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A total novel. A discussion about “Ice”

A total novel. A discussion about “Ice” in Roman Kurkiewcz’s show “Pod Tytułem” with Przemysław Czapliński, Paweł Duniń-Wąsowicz and Jacek Dukaj. The discussion was broadcasted on the air of TOK FM radio on 9 December 2007.

Przemysław Czapliński: (…) What does freezing represent in this novel? How important is psychology, human interactions or one protagonist’s opinion about another to you?

Jacek Dukaj: Could you be more precise?

PC: Reading your book we see that the protagonists not only live at the turn of 19th and 20th century, or in the first quarter of the 20th century, but also think about themselves and other people according to the believes of those times.

JD: If we read a 20th century or contemporary novel we can notice that the author doesn’t manage to fully capture a human being. When we compare it to the 19th century approach, we will see that back then the whole instrumental-word apparatus, the psychological and social perspective was used to portray a human being, put them somewhere. Even if we reach for an interwar period novel and there is a scene with a background character of which the author reveals nothing but, lets say, the style of their fur coat or one short utterance of this person, we will be able to recognise their place in social hierarchy, their character, everything…

PC: If I may interrupt, it comes from…

JD: Do interrupt me. Otherwise this show will be a disaster.

RK: But a beautiful one!

PC: …it comes from trusting the way they asked questions about a human in that novel, or rather in that cognitive scope and from the tools they could use to answer a question about the relationship between a man’s face and what goes on inside him; between his gestures, how he moves his hands, how he speaks, who he is, what his intentions are, what spiritual condition he is in. That being said, writing about frozen history, you have frozen a certain type of uncertainty, which started to appear at the turn of the 19th and 20th century; uncertainty, which concerned the spirituality of a human being.

JD: Everything had to be frozen, there are no exceptions. If I made any exceptions when it comes to conventions or orthography, I only made them for the novel to be more accessible for the readers. But referring to what you’ve just said – at the beginning of Benedict’s journey I purposefully placed a couple of conversations about it, there is one with the priest, one with Zeycov, I think. I made it very clear to make the reader realise that you can write about people in this way, that it is natural to say that this person is bad, that one is noble, and another one is mean. It’s not simplification but the psychological truth of the époque.

(…)

RK: What I remember from this place is one shocking thing I would like to discuss. This man sets off on a journey having basically no awareness of his own existence. The linguistic trick accompanying that situation is that he is using the third person to talk about himself throughout the entire novel.

JD: If he loses his awareness, he doesn’t control it and he only dreams that he exists.

(…)

RK: It is a quest to find his father. It is also a story of life, in which we play, even though we don’t know the rules. This novel is about searching for the rules, which may not be there, but you present an incredibly wide array of efforts. Maybe what’s more important than our attempt to describe this book is that you are showing dozens of people’s attempts to find the description of a human being.

PDW: I would like to point out that it is the second novel published in Poland this year, written by a Polish author, which directs this problem of a protagonist, who is troubled because of his identity, to shamanism. I am talking about “Świat Nura” by Aleksander Kościów published one year ago. Neither we, nor him know who the protagonist is or where he comes from and an attempt to find out the key, some kind of clue to what he should think of himself are the Siberian shaman rituals. This coincidence is quite interesting.

JD: Is he Polish?

PD: Aleksander Kościów.

PC: That means you two should meet soon.

(…)

PWD: Jacek Dukaj in his novel “Ice”, which we are talking about, has painted a quite suggestive image of the Polish capitalism in Siberia in the tsarist Russia. In Irkutsk the highest spheres of the bourgeoisie are Polish technicians, Polish factory owners, Polish traders, whose dream is free Poland and warm climate, even though they have built their carriers on products necessary to survive under the ice. There are two conflicted parties. One is expecting the ice to melt at some point and the other believes that it will stay. Those Polish businessmen are, in their hearts, hoping for a thaw, also in political sense – giving Poland independence. There is also a fraction, which would like to separate Siberia from Russia and create there the United States of Siberia, under Polish command, naturally.

JD: Can I insert a small fond footnote here? I would like to make sure that the readers know that those are not my own ideas. These are historical facts. I mean the United States of Siberia. These are authentic political projects, which lasted until 1908. Siberian uprising also took place in reality, although nobody knew about it.

PDW: Yes we did, it is described in Szklarski’s book.

RK: There are plenty of facts in this Si-fi novel…

PDW: Wait a minute, everyone who read Sklarski’s “Tajemnicza Wyspa Tomka” knows both about Siberian uprising and about the meteorite.

JD: Those are historical facts. For many years Irkutsk had a Polish mayor, Polish businessmen controlled the economy. We had a true economical empire there. Nobody seems to remember that.

(…)

RK: Jacek Dukaj has turned away from fiction, he is now drawing from facts.

PC: If we stray away from your novel for a while, we will only have two seasons of the year, instead of four. What I mean is, there will be only two faces of history. First is the frozen history, the second is the defrosted history. The former is totalitarian history, the latter is capitalistic. This is the alternative we have: either there is a totalitarian form of controlling human activity, human will, the desire of a society to self-organise, or we chose the history, in which we give people the right to do whatever they want and that is when the capital starts to win. Is that your alternative of history?

JD: No, no, no. In order to introduce the totalitarian system that appears at the end, giving power to history, it was necessary to use another theory connected to black physics, manipulating the laws of the logic. (…) What is covered with ice in history, in societies for that matter, is reducing to the absolute, to the extreme, yes, yes, no, no and here Russia fits perfectly because it has a long history of vicious absolutes, various plans of psychology, aesthetics, religions, etc. Therefore, all those old believers, like the followers of the Ice, are a natural follow up. There is something very Russian about the yes, yes, no, no. Russia covered with ice seems a natural phenomenon, not like Poland. Don’t you agree?

