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from the March 2004 issue

from Mercedes-Benz

Published in 2001, this novel takes the form of a long letter addressed to the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, who died in 1997. In this extract, during a driving lesson the narrator tells his instructor, Miss Ciwle, about the motoring exploits of his grandfather Karol in the 1920s, when he was a newly qualified engineer.

"So what about those crazy ideas of your grandfather's?" "The best one was with the wall," I replied at once, "that was one in a million, like the star turn from a comedy, and it all began with Mr. Norbert who managed the Sanguszko estate and invited Grandfather Karol to a wild pig hunt, at which the young chemical engineer got to know the young Prince Roman, and as they stood in line waiting for the sow, they happened to start discussing what a terrible bore old aunts can be, because they both had the same problem of endless visits lasting several weeks at a time, visits paid by old aunts who not only disturbed the harmony of the Prince's and engineer's homes, but also adored family motoring, and tormented their hosts with endless requests to be taken for a drive. So that's what they were chatting about as they stood waiting with their rifles loaded, until suddenly Grandfather Karol declared that if he had a palace like the Prince's, surrounded on all sides by a solid brick wall, he'd have solved the problem long ago. 'How do you mean?' said the Prince, adjusting his rifle. 'Very simple,' replied Grandfather, 'all I'd need would be a few workmen for a single afternoon and their total discretion.'" "Never" said Miss Ciwle, winding down the window and lighting a rollie. "Are you trying to tell me they walled her up in the family chapel like that wretched Mazepa chap? Surely times weren't like that any more, even if you were a prince?" "Of course it's got nothing to do with a chapel," I went on, "but a car drive, or in short, the last drive ever taken by the Countess Euphemia, who was Prince Roman's unbearable aunt. So just listen to this: a few days before her arrival the master instructed Mr. Norbert to fetch some craftsmen and smash a hole the width of the road in the south side of the park wall, then extend the road from the corner right up to the hole, eradicate all trace of the work and, in the empty gap where the mossy wall used to be, set up a cardboard decoy, which was all done most ingeniously. Finally the time came for the outing, driving the Bugatti in his goggles and scarf, Prince Roman took that final bend, stepped on the gas and drove straight at the wall. 'Stop! Stop!' cried his aunt, 'where are you going?!' but the Prince just went on accelerating and called out, 'My goggles are covered in sweat, but this must be the gate, Auntie!' And they crashed into the wall, except that it was cardboard, and drove onto the park avenue with a huge piece of canvas on the hood, Prince Roman smiling and his aunt, the Countess Euphemia, half senseless with fear." "How awfully funny," snarled Miss Ciwle. "If I'd been in the Prince's aunt's place I'd have whipped the rascal black and blue in front of everyone, like a snot-nosed kid. So did your grandfather's aunt get a hole in the wall too?" "How could she?" I said, shifting into first gear. "Grandfather Karol didn't have a palace and a park at his disposal, or that sort of wall, or a Bugatti sports car; he was still driving the Citroën, the one that spilled his blood and the Ukrainian milk on Ujejski Street, and his house was only just being built." "Something doesn't quite fit here," said Miss Ciwle coolly. "If he didn't have a house, where did he receive that dreadful aunt of his? And where did he and your grandmother live? Surely they weren't still engaged all that time?" "It all fits," I said, when finally the third time the lights changed it was our turn and I was able to move sharply from the crossroads into Warsaw Insurgents' Street. "He lived in a service house near the factory." "But wasn't the factory his?" Miss Ciwle wondered. "From your stories it sounds as if he was rich. How else does a man buy his fiancée a Citroën?" "That's Marxist dialectic and Das Kapital rolled into one," I replied, "because you should know that once my grandfather had returned to Lwów from Berlin after finishing his specialist studies, with a head full of ideas and the drafts for his future patents, his one small source of income had dried up: his single, tiny oil well on the edge of Borysław was refusing to cooperate, which was curious, because all the neighboring lots and all the wells around it were still oozing crude, while his had just stopped. So Grandfather poured all his savings into expert reports, the latest drill bits and having the well deepened, but all for nothing; the crude on his corner of Eldorado had come to a decisive end. That's how from being a modest owner of the means of production he became a unit of the manufacturing workforce, in other words a hired hand looking for employment, so straight after their wedding he and his wife moved to Chorzów, then to Warsaw, then back to Lwów, from there they went to the Free City of Danzig for a while, then to Warsaw once again, then back again to Lwów; by now Grandmother Maria was on the verge of insanity, because the smaller their income, the bolder the plans my grandfather would concoct. 