And I’m back.
I know I mentioned in my last piece about my difficulty in discovering good Polish literature. This isn’t to say that it’s all terrible, but it’s hard to find a Polish work that isn’t handicapped by poor translation, such as Janusz L. Wisniewski’s frustrating Loneliness on the Net (a translation so horrible and littered with numerous grammatical errors that it ended up being the first book in years I didn’t finish), or locked in its own cultural experience to the point of alienating non-Polish readers, such as 9 by Andrzej Stasiuk (still an excellent work of fiction). This is why I’m thrilled when I stumble on to a Polish author that bypasses the aforementioned hurdles, such as Olga Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night, and then I’m practically ecstatic when the book knocks me out; which happily brings me to Marek Krajewski’s phenomenal Death in Breslau.
It’s difficult to wander any bookstore in Poland without coming across a shelf devoted to Krajewski’s quartet of Breslau books, which include, in order, Death in Breslau, The End of the World in Breslau, Ghosts in the City of Breslau, and Breslau Fortress; and I was thrilled when I discovered a translated copy of the first book in a bookstore in Berlin. My interest in reading this series in particular – outside of learning about a new Polish author – was that the books were set in (you guessed it!) Breslau, which is now known as Wroclaw, the city I live in today.
Death in Breslau tells the story of Criminal Director Eberhard Mock who must solve the murder of Baron von der Malten’s daughter. But like any good murder mystery, it’s hardly that simple. Since this is Breslau in 1933, Mock must not only outmaneuver the Gestapo, a frighteningly perverse society of aristocrats and an act of revenge 700 years in the making, but his own past as well.
For some reason, Death in Breslau reminds me of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Perhaps it’s for the superficial reason that both books introduce their respective characters; however, I find it interesting that they also both remove their protagonist from the story for extended periods of time. Unlike Doyle’s disastrous choice to not only remove Holmes from nearly half the book, but to awkwardly shift from first to third person point of view, Krajewski’s decision to have Mock exit the story helps establish the introduction of the book’s true tragic character, Herbert Anwaldt, and plants the seeds for some of the book’s most emotional payoffs.
In many ways, Mock is Poland’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, as the character is twisted version of Holmes had he been raised in the shadow of fascism, where he had to hide his powers of deduction for fear of being noticed and instead embrace his more primal instincts in order to survive. When we first meet the Mock, he is enjoying his weekly meeting at a brothel, playing a sexually enhanced version of Chess with two prostitutes. This introduction reveals just a few of Mock’s flaws, which also includes his anti-Semitism, infidelity and alcoholism. Despite these characteristics, there is something compelling about Mock’s tenacity despite overwhelming odds; because Krajewski is careful to reveal Mock’s humanity sparingly, readers find themselves sympathetic to Mock even when they’re disgusted by his choices. And let me tell you, some of Mock’s choices are doozies.
If you’re in the mood for an excellent mystery with some solid characters, Death in Breslau will certainly leave you craving for more. In fact, Quercus published the English version earlier this year, and I can only hope that the remaining books will follow quickly.
This is TOO SOON.