PC: That’s right, the traditions of Russian autocracy…

JD: Which does not mean that a man cannot be free living in an autocratic system. They can still make choices.

PC: But to what extend are they free?

JD: They can be as free as anywhere else, but access to this freedom might be more obstructed.

PC: Excuse me, but we are reaching a moment, when in the 20s, 30s of the 20th century in numerous polemics, Isaiach Berlin, Hannah Arendt said that the notion of free will and inner freedom is worthless when one has to live in totalitarian reality.

JD: Well then, I don’t agree with this.

PC: Why?

JD: These statements are highly idealistic. While talking everybody is referring to not that what’s been made reality. What’s been left undone is most important, therefore a man doesn’t, in fact, have to do a thing.

RK: I also wanted to point out such background of this novel, about a book that is of great importance to me, in which there also appear similar conflicts. I’m talking about “The Magic Mountain” by Tomas Mann.

JD: Bull’s eye.

RK: In a sense I can see here another perspective on the conflict between Naphta and Settembrin. We have a similar conversation in “Ice”, it’s conducted during the journey and it’s extremely important.

PC: But does the author know, I mean, of course the author knows that it’s been almost one hundred years since “The Magic Mountain” was written and more than one hundred since the Dostoyevsky’s novels were written…

JD: …But “The Magic Mountain” is exactly the same chapter in history. The novel ends with the outbreak of the World War I.

PC: Exactly, it’s the same chapter in history, but it was described one hundred years ago.

JD: While “Ice” is written from the perspective of today’s reader…

RK: In this sense Mann had an easier task of describing what he was observing, while you are confabulating; you have to recreate the conversations and the relations from those times.

PC: In this sense Mann had a more difficult task, because he was surrounded by this reality, while we today become the satirists who get to copy the styles of others. We can even say that we create the styles of others not building them on the original. We do base them on various sources, documents, we can even reconstruct the image of an époque, the turn of two époques, a non-existing place, a place that could have been there…

RK: Professor Czapliński has warned us that he will but inn with some negative comments at some point.

PC: Not just yet, but it is coming. I had ambivalent feelings while reading your novel (Paweł, please do not disconnect this cable). At first I felt great respect, admiration, I was in awe of your invention, your creativity. You are probably the only writer in Poland at the moment able to create an entirely new world, from the railway to the button on the railwayman lapel, and for that I have a lot of respect, but at the same time I think that you are a lover of literature. A lover of literature is someone…

JD: … is that an insult? (laughs)

PC: We will see in a moment! On the one hand it’s beautiful, because you love literature, love the possibilities it gives you and the fact that literature is a specific cognitive tool. I have the impression that this also connects you to the very few writers who believe that literature should serve as a voice to say something important about the reality, about people’s views, possibilities to discover the world, etc. On the other hand, a lover is the one, who not only seduces but is being seduced. I think that there are moments when you let literature seduce you, or love it so much that you let it take you to any possible direction. When the protagonist is walking on a road, you will describe this road, even though it hasn’t got any function; when the protagonist meets someone, we will get to know their thoughts and the thought of this second person, even though it serves no purpose either, because we’ve already read similar conversations and this one will not provide any new insight into the story. Long story short, from time to time, one can get the impression that you let literature seduce you, despite the fact that you are the demiurge of its world.

JD: I agree, although I have two objections I need to mention here. Firstly, what you are saying would be a disadvantage, if we were talking about a novel set in contemporary reality not relating in any way to that époque. Whereas, the moment I try to create a simulation of that époque – and of a novel written in that époque – I am obliged to adopt certain things, which seem naïve to us. All of the repetitions are fresh, original and natural for them. You say that some of my descriptions are unnecessary, that I write about something that goes without saying, etc. But it goes without saying for a contemporary reader, whereas I had to filter it through that époque. Secondly, I am not sure if your objection should be treated as objection, whether we are talking about my book or someone else’s. What I mean is that the contemporary reader lives thought borrowed experiences. I’m not saying they are worse, but certainly different. What 20th century’s man experienced, on what he was building his life, his personality, were mostly his own experiences. Today its mostly what we see in cinema, on TV, the Internet, we borrow most of them.

(…)

RK: Unfortunately Mr Przemysław Czapiński has to leave us, so I would like to read a small fragment of a conversation about Seroshevsky from Jacek Dukaj’s book to ask the same painfully banal and probably impossible question. There was a fragment asking if it is a good book:

“Is it any good? I’m asking if it’s good, the Seroshevsky’s novel?”

“Well, you know, I am looking for reliable information rather than literary values.”

“But you’re reading it, aren’t you?”, he snorted, “So is it good or not?”

Then, Przemysław, is it any good or not, this “Ice” by Jacek Dukaj?

PC: I hate this question…

RK: I knew it! That’s why I’m asking.

PC: I truly hate this question… and in this case I have the right not to answer it, because I get the impression that Jacek Dukaj, does not want to be located in the scope of literature, where the statement “good – not good” would be enough. If we were to live in a world, where the immense richness of literature was described by only those two words “good – not good”, then I would prefer Jacek Dukaj to agree that I describe his novel as not good, because “good” is a novel which is not confronting us with any problems, which can be read smoothly because it does not interfere with our perception of the world in any way.

(…)








Ice