu sehn.

mittlerweile anna weiß ich es ist gleich ob ich gehe oder renne im regen – ich werde in jedem fall weich und nass. ach anna ich sag dir was: im januar bin ich der könig der siebenundzwanzig stürzbäche. könig der reißenden rinnsteinströme. könig gefluteter abwassersiele. Mein reich liegt jenseits gebrochener deiche. überspülte felder bis zum horizont.

am morgen anna bin ich das nordmeer. Ich bin eine wasserpfütze. des abends trockne ich aus von den rändern her.

But most of his poetry I heard or read while I was in the Villa guesthouse is poetry-referential. He takes an unfinished poem by Gottfried Benn and finishes it. He takes Rilke's "The Panther," renames it "The Poet" and has the chutzpa to correct Rilke, making the point that animals don't really dislike their cages. I like that. Here’s an anagram he wrote based on a Trakl poem (the original first, the anagram second):

Rondel (Georg Trakl)

Verflossen ist das Gold der Tage,
Des Abends braun und blaue Farben:
Des Hirten sanfte Flöten starben
Des Abends blau und braune Farben
Verflossen ist das Gold der Tage.

lodern (Kobus)

dass inselvers oft: rage geld tod
daneben bussard und fernab blaue
feen sehn trist da raben totenfels
und faerben laub absurden abends
gold der tage: verfassend solist

After he had written this in Krakow, Kobus realized that Trakl had died here, of a cocaine overdose.

Here's one based on a poem by Gottfried Been entitled (something like) "Come, let us gather together, he who speaks not is dead." Kobus turned it into "He who fucks not is dead":

oder was dichter wirklich zu sagen haben

komm, vögeln wir zusammen
wer vögelt ist nicht tot
es zittern doch die strammen
schenkel sehr vor lauter not.

komm, treiben wir’s im freien
komm, das ende droht
wir sabbern, stöhnen, schreien
wer vögelt ist nicht tot.

allein lässt sich die wüste
lust doch nicht verdaun –
du, streichle deine brüste
laß uns das bett versaun!

und schon so nah den lippen
sie sind so prall und rot –
komm, fang jetzt an zu strippen
wer vögelt ist nicht tot.

If I were a publisher, I would hire him to write a lexicon of German poetry – from Goethe to graffiti - in the form of revisions, corrections, anagrams, parodies, inspirations etc. Poems about the history of poetry. I would buy it.

His prize: Best Poet's Poet.

Most Interesting Way of Looking At Life: Katja Thomas

Katja is a tall, lanky girl in her mid-twenties whose charm is one part her affinity for birds, one part her sense of humor and a third part the fact that she has never grown up and probably does not have the least intention of ever doing so. She has a way of fumbling about with her long fingers in front of your face when she talks, and often she'll let off a barely audible, breathy laugh at some little thing she's seen.

One day she told us a story of how she washed her outside windows from the inside: She thrust her arms into the air, pulling the window down, stooped, twisted, got her arms up on the outside of the window, all the time dancing back and forth like … well, like Big Bird in a matting ritual. It was a joy to behold.

She likes little things. She once told a story of how she left a single potato on her plate and began to feel sorry for it, as if it felt lonely. While the others fought about Marxism, the only references to news articles she ever mentioned was about a swan in some lake somewhere that had fallen in love with a peddle boat shaped like a swan, and followed it around the lake all day in total devotion.

Her mother sometimes tells her to write something funny. I have to say, I tend to agree: Katja has a quiet sense of humor that does comes across in her work, but I’ll bet there's more. I suggested to her a compendium of stories about unlikely animal love stories and I think she's even considering it. Just you wait: If she does it, it won’t be what you expect.

As a student at the Leipzig Literary Institute, Katja writes "texts" of the kind that are popular in our disoriented society. They are called texts because they are not short stories or articles or poems or anything else that you can put your thumb on, yet, because they are written with a certain expertise, are still literature. In other words, bits and pieces. Descriptions of this and that. Thoughts on this and that. But she is so devoted to finding or creating a new perspective on something other people haven't noticed, her texts slowly suck you in until you are seeing the world not full-on, but from around some corner you didn't think existed. Katja knows it exists.
Here's one of her short texts:


