March 2014

Ben Ashwell


The Graveyard by Marek Hlasko

You wake up to a pounding headache. Your mouth is dry and your tongue swollen. You remember what you did the night before with a shudder and wish you could undo it. After a while, the self-loathing wears off. You rebuild bridges and forget about the whole affair. But for Franciszek Kowalski, The Graveyard's protagonist, his actions on one bad night will follow him for the rest of his life.

Kowalski inhabits a dystopian world, ruled by a totalitarian government and fed by the paranoia of its residents. For readers who didn't live through the Cold War or experience what it was like to live in the Eastern bloc it is hard to believe that The Graveyard isn't a nightmarish view of the future -- akin to the likes of 1984, The Trial, and Brave New World -- but is instead an angry takedown of life in Poland less than fifty years ago.

Originally written in 1958, and republished last year by Melville House, The Graveyard is a slim novel. We are introduced to Franciszek Kowalski as an upstanding member of society -- a former underground fighter who stood up against the Nazis. His wartime exploits ensure that he is respected at work and well received by the local party members. On his way home from a party meeting he runs into an old comrade from the resistance. Despite drinking rarely and only ever in moderation ("He was one of the lucky few who upon waking in the morning never have to be ashamed of the night before"), he accompanies his old friend to a nearby bar. The conversation flows, along with the vodka. When Franciszek finally leaves the bar he is surprised to discover it is dawn, which he brushes off with a smirk, reflecting on a joyful night and, no doubt, the camaraderie of his youth.

As easily as the vodka had been consumed, Franciszek finds himself in a conversation with two policemen. He is red-eyed from alcohol and exhaustion and has no patience for the zealous young men in front of him. His disdain quickly turns to anger, leading to an outburst that he will spend the rest of his life wishing he could undo.

The Graveyard is the story of one man slipping through the cracks of society into the underground, only to discover that the society he fought for and has revered for his whole peacetime life is a flimsy illusion. While the story is grounded in historical events, the characters have a surreal edge to them -- they are caricatures of real people, designed to display the myriad ways in which the Communist government was failing the very people it promised to protect.

Through these characters Hlasko casts a wide net to show the far-reaching results of living in constant fear. From the artist whose creativity is reduced to uncomplicated mass-production to the co-workers always trying to frame their colleagues in illegal behavior, each character personifies the realities of living in a country where freedom of expression is a mirage.

Hlasko writes: "History has no use for witnesses. The next generation will rush headlong into whatever is expected of it. It will regard each of the crimes now being committed as sacred, as necessary... We've done our part, and now we must try to survive, just survive as long as possible."

Hlasko presents the "next generation" as a group of people beaten down and terrified into inertia. They do not know what it means to treat each other well, and their only loyalty is to the party they fear. The one character brave enough to show some compassion is Franciszek's daughter, even though, as the only female character in the novel, she is arguably in the worst position. Socially suppressed, related to a traitor -- it is only a matter of time until she, too, is broken.

Hlasko was a foster child, put up for adoption by the Motherland. Having risen to prominence as a young literary sensation, it wasn't long before his writing prompted a national smear campaign against him. He spent the rest of his life nomadically bounding around Europe and America, gaining a reputation as the Eastern European James Dean for his good looks, heavy drinking and debaucheries.

While The Graveyard is comparable to the esteemed novels of Orwell, Kafka and Huxley, it is much more personal: Hlasko doesn't direct his anger toward the cause of the issues, choosing instead to focus on the effects of living under Communist rule. Indeed, the few characters that understand the misery of their existence have no desire to try to force change. They are weary and their cynicism is a blunt object set against the arsenal of the government. This is not a revolutionary novel; it is the story of a candle slowly burning out.

With freedom of expression still withheld in many countries around the world, The Graveyard is as relevant now as it was when an angry young Polish man sat down to write it.

The Graveyard by Marek Hlasko
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612192949
160 pages