Death of a Bookman – a series of essays/rants/exposes from a writer/translator/publisher who wants to burn bridges, dig up corpses and dissect done deals, all in the name of books for the 21st century.
The death of General Jaruzelski, one of the last great anti-heroes of the Cold War, has just been announced. And considering he stars in one of the stories from my collection Damn the Source, I thought it was apt to publish it here.
Years ago, as they started relaunching the James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig in the starring role, I wondered what happened to all the spies who suddenly found themselves out of work when the Iron Curtain fell? Where did those killers go? Home? Their paymaster motherlands no longer wanted them. Would they stay where they were, in London for example, and go on spying for the new regimes? Or find new employment? Or just go completely mental and go out in a blaze of violent glory?
This story is an attempt to answer the question…
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Satellites streamed images of the old General’s demise from the other end of Europe straight into Adam Staropolski’s North London living room. Slow-mo, constant repeat, pixellated blow-ups on all Polish news channels. The same ghastly scene of a bald, speckled man of eighty, thick dark glasses slipping from his nose, breathing his last on trial for high treason.
After a whole night of watching and drinking, Adam’s failing eyes were having a hard time focusing. He had seen enough of General Jaruzelski, his old childhood friend, in the dock for the supposed crime of crushing Solidarity and declaring martial law those thirty years ago, to know his demise had not been accidental. Someone must have slipped something into his prison breakfast. Or his customary glass of water. Or even the little microphone pinned to his lapel. Death injected or vapourised or swallowed. None in their game cared about traces of evidence, not since Litvinienko and his execution in that little sushi place in the heart of London. A radiation pill in a cup of black tea, flown over all the way from the Kremlin. The insane cheek of it. Litvinienko been ex-secret police too. FSB, KGB, and so what? With his Putin-backed killers still at large, nothing and no one could think themselves sacred or safe.
The sound of envelopes crashing through the letterbox in the hallway jolted him. Christmas was almost here, but was it too early for the real post man? Could it be a set up? Sarin in a greetings card? Even an old-fashioned letter bomb, pretending to be a seasonal gift?
Swaying, Adam rose from his armchair and walked through a forest of empty Guinness bottles towards the window and the old television set stood by it. Early light streamed through the lace curtains, piercing the low crowd of brown glass all around his slippers. During the weeks of hearings, as he had got drunker and drunker and the number of empty bottles grew, he had stopped taking them into the kitchen and simply let them collect on the living room floor, entertaining himself in breaks between hearings by arranging the little brown soldiers in various patterns. Simple military parades at first, lined-up regiments of empties, in honour of the old general. Then more complex arrangements, a detailed map of Britain, stretching out across the carpet, and now a large eagle, the Polish national emblem, cut in half by the path he had left to the TV.
Now there was nothing more to see. No need for further distractions. He turned off the screen, but the old tube held on to the image of the former head of state slumped in the dock. Or perhaps Adam was only imagining it? Having watched the dictator, the demagogue, once Poland’s most hated man, dying in full view of a thrilled public a hundred times over, it dawned on him, what they had done. The media. The stations. Maybe even the new secret services. Mocking that historic day in ’81 when, in full uniform, the General had put himself on national TV reading out his martial law decree. On all channels. Constant repeat. Followed by tanks and arrests and killings. And now they were getting him back. Screening the footage of the old man expiring a thousand times over again and again, an act of the most modern vengeance.
Adam felt giddy. If they could do that to the General, mock this publicly, this viciously, they could easily come for him. Even here, in London, a thousand miles distant. He walked back through the glowing glass bird, stopped beside some fading pictures scattered on the coffee table next to the armchair. Teenage Adam and the twenty-something Jaruzelski outside of occupied Warsaw in ’44. A year later, both of them riding a captured Tiger tank through the rubble of Berlin, Adam beaming, Wojtek poker-faced. Official photos from the Fifties and Sixties, two old friends now serving a Communist Poland. Jaruzelski climbing the army ranks, always in uniform, loyal from word go. Adam, then still called Aron, in a sharp, dark suit, part of the new political police force set up to scour the People’s Republic of Poland, hunting down the last of the partisan freedom fighters left over from the real war.
Adam gathered up the photographs, the only evidence he had left of his old life, then drew himself straight, staring out the window, expecting surveillance or even snipers to be waiting across the street. In that one moment of fear in his own house, he chose: no more waiting – he would strike before being struck. He would demand protection from the Polish embassy. Though he had not stepped through those doors since 1989, once he explained his past, showed them the photos and the papers, code words, letters, negatives, they would have to offer him sanctuary. Ship him to Poland, probably. Under another new name. One last chance to start over again.
Adam turned to look at his old living room. Everything perfectly English. Immaculately staged. The furnishings, the books, the piano, just like his accent. No pictures of any family. No evidence of tedious passions or hobbies. Nothing to show the unnatural machinery under the surface.
He caught himself looking in the massive mirror in the hallway. The ever dapper, ever tall, ever devastatingly handsome devil. At seventy something, he still could charm the pants off anything. That smile, teeth gleaming their porcelain lie. The baritone that melted thought and turned the stupidest remark into the wittiest come-on. And now the panic in the eyes as the front door rattled and another batch of junk mail dropped onto the hallway floor.
Hurriedly, he slipped on some shoes, grabbed his long overcoat, stuffed the photos in its inside pocket and left through the kitchen. On his way out, he pulled a long bayonet knife from the hiding place behind the fridge. The final souvenir from the battlefields of Russia, Poland and Germany. He secured the custom-made leather scabbard on a belt across his chest, concealed beneath his mac. It felt good, the weight of the weapon against his rib cage. Felt like the best and the last of him.
download the complete story in PDF here
the book can be ordered here – Damn the Source
The elephant in the room is weeping, the King stark raving naked.
DISCLAIMER: These texts are intended to stir up debate about some complex topics which are very important to us, not to stir up conflicts which are very displeasing to us. We know publishing won’t be revolutionised overnight, that change is a very slow process, but that instigating it sometimes demands a little radical thinking. Everything with a pinch of salt and a dollop of ice-cool calm, por favor.