Listen to the tinkle of bells on a sheep’s neck instead of TV and radio, and don’t think the future of the universe depends on whether a chap with a moustache or one without a moustache wins the Polish presidential election, writer Andrzej Stasiuk tells Piotr Najsztub in Przekrój 211/2010 in an interview conducted in Warsaw on 19 May 2010.
When did you last get really mad?
It’s very rare these days, I’m getting more and more reconciled with reality. I used to fight much more often but now I just say OK, fine by me.
And what about things like: OK, I’m not a true Pole?
In what sense?
In the sense that has dominated the debate over the past few weeks.
Fortunately and unfortunately, I spent the last few weeks in America and the debate did not, by some miracle, reach that far. And thanks to that I’m not quite so pissed off about what went on after the tragedy. There are still some aesthetic aspects of those events, which I observe from a distance.
And what do you see?
I see how little it concerns me because I think there are more interesting things than who will win the election: the chap with the moustache or the one without a moustache. These events are not of a universal or even of a European order.
But for the Poles this is the universe.
No it isn’t. Most Poles regard their private life as the universe. And dragging the universe to Poland is a new phenomenon, one totally created by the media. Just like this totally symbolic showdown between the two chaps: let’s face it, it’s really theatre, a media game, a show. One that, sadly, has a huge potential for infecting people and drawing them in. And that’s what has made our reality awfully show-like, circus-like. My mother is a woman who lives slightly on the sidelines, she kept her distance until now, dealing with her own life, with her own old age, but nowadays when I come to see her there’s a debate going on in her house about who should win and why!
And rightly so since – as we keep hearing – Poland faces a decisive choice.
No, that’s a totally fictitious discussion! My mother had never been interested in politics but now she watches TV because of it. Because this TV show image has become more dominant than reality.
But perhaps it’s not so bad that the Poles are involved in a discussion about who should be their king? Because, after all, we’ve just given our last president a royal burial.
Not quite, since he’s been buried somewhere in an antechamber, like some sort of a halberdier.
Don’t be mean, Wawel is Wawel.
But like all dwellings, it does have better parts and worse parts. Maybe our lives have indeed become so empty, so shallow and insubstantial that we need television to fill them for us. But our lives used to involve things that were slightly more real, like love, hatred, the struggle for survival, faith or lack thereof. But now everything has become so empty it can be easily filled with TV images. And that’s what’s been going on, I think it’s called the campaign, and it not very different from things like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ except that this is dancing with PO [the Civic Platform Party] and PiS [Right and Justice Party]. Of course, they are trying to convince us that this is something awfully important and if this one wins we’ll tumble down into a hell-hole whereas if that one wins we’ll fly right up to heaven. But that is all just fiction and duplicity.
But a voice of authority, such as that of the president, can set the tone in a country, and you do write in this country. So can it have an impact on your writing?
I’m in control of my own ideas and of my own, rather closed and paranoid, world. Nevertheless, this world does prevail over political reality.
Don’t you think it’s better for your mother to discuss who should become president instead of getting all worked up about what’s happening to the heroes of soap operas such as L for Love?
In my Mum’s case, even though she is more of a symbolic figure here, these are comparable emotions, the ones elicited by L for Love and those stirred by the showdown between this party and that one.
So your paranoid world is not going to vote?
It hasn’t yet made up its mind. For me as a writer any election result will be equally attractive, and it’s always interesting to enter this reality for a while, take a look at these fighting boys and then get the hell out of here again.
You don’t feel it’s your duty to vote?
My duties are quite different: to be a proper father, husband, to write in relatively decent Polish. But it’s not my duty to vote; I don’t know who told you this nonsense.
Most people say it’s the right and duty of every citizen; it’s a way of shaping our country.
We shape our country by behaving decently. And if we all behave decently, sleazebags can’t gain power, can’t acquire a voice. End of story.
And what’s your story of the recent mourning? Were you a little bit outside of it all?
I was sitting in my little shack trying to experience something – but maybe because everyone experienced it, or perhaps I’m a kind of bad person deprived of emotions, or maybe because I didn’t know the people who had been killed all that well – somehow I wasn’t able to feel at one with the people. I did feel sad because people got killed through someone’s lack of attention, bad weather, a conjunction of circumstances but I wasn’t able to identify with those general emotions and still wonder if I’m some kind of a…
Maybe I am a monster, maybe I’m not a Pole, I don’t know. However, I found those days fascinating in a literary and theatrical sense, I listened to all those voices.
