In today’s A to Z Challenge post I’m going back to Jacek Dukaj, brilliant Polish writer I mentioned already when I was writing about his novel, “Inne Pieśni” (”Other Songs”). “Xavras Wyżryn”, a collection of two novellas, was one of his first books I’ve read, and is also older than “Inne Pieśni” and other brilliant books, but nonetheless interesting.
The first story in the collection, “Zanim noc” (“Until the night” – the title feels quite tricky to translate) is a story of a wartime Warsaw, and its main character, Nazi collaborator, and a cynical man, gets tangled into a supernatural events that lead him to reconsider his views on the good and the evil. The well-described reality of occupied Warsaw, and the supernatural mystery, set a very intensive horror-like mood, but it wouldn’t be Dukaj’s story if it didn’t touch on philosophical themes and on science. Who would have thought one can insert the discussion about fourth dimension into a story like this?
The second story, “Xavras Wyżryn” (the title is the name of the main character, a made-up one, and therefore has no translation) is an alternate history. In Dukaj’s version of the events, Poland didn’t win the war against the Bolsheviks in 1920, and as a result, several decades later, Polish guerrilla is still trying to liberate their country from soviet occupation. And while we accompany a reporter from a Western country, who follows Poland’s most famous guerrilla leader, Xavras Wyżryn, another team of soldiers makes their way toward Moscow… and they have an atomic bomb with them.
Both novellas were a good read, though I have to admit I liked “Zanim noc” a bit better, because of the slow storytelling and very dark atmosphere it created, while “Xavras Wyżryn” resembles a wartime report or a movie, with its chopped scenes and what seems to be more chaotic narration. Of course, once I got to the end of both stories, style choices became clear, and I wouldn’t consider one worse than the other.
Although I enjoyed the book back when I was young, “Xavras Wyżryn” is not a match for the books that came after it, but on the other hand, the size of a novella doesn’t allow too much space for intricate worldbuilding that is Dukaj’s trademark. Also, the settings didn’t require style experiments and creation of many new words, so in comparison to “Inne Pieśni” or “Extensa”, “Xavras Wyżryn” felt like an ugly duckling, but from a perspective of time, it’s a mark of how the author’s style developed and flourished. Also, as you can see, these stories still managed to stay with me for years, even if details faded. I still remember hours spent on trying to imagine how would a four-dimensional being feel in our three-dimensional world, or how would a two-dimensional creature deal with discovering the third dimension. Because one is certain: Dukaj’s book will force the readers to think and to push their imagination beyond the limits.