Prosecutor Szacki’s Last Stand?

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Book Review: Rage by Zygmunt Miłozewski

(Amazon Crossing)

translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

review by Ernest Barteldes

On the final part of his Prosecutor Szacki trilogy that began with Entanglement (Bitter Lemon) , Zygmunt Miłozewski takes us to Olsztyn, where he transferred following the events from Grain of Truth (Bitter Lemon).

Szacki’s life has changed considerably – his teenage daughter is now living with him while his ex-wife is traveling around Asia with her new husband, and he is also in a lasting relationship with a local woman – which prompted him to leave Warsaw for good for this former German city, where he lives in an apartment just across the boulevard from the prosecution service.

But Szacki has not lost his usual bitterness. When he is called at a construction site below a hospital when a skeleton of what is believed to be a “German” (old remains are always – according to the novel – considered to be of Germans who previously lived there), he mutters to himself about hoping to have a “real” case that he can really investigate, not the usual drunken college student brawls that he routinely deals with. Further studies of the remains shows that the bones are actually much newer than previously thought, and that the deceased – a travel agent – had a gruesome death, dissolved while still alive using hydrocloric acid – the kind sold in any supermarket for unclogging household drains.

Rage has plenty of colorful characters – among them a doctor that assists with the investigation – a Dr. Frankenstein, who is also a professor who has alcohol-fueled parties with his students in a his campus lab. He is clearly an eccentric, but he seems to get along well with the prosecutor thanks to his dry personality and detail-focused demeanor. As the story progresses, we find that anger is central to all the main characters, going from the prosecutor himself to the surprising perpetrator.

Miłozewski does no favors to the town of Olsztyn (where he – as of this writing – resides), and describes it as a dark, uninteresting place to be with lousy weather and ugly streets: “Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around.”

The story line is extremely engaging all the way to its anti-climatic twist ending. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation (she works closely with the author) flows nicely, without leaving the reader with any feeling of being lost in translation at any moment.

In the backdrop of the narrative are the news stories of the day: the political crisis in Ukraine and the the civil war in Syria and minor news headlines from around Poland. There are many other pop culture references, which might make the novel seem dated in a few years – I mean, will anyone remember reruns of the American sitcom Friends in, say, two or three decades?

According to some news reports, this is where we say goodbye to Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, and the ending makes us pretty certain of that – but given that the series has been so successful since its inception (the first two books were adapted into movies), will this really be goodbye? As a fan of the series myself, I sincerely hope not.

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My Polish Music Loot

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The vinyl section at Krakow’s Empik

By Ernest Barteldes

Anyone who knows me well is aware that I am a big music scavenger – give me enough time around a store and I’ll unearth some gems. I did that during all our trips to Brazil and also anywhere else we have enough time to stop and shop a bit. That of course happened when we started planning our latest trip to Poland. There are a handful of artists I follow, but imports are way too expensive, and for some reason neither iTunes nor Amazon carry mp3 albums by  artists I am interested in.

This time around it was not just about music.  Shortly before we left for Poland I had finished reading Zygmunt Miloszewski’s “A Grain of Truth” and learned that the movie version had been released on DVD. I had no way to find out if the film (which turned out to be superb – more on that in the future) had been popular in Poland, so I wasn’t sure I’d find it on shelves. Renata and I talked and decided to order a copy of the movie from Empik, a large retailer of music and books that has stores all over Poland (think Barnes & Noble when it was still cool) and ship it to Renata’s parents’ home.

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Secret by Anna Maria Jopek

When we arrived, the DVD was there waiting for us – and a couple of other orders Renata made to the same store. A few days later, I went out to look for music, but found the local store to be a bit scarce. They barely had any music from Anna Maria Jopek  – one of my all-time favorite Polish singers – in stock, and the titles they did have were already part of my collection. I bought Jopek’s Secret, her sole English-language album to date and browsed through their Polish music shelf, and found some albums by Chelm native Ania Dąbrowska.  I stumbled into her name while doing research for an unrelated article and found out she’d covered a Queen song during her participation on the Polish version of Pop Idol. I heard some of her music online and was quite impressed.  When I saw W spodniach czy w sukience? I immediately picked it up. The disc turned out to be a fun, retro-70s feel collection of songs with great arrangements, and I made a mental note to look for more of her music.