Did you feel a whiff of the Middle Ages? The church dignitaries, the bells, the silence.
The dignitaries are great because they really are a mix of the Middle Ages and post-modernism; mentally they are in the Middle Ages, yet they use post-modern media instruments. It’s wonderful to hear them talk on the radio invoking God whom they believe to be a Pole and certainly a Catholic. But it had more of the Middle Ages in it because in moments like these, when we experience death, something fundamental, we return to our beginnings which never die. For how else can we come to terms with death if not through some nationwide, or even worldwide, rituals? That’s another thing I really liked, the fact that this mourning was actually universal, that for a while it engulfed the whole world, and all because of a plane crash.
So did you object to the sudden ubiquity of the church? Personally, I was upset by the fact that the secular state was almost absent from the mourning while the Church had such a strong presence.
You needn’t have been upset because our church is actually quite secular; it is ritualistic and political and not quite religious enough. It forces people to behave in certain ways but in fact religion or an element of mysticism is missing from the Polish church. It has its officials who are firmly ensconced in their offices, quite presentable in their vestments, very well fed but there is not a whiff of sanctity in them or around them. It really is quite satisfying to watch them desecrating themselves through these rituals and showing us their pure, political face.
Do you see, feel or believe there was something metaphysical about this tragedy?
No. What I feel is there was fog and something was not quite right with the aircraft, nothing more. It was monstrously wrong to compare this unfortunate, sad and tragic air accident with Katy?. How can the words Katy? and Smolensk be uttered in the same breath? It was disgusting, it smelled of politics, to compare 20,000 officers killed by a bullet in the back of their head with a pilot’s error and bad judgment and bringing in the whole background to this shitty, petty politics, like saying there should have been two planes flying.
I guess you’re not an admirer of the Fourth Polish Republic.
What makes you say that?
I just think so but maybe it’s an unfounded allegation.
That’s a matter for discussion, because I just loved the Fourth Republic as a phenomenon bordering on the theatre of the grotesque, a literary phenomenon; as a fantastic narrative of Poland, in which our Polishness is trying to awaken, in a wondrous, gawky, blowsy, blurry, weepy, grudging way…
And has it awoken?
The Fourth Republic? No, because it can never awaken. It was just an idea invented by those who wanted to promote themselves through a new reality.
As an admirer of the Fourth Republic, which tried but failed to emerge, do you sob whenever Jarosław Kaczyński declares its end?
He is a master of disguise, we can expect him to change more than once. He’s a brilliant van’ka-vstan’ka [a self-righting doll], a great actor; he’s worth keeping an eye on.
So you don’t think it’s advisable to get attached to his successive new versions?
Generally I don’t think it’s advisable to get attached to the way any our politicians present themselves. After all, their entire present-day existence is a story of how the rule of the king has been replaced by the rule of the fool. Democracy is turning into the rule of the fool in front of our very eyes, the job of politicians being not so much to govern as to entertain us. [The MP Janusz] Palikot is an extreme example of this but we now turn on the TV or the radio just to find out who’s done what somersault. So now it’s the government that entertains the people unlike in the past when it was the fool who entertained the king.
Is that good or bad?
The more satisfaction this kind of histrionics and mutual buffoonery gives them the better. Perhaps democracy is moving towards a state when personalities will be eliminated and it will be ruled purely by force of procedures and mechanisms. We will rule ourselves and they will just put on a show so that we don’t get too bored. Or so that we have a vestige of a feeling left that someone is in charge, while they play the fool, do their somersaults and supply what Shakespeare used to supply.
But that will deprive you of your livelihood.
There will always be the question of form. They have no sense of form, they can’t sell themselves without a producer or a director. They are just amateur actors, they are not able to stage a production by themselves, they are just magma, snippets, a rough draft.
Haven’t you had enough of sitting all alone in the mountains?
Oh no, I’ve got a great life up there; I’ve just bought myself three sheep.
But what for? Out of love?
Oh no, they trim the grass and tinkle their bells. This morning I was woken by the tinkling of their bells. It’s almost like being in paradise.
Aren’t you worried that you’ll turn into a country bumpkin living there, that you’ll become just another boulder with your northern side covered in moss?