'Look,' he'd say, 'I've devised some new technologies. If we started using them in Poland, in twenty years we'd overtake the Germans.' But Grandmother Maria's smile was a bitter one, because no one ever read those plans of his, while she, who adored flowers, was planting them in a different garden in a different city every year, so the whole thing didn't look too rosy." I slowed down behind an aged truck that was spewing out a monstrous cloud of exhaust fumes. "Only when Kwiatkowski began to build a factory at Mościce did Grandfather's designs prove useful, and that was where they finally settled down, first in a service villa near the factory, then in their own house." "Not bad," commented Miss Ciwle. "So what about his aunt? Unlike the countess she must have gone on liking motoring?" "Oh yes," I said, moving down a gear smoothly this time, without the slightest grating sound, "Aunt Zofia came to stay with them at least three times a year from Borysław and always began by telling Grandfather to take her to Prince Sanguszko's palace at Gumniska, or rather not right up to the palace, but just as far as the park wall at the point where the solid bit had been set up again; she would get out of the car and walk down the dead end turning to that spot, and put her hands against the wall, as if trying to convince herself that it was no longer made of cardboard. Then she'd return to the Citroën , and as soon as Grandfather was speeding away, she would fulminate against such villainous behavior, the times we live in, the decline of the aristocracy, the youth of today, the evils of Bolshevism, and the monstrosity of it all. Grandfather Karol would just keep accelerating, waiting for Aunt Zofia to declare in sacramental tones, 'It's not the unfortunate woman who ended up in Bedlam that I pray for, but the young people who have no conscience, because as you can see, Karol, there are plenty of them about nowadays, even in our highest circles.' Grandfather would silently agree without demur, and step even harder on the gas, because Aunt Zofia adored driving fast; deep down she regretted that Karol was not a prince and she a countess, and that they weren't tearing across Zbylitowska Hill, Koszyce or Zakliczyn in a Bugatti sports car the way Roman Sanguszko loved to." The rickety truck, almost invisible behind its black cloud of exhaust fumes, which we had followed at a crawl up Warsaw Insurgents' Street, suddenly snorted and, like an ancient mule that after years of labor refuses to obey a few moments before dying, came to a helpless standstill, blocking our traffic lane. "Fantastic," said Miss Ciwle, discreetly glancing at her watch. "We won't move a kilometer before suppertime!" Indeed, my dear Mr. Hrabal, we really were boxed in, and even if my instructor had jumped out of the Fiat and held up the traffic like last time it wouldn't have done any good. "So as for that Citroën ," I calmly continued, "its days were already numbered, because you should know that to put his Aunt Zofia off these drives Grandfather Karol hit upon a brilliant idea, which was to take his Leica and a dozen rolls of film with him, and literally every few minutes he would stop the car, stand in the road, lie in the ditch, climb up a tree or vanish behind a hayrick and call out, 'Look, Aunt Zosia, what a wonderful frog!' or 'What a picturesque cow that is!' or 'That view of the clouds is worthy of Rembrandt!' while his aunt ran after him, also admiring everything, because what else could she do? So to discourage her even more, every time they got back to Mościce Grandfather would suddenly look at his watch and cry, 'We'll just be in time to get them developed!' then turn the car around and rush across the bridge over the River Biała to Tarnów, to deliver the films to Chaskiel Bronstein for developing a couple of minutes before closing, because his studio on Krakowska Street was the best. Aunt Zofia, who didn't like Jews, had to watch through the car windshield and the storefront as Grandfather warmly greeted Mr. Bronstein and collected the last set of pictures from him; then they would stand over just about every single photograph discussing the light exposure and the shutter speed, while she had to wait in the car, watching