I was still a bit frustrated that I hadn’t found all the titles I needed, but then I had the idea of looking them up online and ordering in-store delivery and found her fantastic Id (featuring guest appearances of Branford Marsalis, Minu Cinelu, Richard Bona and Christian McBride) and one of her latest, the independently released Polanna, which she showcased during her recent US tour.  When I picked up the package, I again browsed through the music section and decided to pick up Dąbrowska’s  debut album Samotność po zmierzchu, which I found to be even more interesting than the previous one I got – plenty of clever basslines and jazz-inspired grooves with an uncompromising pop drive that is both radio-friendly and intriguing.

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Ania Dabrowka’s debut CD

As we moved on to Warsaw, Zakopane and Krakow, we kept on stopping at Empik stores – our hotels were all walking distance to local malls, and since we were walking by we would browse around. Renata was interested in health and fitness books and had been looking at some  written by Anna Lewandowska, the wife of Polish soccer star Robert Lewandowski.  While she decided which title to pick one, I noticed that there was a bargain bin, and among music I had no idea about was Bossa So Nice, a compilation of Brazilian music. I usually ignore those because most have tracks I already own, but this one was different – sure, there were those obvious Stan Getz recordings, but there were also a bunch of tunes I had never heard before – at least in those voices. The price was very low for a 2-disc set, so I picked it up – the first time I had ever seen or purchased Brazilian music in Poland.

 

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Bossa So Nice 

 

I am still working on listening to the stuff, so a more elaborate comment on them will come in due time. So far I have enjoyed most of them but have not formed much of an opinion for a proper review. But do check this music out if you can.

Book Review: A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Milosewski

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

A naked woman is found murdered outside a former synagogue in the provincial town of Sandormierz, in Southeastern Poland. It is a weird crime scene, since not only is she exsanguinated, but the murder weapon – a shehita (used in Kosher slaughters) – is found next to the body.

Called to the crime scene is prosecutor Teodor Szacki, who just transferred to the area following the events from Entanglement. His marriage ended following his involvement with Monika Grzelka, an attractive but inquisitive journalist he met during the first novel. That affair came to an end in a way the omniscient narrator doesn’t seem to care to address – he takes no more than a few lines to say it ran its course and then Szacki was on his way out of town, trading high-profile crimes to small-town cases he feels are below his expertise, such as stolen cellphones or drunken brawls created by white supremacists fueled by the recent events in Europe.

This monotony of sorts comes to an end as he is assigned to the strange murder that brings together Sandomierz’s reputation of anti-Semitism during and after World War II:  St. Paul’s Church – the largest in town –  has frescoes depicting blood libel  committed by Jews against local Catholics. One of the worst – which can be seen by anyone who visits the city – depicts Jews purchasing young children and then ritually murdering them and finally offering the remains to rabid dogs.

The frescoes intrigue Szacki – who is not in any way an anti-Semite – and since he is an outsider, he is both the best and the worst person to investigate this crime: since he is new in town, he is not exactly trusted by locals who have been there all their lives, but he is also not one to be biased by old friendships – the other local prosecutor, Basia Sobieraj, was a longtime friend of the victim and is clearly way too involved with the city’s life to properly investigate the case.

As I have written previously, criminal investigations in Poland are conducted in a completely different manner than they are in the US. In this country, the judiciary only gets involved once the police end their investigation and ultimately turn it over to the judiciary. In that country, they get involved right at the crime scene, and fully participate in the proceedings until a verdict is rendered – so Szacki gets to see the crime scene and works together with the police almost to the very last page.

Like in the previous tome, we get to see a lot of the prosecutor’s private life. Though remorseful for ruining his marriage back in the capital, he doesn’t mind fucking any woman that makes herself available – even if that might jeopardize his professional position in this tight-knit community.

It is not an easy investigation as the prosecutor might have thought would be – within the first 50 pages it seems like it is going to be open-and-shut, but twists come along that complicate things.

The author has a very sarcastic tone about his fellow Poles – through Szacki he is very critical of the nation’s pessimism (“Maybe the Law and Order Party will win the next election,” the prosecutor snaps at a conservative co-worker after an uncomfortable exchange – how right was he in hindsight?) and Catholic values, but he does so in a satirical – and not disrespectful way.

A Grain of Truth was – like its predecessor – adapted into a movie, but this time Szacki is played by a male. I have seen the trailer but sadly not the film, since (again) it has not been released Stateside in spite of the success of the novels here.  For those who enjoy an intelligently written potboiler, this is the book for you for sure – and a sequel is on the way.

A Grain of Truth

Zygmunt Milozewski

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Bitter Lemon Press

Available in various formats

An Afternoon at the 11th Edition of The Polish Film Festival

11th Polish Film Festival

Anthology Archives

May 2, 2015

By Ernest Barteldes

I am an occasional fan of Polish movies, and have been way before I even met Renata (most assume my interest is because of our relationship, but the fact is that I had been exposed to the music and cinema of Poland years before I met her), but for some reason I had never attended any of the 10 previous editions of the NY Polish Film Festival – something I remedied this year.