But I’m quite a mobile boulder. I’ve just been to America, just before that I went to the Balkans where I waded through mine fields, and soon I’ll take off again. I keep writing, I plant flowers, I’ve got to replant the flowerpots on the whole patio. And besides, watching my sheep is much more interesting that watching Polish political life.
What are your sheep like?
I’ve got two little rams and one big sheep, their mum. They trim the garden all day long, because I thought it was quite an idiotic thing to keep having to fire up the lawnmower.
Do they have names?
One is called Miłosz, the other Czesio [short for Czesław] and her name is Wiśka [short for Wisława] – all out of a deep respect because animals are great while humanity is not always so great. They are white, Czesio has a brown snout and black spectacle-like rings.
Which one is in charge?
The mum, Wiśka, she’s the wisest.
Does she have to impose her rule by force or does she rule by authority?
No, she is the model of good behaviour.
Will you kill them and eat them at some stage?
No, although the possibility of eating them in the autumn was under discussion, as I love lamb. But how could I slay Czesio, having looked into his eyes…
Quite simply, with one stroke of a hand, armed with a knife.
Oh no, they’re condemned to life imprisonment with me, they will survive in spite of all political tempests.
We deal with politicians on a daily basis while you deal with sheep and rams. What are they like?
Their gestures are pleasingly repetitive. They just get up in the morning; they graze, they shit, they tinkle their bells – pure peace and tranquillity. Watching them you can’t help thinking this would be a better world if there were more sheep in it.
How so, doesn’t intelligentsia all over the world cry: don’t be like sheep, don’t let yourself be herded like sheep!
But on the other had you see what human intelligence is used for from time to time: it’s being used for some weird and totally sheep-like goals, say, by politicians.
What would have to happen to push you away from your sheep?
Some radical change, like a German invasion, a Russian invasion, a Chinese invasion, or if there was no more oil and I could not get my engine started and set off for Istanbul. That sort of thing.
And what if our own baddies were to invade?
There aren’t any prerequisites for a civil war. Although I do hear hysterical voices, sometimes even otherwise reasonable people talk that sort of rubbish. I really do belong to the first happy generation that has been able to stop paying attention to so-called historic changes. Recently I wrote a piece on the 20th anniversary of freedom, about our great democratic transformation, i.e. about 1989. I tried to recall something and then I realized I had not noticed those changes, I was sitting here in the village milking goats, reading letters of the Desert Fathers and did not notice how 1989 passed me by. And I thought to myself that I’m a happy man, a citizen of this place who, for the first time, has not been affected by history.
Or perhaps you’re just that man from a cabaret sketch who went collecting mushrooms and after being lost in the woods for decades he asked: There’s been a war?! Who won?
No, because there hasn’t been a war, 1989 was a peaceful handover of power, the system collapsed as a result of its own haplessness.
But there were all these leaders crying: We have regained Poland! Or: We want to regain Poland!
Poland has regained herself, obviously with our help, because we did not stand in her way – sometimes we love to fight and sometimes we are naughty to those in authority. Of course, the collapse of communism is a bit problematic; it wasn’t the same as the collapse of fascism. It was quite ambiguous, quite different in each country, quite unclear in terms of who pursued what goal in this collapse and that makes it difficult to perceive it as a kind of revolutionary, fighting breakthrough.
What are your worries and hopes in connection with the recent incidents and the mourning?
I have absolutely no worries and no hopes. When the Pope died, people expected some sort of gigantic moral transformation but it turned out that nothing happened apart from a few monuments, some new street and squares names. And in this case it’s even less likely as, all the human cost notwithstanding, in national terms this was an event of somewhat less earth-shattering proportions. That’s what rituals are for, to channel emotions out there into the atmosphere. Before we know it there will be another occasion for national mourning or joy. A few totem poles will be erected and everything will be O.K.
The sheep will tinkle their bells.
Yes, the sheep will tinkle their pretty bells.
Did you tell your Mum which candidate to vote for or did you advise her against voting?
She’s got a mind of her own.
And what about your sheep: if they went to vote, which candidate would they choose?
The most important one. But for them it’s easy to tell who is important, you can’t pull wool over their eyes, they really know who is the wisest although I have no idea how they know. That’s the advantage of sheep over democracy. Right now it’s Wiśka who’s in charge.