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Hlasko: a 'man built of lies' who told a savage truth

Forty years ago while living in London I was exposed daily, as editor and reviewer, to a stream of literature in translation: Boris Vian novels; story collections such as Enrique Anderson Imbert's "The Other Side of the Mirror"; the short-shorts and plays of Slawomir Mrozek; a series of excellent anthologies then being put out by Penguin, "French Writing Today" and so on, along with Penguin's Modern European Poets collections. In the last I came across the volume dedicated to Zbigniew Herbert's work and, following it back to "Polish Writing Today," recognized elements in contemporary Polish literature, a certain strangeness, a jaggedness or dislocation, that was very much to my taste. I've spoken before of such discoveries as specific hunger: the tacit recognition of something, some essential nutrient, the individual needs.

Soon I was reading Tadeusz Rozewicz ("I am twenty-four/led to slaughter/I survived"); learning about Aleksander Wat, to whom much later I would dedicate one of my own poems; picking up on the early work of Jerzy Kosinski; poring over Czeslaw Milosz; sinking with great sighs and eurekas into the ever-amazing, encyclopedic work of Stanislaw Lem.

And, as any wanderer about the roads of modern Polish writing will, soon I came upon Marek Hlasko.

Look for Hlasko on the Internet and you won't find much. It's mostly anti-Soviet work, "The Eighth Day of the Week" in particular, that has found a home, or more accurately a small rented room, here in the States.

Marek Hlasko burst on the scene in 1954 at age 20 and, by way of a stream of miraculous short stories and his work as reviewer of both books and film, soon came to dominate Polish literary life. He was a superstar, an idol, an image. Not only does he look like the newly created film star James Dean in the most prevalent photo we have of him, but he also, like Dean's character, was a born rebel. Forced to work at menial labor from early childhood, lacking formal education, he knew intimately that shadowy, violent world close to society's ground. "The road that led me to literature," he noted, "was very different from the one followed by my fellow writers in Poland. . . . I came to it from below. And when I began to write, I'd already seen so much that it was absolutely impossible for me to believe in official truth."

Of all Europe's war-torn countries, Poland had it perhaps the worst, surviving Hitler's war only to be set upon by Stalin's brigades. "My generation time and again had to face the possibility of their lives being threatened," novelist Tadeusz Konwicki states. "Traditional narrative structure could not express the psychological insight of the situations we found ourselves in."

Born to that aftermath, Hlasko possessed as well, at least initially, a hard strain of postwar hopefulness. Bleak and sere as might be the lives of his characters, all of them outsiders, the disavowed, the deracinated, those lives were invested also with rebelliousness, with a struggle for authentic feeling and for love that would not be put down.

In 1958 Hlasko received a visa to visit the West. Polish censors having refused publication to his latest novels, "The Graveyard" and "Next Stop -- Paradise," he had passed them on to the Polish migr journal Kultura. Now under fire from the Polish press, he decided to remain in the West. He never returned to Poland.

For years he wandered, from France to Italy and Switzerland, then back to West Germany. For a time he was married to Sonja Ziemann, who had starred in the film made from "The Eighth Day of the Week," and lived with her in West Germany. When they separated, in 1966, he spent three years in the States, working illegally as he had years before in Israel. (A novel based upon his experiences in America was published posthumously; like so much else, including his autobiography, it remains untranslated.) In 1969 Hlasko made plans to move back to Israel but died on the way, in Wiesbaden, West Germany, of an overdose of sleeping pills. He was 35.

It's from his time in Israel, working illegally as a truck driver and manual laborer, that Hlasko's finest novels date, four short novels unparalleled in their savagery and power. Two, "Killing the Second Dog" and "All Backs Were Turned," appeared from Cane Hill Press in 1990 and 1991 in marvelous translations by Tomasz Mirkowicz. Both are, I believe, well out of print; Mirkowicz proved unable to find sponsoring publishers for "Dirty Deeds" and "The Rice Burners."

In his introduction to "All Backs Were Turned," Thompson Bradley writes of the changes that had come with the novels set in Israel: "Now, the stories are peopled with small-time grifters, losers, and drifters with no past and less of a future. . . . The main characters are more outcasts than outsiders. Wholly displaced, they live at the edges of society, without working papers or legal standing. . . . Their pasts are masked or suppressed nightmares to be escaped."

I will say this: "Killing the Second Dog" is among my favorite novels of all time, right up there with "Miss Lonelyhearts," "The Stranger," "Ulysses," and a handful of others. However often I read it, its tale of two scam artists skimming like waterbugs across the surface of Israeli society and living off older women never fails to surprise -- or to break my heart.

"My future? That's a word I won't be needing anymore," says the first-person narrator, who in partnership with a failed stage director makes his living romancing older ladies and almost dying. In the face of those women beyond love or despair he finds only "a kind of miserable wisdom that prevents them from doing reckless things . . . you can screen yourself from sadness and anger with the image of a face like that. I could use her face the way a child brings up his hand to shut out the view of something he's afraid of."

While urging you to find and read "Killing the Second Dog," or, for that matter, any book by Marek Hlasko, I will yield to Hlasko's countryman, fellow writer, and friend Leopold Tyrmand, the final word: "Even in his lies -- and he was a man built of lies, some of them scurrilous, some of them charming -- he conveyed always a truth. A truth we need."

James Sallis's collection of recent stories, "A City Equal to My Desire," is just out from Point Blank Press. 

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