powrót06.10.09 //

Hope and Waiting

Iga Gańczarczyk speaks with Andrzej Bart

In The Fly-trap Factory the mysterious guest makes the following proposition to the writer: ‘I shall tell you at once that, for the sizeable sum I have on me, you can return to your beloved city from which you fled.’ Why would one flee his beloved city?

This is an imagined flight, a return to Wrocław, the place I was born. My parents stopped there after the war. They didn’t hold out long, they were longing for Łódź, but their stories of Wrocław were so interesting that I wanted to find myself in them, if only in my imagination.

Your guest also points out one other fact: ‘You think we don’t notice how sensitively you chose your moments, allowing Łódź to come out well in your books?’

It was the only gift I could give the city that holds the graves of those dear to me, and in whose contemporary life I participate. That’s why, although the protagonists of Wanderlust choose Łódź over Lithuania, they cry as they’re leaving.

You first decided on a literary approach to contemporary Łódź in The Fly-trap Factory.

I’m not a great authority on street life, which is why I don’t write about that. Bringing Dora out into the daylight forced me to walk around today’s Łódź. I think I made a decent showing as a local patriot, because there were many things I did not allow her to notice.

Didn’t you make a series of documentary films about Łódź entitled The Bad City?. Those were portraits of people affiliated with Łódź, but also tales of places peculiar to Łódź, like the Cafe Mocca, a famous post-war cafe. What fascinated you in those stories?

The Bad City is a book by Zygmunt Bartkiewicz from the beginning of the 20th century. That’s where Łódź’s nickname came from. The question mark I inserted in the film’s title was meant to call this into doubt. I chose protagonists who were alive here before the war, such as Marian Brandys, Andrzej Braun, Marek Rudnicki and Helena Szwarc, but also those who scarcely touched the city, like Ewa Rubinstein and Andrzej Czeczot. Cafe Mocca presents a post-war episode, when Łódź practically became the capital of Poland after Warsaw’s destruction. Stefania Grodzieńska, Erwin Axer and Edward Dziewoński spoke about this. The film The Palace, on the other hand, presented the fate of a man whose home became the Film School after the war. Unfortunately, all my interlocutors spoke beautifully about their non-existent Łódź, but when I asked if they’d like to return to our midst they stared at me like I was a madman.

Łódź was a phenomenon and because of its incredibly dynamic development it was even called the Polish Manchester, or the only American city in Poland. You said at one point that Łódź never evolved into a truly urban creature. What stopped it from becoming one?

A few hundred thousand new residents from villages and small towns joined of Łódź’s half-surviving population after the war. This wouldn’t have been a bad thing, because this is how a city develops, after all, but the newcomers found themselves in a schizophrenic situation. On the one hand, they found hard work – let’s bear in mind that in the People’s Poland women worked three shifts – and on the other, they had missed out on their urban apprenticeships. It’s as though the apartments on Avenue Montaigne in Paris were divided between Auvergnat peasants and assured that they were a kind of credit for Paris. Wealthy Łódź buildings became a phalanstery. Before their residents moved out to the block apartments, you could see plywood partitions and drying laundry through the windows of splendid salons. A city without its own hierarchy is not entirely an urban situation. On another scale, this recalls the fates of those people who came to settle in the western lands. Over there the propaganda spoke of reclaiming the enemy cities, while in the center of Poland it was hard to reclaim much of anything. In the west there was a long-abiding fear that the Germans would return, and in Łódź there was joy in a city that provided work and a home. Moreover, there were orders from the top to create a film industry in Łódź, and so famous actors started walking the streets, as if summoned up by a magic wand. This kind of blend of experiences could only make an extraordinary urban creature. And that’s what Łódź is.

Is that what you had in mind when you said: ‘I walk the streets of my city like amidst the set for Wajda’s The Promised Land, in which they are filming Leszczyński’s Konopielka.’

I don’t want to just complain, because I love this city like one loves a sick mother. That’s why I should add that among those new inhabitants were those who acquired the finest blood by transfusion. Professors and students who were ordered to create a university, technical academy and arts school without having had a single place of higher learning before the war (not counting the Free University). In modern times, newcomers have also done the most for Łódź. Kazimierz Dejmek, Sławomir Pietras, Ryszard Stanisławski, Józef Robakowski, Julian Baranowski and recently, Marek Żydowicz. The list is a long one. An existence between high culture and the residents’ reluctance to take notice is a Łódź trademark, which might seem quite attractive, especially since it’s helped out by the setting. As far back as I can remember I can see artistes exploring the gangrenous courtyards with looks of bliss on their faces, in search of old people or a pigeon soaring off in flight. Then they somehow tend to disappear from Łódź.

Present-day Łódź is marked by ruined industrial architecture and industrialists’ palaces on the one hand, and on the other monuments, cemeteries and forgotten, abandoned neighborhoods. How do the city and its residents remember the Holocaust in your opinion?