When I heard about the event , I invited a number of friends to go, but few responded. I looked up the schedule and found one by Jerzy Stuhr, a director whose career I have erratically followed  since I saw his Love Stories (Historie miłosne, 1997), a clever film that he wrote, directed and starred in, playing four different characters who are given a life choice – and the consequences that come with those decisions.

I went alone on Saturday afternoon (Renata had another commitment at that time) to catch Stuhr’s latest film, “Citizen”(Obywatel), a satire about a man who grew up within the confines of the Polish communist government and then has a hard time adapting to the new reality, losing break after break until one unexpected turn comes around.

We see the story mostly through flashbacks – Sturh’s character has a debilitating accident early in the film and then we see his life all the way from his days as a young man (played by his son, Maciej) all the way to present time – and his current predicament.

I feel that Stuhr has a very similar style to that of Woody Allen – he takes current events in his country and builds highly personal stories. For instance, Sex Mission borrowed from Allen’s “The Sleeper” and then expands to something way deeper.

After a brief break that included Zwiec beer and some snacks, Renata and our friend David joined me for the next film, “Gods,” a story based on the true story of Zbigniew Religa (Tomasz Kot) the doctor who performed the first successful heart transplant in Poland.

The story follows Zeliga’s battle not only with authorities but also the frame of mind of the time – that the heart might be somehow a sentient organ, and that a transplant would at least be likened to stealing someone’s soul.

“Gods” was superbly acted and made, reflecting with accuracy the time but also the politics behind medical advancement in Poland during communism. No wonder the film was awarded Best Film at the end of the festival. In addition, Kot was deservedly  awarded best actor for his amazing performance.

Film Review: “The Return” by Adam Zucker

By Ernest Barteldes

Last weekend Renata and I braved the bitter cold outside to attend a screening of The Return, a documentary by Adam Zucker that was partially financed via a Kickstarter campaign. We’d heard about the film through the Polish Cultural Institute’s 2015 program, and after a chance meeting with Zucker at a cocktail party downtown we decided to check it out.

The screening happened at the Lincoln Square Synagogue – it was only the second time I’d ever set foot inside one (the first was during a service for a friend about two years ago).  The movie follows four young women from Warsaw and Krakow who struggle with the concept of being Jewish in Poland – a country that was once home to over 4 million Jews but has now dwindled to about 25,000 mainly due to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Zucker filmed the documentary over the course of five years, and it was impressive to see how these women evolved. Two embrace Orthodox ways (not a spoiler, you can see that on the trailer) while the other two explore their Jewishness in very different ways.

Of the three women, only one – Maria – was apparently aware of her roots from the start. She was raised in a secular family, but after meeting an Orthodox man she embraces that way of life, quickly getting married and having children. The other three (Kasia, Katka and Tusia) only discovered their roots later in life, and embrace them in completely different degrees.

As the stories progress, we also see many manifestations of Jewish culture in Poland – there is footage of an acoustic set by Mattisyahu (who has a huge fan base there) and glimpses of the Jewish Music Festival in Krakow. There are also two Orthodox weddings and scenes from rituals inside a synagogue.  Though mostly shot in Warsaw and Krakow, there is also plenty of footage taken in Jerusalem (where both Kasia and Maria went to pursue their studies), Prague and Bushwick, where Tusia (a dual American and Polish citizen) lives while pursuing a Masters’ degree at NYU.

The imagery is very rich – we see various locales around the two cities – I recognized the tram we took in Warsaw and the area where our hotel was located, and also the former Jewish district of Kazimierz where Renata and I stayed during both of our visits to Krakow.

The main question the film makes is if Poland is a viable place for young Jews to live in, and the conclusion is up to the viewer.  During one of the various interviews, Katka states that today in Europe, one is seen as cool if you have “black, a Jewish and a homosexual one,” but in another moment she says it is “very hard” to pursue the Jewish lifestyle in Warsaw because there are “very few facilities and a very small community” as she walks around a residential neighborhood.

I thought it was a very touching film – yes, they make references to the Holocaust (we catch some glimpses of Auschwitz) but it’s not something they dwell on, because the film is really about being Jewish in today’s Poland, with all its intricacies and complexities. The film is being screened in various locations (you can check them out on the film’s website http://www.thereturndocumentary.com/) , and I highly recommend it.