„Ich habe gerade 38 SMS von dir bekommen. Sollte das so sein?“ Ich hatte dir keine 38 SMS geschickt und kannte dich nicht. Als wir uns dann das erste Mal trafen, sagtest du: „Ach das macht nichts, jeder hat mal so einen Pickel. Man kriegt sie immer dann, wenn man sie nicht will.“ Wann will man Pickel? Du küsstest knapp daneben.
„Wie oft muss man Gladiolen gießen?“, frag ich dich, du hast sie mitgebracht. „Ins Wasser stellen, nicht gießen“, antwortest du. Gestern habe ich verweste Rosenblätter von der Tischplatte gekratzt und es wurde Zeit, dass neue Blumen kommen. Ich habe nur eine Vase mit Vögeln, die farblich nicht zu den Gladiolen passen. Ich niese gegen die Vase. Du sagst, ich erkälte mich, weil ich draußen in der Kälte immer den Mund aufmache. Ich dürfe kalte Luft nur durch die Nase einatmen. Du willst dich nicht anstecken.
Ich sage, gut, dann also keinen Kuss jetzt, das passt mir gut.
Du sagst, immer dreh ich dir die Worte im Mund rum.
Ich sage, da komm ich gar nicht ran. Ich glaube eher, sie verrutschen dort von ganz allein.
Du meinst, eher verrutschten sie in meinem Ohr.
Ich höre immer ganz andere Sachen, als du sie sagst. Ich liebe dich nicht an den richtigen Stellen, ich weiß.
Ach, ich geh ins Bad. Dort sitze ich auf der Toilette und merke dann so richtig, dass du nicht mit im Bad bist. Nur deine Zahnbürste. Und dein Shampoo für feines Haar.
Ich sitze auf der Klobrille, bis ich einen roten Druckring auf den Beinen habe.
Ich finde, so feines Haar hast du gar nicht.
Es ist elektrisch aufgeladen, aber nicht fein. Aber das macht nichts.

I wish I had more, but that's all she gave me.

Her Prize: Most Interesting Way of Looking At Life

Interlude: The Loading Bar

Toward the end of our stay, I asked Katja how much progress she was making in her project of finding herself. She said she couldn't attach a value to it. Germans are always avoiding questions by saying "I don’t want to generalize," or, "You can't express it in numbers."

I said, "Yes you can: If the project of finding yourself were a loading bar on a computer, at what percent would it be right now?"

She refused to answer that question for several days, but shortly before we had to leave, she gave me an answer: 80% I was surprised. I would think that of all of us, she would be least "loaded."

"But there's another loading bar going at the same time," she said. "Deloading. That's at about 50%."
I asked Kobus if the project of finding himself were a loading bar on a computer, where would it be now? He said: "At about 75%. But frozen there."
My Loading Bar:

If I had a "becoming myself" loading bar, I think it would be closer to 51%, 52%. Maybe that's not true. I am very set in my ways, I have strong opinions about who I should be and I am well into the second half of my life. Probably it should be about 80% or more. But I can’t bring myself to do that. I want it to go on and on. It feels like I have only recently earned the right to find myself ion the first place, or gotten on the right track. I want it to go much further than just another 20%, and I don't really care where.

Best New Writing Hope: Tanja Malarchuk

"I don't even want to be a writer," said Tanja, who has published two books of novellas and has a contract for a fourth. "I think I will never write anything again. I hate writing."

Ironically, though we hardly spoke, and though I could never understand what she wrote, I had the feeling that Tanja was one of the most interesting writers there. She never took anything too seriously, which I thought was a good prerequirement for writing. She was always laughing. When I asked her what she regretted about her stay in Krakau, she said she should have not bothered to write a word and simply used the opportunity to travel all around the place and see everything she could. She didn’t want to leave.
She wrote about her family, which grounded her writing in the real. And then there was her tendency for big myth. She told me tales of the forests and countrysides in the Ukraine, where she is from: the molfars, the mavkas, the legendary robber Ivon Soly whose ghost still roams the highways, the ghosts of dead women that haunt the forests and are beautiful, but have holes through their backs, and when they seduce young men, they eat them. She loves that stuff, and she loved watching old Hollywood movies on DVD in her room. We discussed the proper way of doing the Robert De Niro-in-front-of-the-mirror scene in Taxi Driver. I thought: That's a real writer.
So I told her: "You're a writer, Tanja, I can feel it."

She said: "You only think that because I talk like one when I'm speaking English. But when you speak a foreign language you are a different person."

I told her: "You have to get out of Kiev." She gets the prize for Best New Writing Hope.