Grandfather get several new rolls of film and finally pay for it all, shake hands with Mr. Bronstein and thank him not only for the service, but also for his professional advice. Altogether it often took more than half an hour, until finally Aunt Zofia rebelled against Grandfather's passion for photography, and when he dashed out of the car shouting 'Just look at that girl in the headscarf, Zosia, doesn't she look like a Hucuł highlander?' she stayed put with an offended look on her face. And that's how it was on the River Dunajec above Rożnów, where they went one afternoon. Grandfather leaped out of the car and started snapping away like a man possessed, because just then an RWD 6 airplane, the sort of plane in which Żwirko and Wigura won the Challenge, came flying over the valley and the skeleton of the newly erected dam. Grandfather Karol stood and watched this machine in total fascination, because suddenly that whole view of the hills, the river, the airplane and the dam had deeply touched his technician's soul; after all, that airplane, constructed in Mielec, was right up-to-date, the dam had been built at lightning speed and was also the latest design, and in his modest heart Grandfather felt something like an engineer's pride at the thought that in spite of all, this resurrected garbage heap, this poor old country of his, even if rather slowly, was actually getting itself out of the doldrums, and maybe in twenty years' time it would be a significant place in between Russia and Germany. That's how I imagine his euphoric state of mind," I said, looking Miss Ciwle in the eyes, "as he photographed that airplane gliding gently over the valley, with the dam and a forest of cranes in the background. Meanwhile the Citroën, though parked with the hand brake on, started to roll down the hill; Aunt Zofia's cries and desperate waving were of no use as it picked up speed, ran toward the sloping riverbank and finally plunged into the Dunajec, none of which was noticed by the photography lover whose gaze was fixed on the sky. Only when the RWD 6 had disappeared over the horizon did Grandfather turn around and realize the gravity of the situation: the car was already steeped in water halfway up the doors, but it wasn't pond water, it was a rushing torrent, and the Citroën was getting further from the bank by the second, while the terrified Aunt Zofia kept sounding the horn, then fruitlessly trying to push on the door. She was only saved by a miracle, because when the water had already reached the windows and Grandfather, up to his waist in it and having trouble keeping his balance, had proved just as unable to open the wretched door, the front wheel of the Citroën came to rest against an underwater boulder. Just then the workmen from the dam came running up and hauled on a rope tied to the back bumper; slowly, centimeter by centimeter, they tore the car and Aunt Zofia from the grip of the current, and they would have completed the job if the rope hadn't snapped, but fortunately the car was already in far shallower water by now, which allowed them to release Aunt Zofia from her trap and swiftly convey her on several manly shoulders to the stony shore, where the saved woman and her rescuers now stood and watched as the Citroën sank into the river for good and all." "Didn't they try to get it out?" asked Miss Ciwle, lighting another rollie. "How deep is the Dunajec in its upper reaches?" "Not its upper, but its middle to lower reaches, besides which please consider the fact that at the time the dam was almost finished and they had just started testing it by stemming the flow of the water at Rożnów, on top of which Grandfather Karol refused even to think of it. As soon as his aunt had left for Borysław he immediately got in touch with Mr. Rosset, Citroën representative for southern Poland, and told him about the defective braking system, with particular regard to the hand brake in automobiles produced by his firm, but Mr. Rosset politely replied that this incident was not the result of manufacturing faults, but poor utilization. ( . . . ) And so to conclude the conversation Grandfather Karol stated drily that from now on he would choose an Austrian Steyr, a Czech Tatra, a Polish or Italian Fiat over any French car, because the Steyr, the Tatra, and even the Polish Fiat had hydraulic brakes, while Citroën still insisted on those archaic cables, which meant that each wheel braked separately, and the disks were never all being locked with equal force." "So what did he drive after that?" asked Miss Ciwle, handing me the ashtray. "What make?" "It was a Mercedes-Benz 170 V," I replied, "with a beautiful moss-green body."

From Mercedes-Benz. Z Listow do Hrabala (Kraków: Znak, 2001). By arrangement with the publisher.

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