Apart from the intellectual spheres, there is no memory of the Holocaust, nor of the city’s onetime residents. It’s because of their inborn delicacy, no doubt, that people prefer not to remind themselves that someone else created their city. I often ask about it, but I haven’t found people who know something about the previous residents of their building. Many of my acquaintances still have salt shakers that say Salz, and in their household libraries they have the complete edition of Shakespeare in half-leather binding – in German, of course. In the beautiful building where the little Brandyses were brought up, the young people in neckties can’t believe that life existed there before their offices were built, and the name Brandys means little to them. In The Fly-trap Factory I visit one of the buildings in the onetime ghetto, and the owner correctly takes me for a madman, because, after all, she’s lived there forever.

The theme of this year’s festival is TERRITORY and a question from a poem by Władysław Bełza: ‘Where do you live?’ The city area today acts as a dynamic space of friction: between the center and the peripheries, history and contemporary life, foreigners and loved ones, memory and oblivion. What does this theme mean for you in the context of Łódź?

Łódź is a small and compact city that was surrounded by city of apartment blocks to which you escaped as soon as possible. Those who could do more saw that they had outgrown the blocks, and built their ‘residential’ domiciles even further outside of town. The exclusive Łódź Mayfair is crumbling, being abandoned to the weakest. In such a situation it’s hard to speak of friction between the center and the periphery, intellectual or otherwise, as the basic urban values have been turned upside-down. I think that’s why young rock groups who scream of revolution and who are astonished by reality feel so at home in Łódź.

During the course of the festival we intend to inquire into the myths of Łódź and their significance today, and about the place they occupy in the collective memory of Łódź’s residents. What, in your opinion, are the Łódź myths most deeply ingrained in the consciousness of its inhabitants?

Myths always need to be recalled and retold. The biblical words ‘the Promised Land,’ used by Reymont and repeated by Wajda, should be held, though the city might perhaps promise little. In Rien ne va plus I came up with the idea of workers saving Jews from a Cossack pogrom. I was young when I wrote that, and I held the naive hope that it would stir something like pride in today’s inhabitants. The myth of a multicultural city where people of various faiths respect one another is now even more necessary to Poland than it is to Łódź itself. The fact that practically every German has heard of Theo, who went to Łódź, that every New York Jew had a cousin here, is no service of our contemporary times, but thanks to this our times have something to reflect.

Where is the heart of today’s Łódź, in your view?

Piotrkowska, which was Łódź’s salon from its very inception, always had its better and worse spots. Just walk a few streets down and you find yourself in a small provincial town, though one with a certain charm. Now Łódź’s heart beats in Manufaktura, a place distinguished by its old walls and the presence of Muzeum Sztuki. For the city’s heart to return to its rightful place, Piotrkowska has to stop being a powdered corpse, and the residents of the local towns have to be proud that they can walk down it.

The protagonist of The Fly-trap Factory is Chaim Mordechaj Rumkowski, the leader of the Judenrat in the Łódź ghetto. But the image of the city seems more important than him. Was the book meant to be an attempt at summoning up Łódź’s past or – as you’ve once suggested – your own farewell to Łódź?

I’m glad that the picture of the city was important for you in The Fly-trap Factory. There are those who have said that I shouldn’t have gone outside the courtroom in the book. This is the best testimony to the unpredictability of readers’ response. No, this wasn’t an attempt to summon up the past, more of a desire to enchant it. Just recall my fairy-tale explanation of the anti-Semitic writing on the walls. As for the farewell to Łódź, the more I say farewell to it, the faster it steps up to greet me.

In his series of short allegorical descriptions called Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino calls attention to the fact that ‘every city is above all a sign that needs decoding.’ What is the invisible face of Łódź?

For me it’s in the traces of the city that no longer exists. For my friends it’s in the constant and, I would say, heroic hope that something good will come of their lives in the city. And thus hope and waiting. For a train that will sometimes go a shorter distance. For a better road or an airplane that will bring the world here to give it praise, or even just to notice its existence.

What is the future of Łódź, in your view? Is there a chance for the birth of a new utopia in this city?

I want to choose my words carefully, because the modern world looks for new ideas and utopias in vain. Łódź can only fight for a respectable place. The future of Łódź, I think, is Baron Haussmann, that is, the boldest possible reinterpretation of the city. The one asset Łódź has had, whether in the times of Strzemiński, Kobro or Hiller, is avant-garde art. If it was boldly planted in architectural solutions and made to clash with history, Łódź could be a Venice without water. If we start working hard now, Łódź could be a pilgrimage site for artists, art lovers and snobs.

Andrzej Bart (b. 1952) is a novelist and documentary filmmaker. His novels include: Rien ne va plus (Kościelski Award winner), Wanderlust, and Don Juan All over Again. Under the pseudonym of Paul Scarron Jr. he wrote a metaphysical mock-detective novel called The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. He has made a series of films about Łódź under the collective title The Bad City?. His most recent novel, The Fly-trap Factory, was nominated for Poland’s most important literary awards and translated into many languages.