A special dispatch from PEN Atlas this week features two stories by Sławomir Mrożek, the Polish author and cartoonist who died last month, and who will be fondly remembered for his surreal and subversive work
Translated from the Polish by Garry Malloy
THE HOLE IN THE BRIDGE
There once was a river with a small town on each of its banks. The two towns were connected by a road which ran across the bridge.
One day a hole appeared in the bridge. The hole needed to be patched up, and this was the general consensus of the residents of both towns. A dispute arose, however, about who should do it. The inhabitants of one town considered themselves to be more important than those of the other, and vice versa. The people on the right bank were of the opinion that the road led, above all, to their town and therefore the town on the left bank should repair it, because they rely on it more. The town on the left bank considered itself to be the goal of every journey and thus the repair of the bridge lay in the interests of those on the right bank.
The dispute lasted, as did the hole in the bridge. And the longer the hole remained, the more the mutual dislike between the little towns grew.
One time an old bloke fell into the hole and broke his leg. The residents of both towns urgently began questioning him to ascertain if he was coming from the right bank to the left or indeed from the left to the right, in order to see which town should accept responsibility for the accident. He did not remember, however, as he was drunk on the evening in question.
Some time after that, a traveller’s carriage was travelling across the bridge when it fell into the hole and broke an axle. Because the traveller was passing through both towns, that is to say travelling neither from one town to the other, nor vice versa, the inhabitants of both towns treated the accident with indifference. The enraged traveller got out of the carriage and asked why the hole hadn’t been patched up and, having found out, declared:
‘I wish to buy this hole. Who owns it?’
Both towns simultaneously declared their ownership of the hole.
‘Either you lot or you lot. The side which owns the hole must prove it.’
‘How do we prove it?’ chorused the representatives of both communities.
‘It’s simple. Only the owner of the hole has the right to patch it up. I’ll buy it from whoever repairs it.’
The townsfolk from both sides got to work, while the traveller smoked a cigar and his coachman changed the axle. In a flash they repaired the bridge, after which time they came to collect their payment for the hole.
‘What hole?’ asked the astonished traveller, ‘I can’t see any hole here. For a long time now I’ve been looking around for a hole to buy, I’m prepared to pay a handsome sum for one; however, you don’t have a hole for sale. Do you take me for a fool?’
And with that he got into his carriage and rode off. Both towns were meanwhile reconciled. Now the residents of the towns agree to keep watch on the bridge, and whenever a traveller approaches they are sure to stop him and beat him up.
‘I’ll take that one,’ said the buyer in English, pointing to a stallion.
‘He says he’ll take that one,’ I told the stable manager, in accordance with my role as interpreter.
‘Impossible. That one has already been sold.’
‘I most certainly have not,’ said the horse in our mother tongue.
‘What did he say?’ asked the buyer.
‘Doesn’t matter,” said the manager. ‘He talks nonsense sometimes.’
‘That one or none at all,’ insisted the American. ‘He’s a fine horse and, what’s more, he can talk.’
The stable manager took me aside.
‘I can’t sell that particular one, because it isn’t a horse.’
‘Well what is it then?’
‘Two intelligence service agents disguised as a horse. From before the revolution. Whenever our Generalissimo wanted to go for a ride on horseback, he would hop up on them, or rather, on it. His personal bodyguards.’
‘Well what are they still doing here?’
‘They’re hiding. You understand that now, since the revolution ended, former intelligence service agents don’t have an easy life.’
Meanwhile, this pantomime horse had drawn up to us.
‘Quit fooling around,’ it said to the manager, ‘this is our only chance of getting into America.’
‘Does that horse speak Romanian?’ asked the American, approaching our group.
‘No, only Polish. Why do you ask?’
‘I represent an organization which provides financial help to Eastern European countries. We’d send him to Romania for breeding purposes, to improve the stock there.’
‘Erm…I don’t think so,’ said the horse and trotted off.
‘What did he say?’ the American asked me.
‘That he’ll be back in a minute,’ I lied. Ultimately, these matters are for us Poles to decide.
These stories were published 1996 in Opowiadania 1990–1993 (Stories 1990–1993) by Noir sur Blanc, Warsaw. By arrangement with Diogenes Verlag. Translation © 2012 by Garry Malloy. All rights reserved.
About the author
Sławomir Mrożek (29 June 1930 – 15 August 2013) was a leading Polish dramatist, writer and cartoonist. In 1963 Mrożek emigrated to Italy and France and then to Mexico. In 1996 he returned to Poland and settled in Kraków. In 2008 he moved back to France.
Sławomir Mrożek reigned as the preeminent playwright and satirist of Eastern Europe for the past half century. He debuted in 1958 with a play Policja (The Police). Mrożek’s plays, now considered classics, were welcomed immediately by both stage directors and the public. He gained world fame in 1964 with the play Tango.
Mrożek was a sharp critic of all oppressive systems during the Cold War. Bordering on the absurd with its combination of humour, wit, and the grotesque, his work transgressed political and economic systems, revealing both their universality and their nonsensical aspects.
About the translator
Garry Malloy studied Polish philology under Dr Elwira Grossman at the University of Glasgow, and graduated in 2003. In 2011-12, he was mentored by award-winning translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones as part of the first full mentoring programme run by the British Centre for Literary Translation and the Translators Association. Garry’s translation of Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s haunting Holocaust memoir “The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy” was published in May 2013 by Wydawnictwo Literackie. He has also translated a number of texts for the Polish Book Institute and the Miłosz Festival in Krakow. He currently lives and works in Warsaw.
For information on an exhibition about Sławomir Mrożek, please see this link.
“I picked on Mrozek because, to be honest, I’d never read him and felt I should. I’m very glad I did: for the 42 stories here, some of them less than a page long, offer varied experiences which you won’t find anywhere else. They are absurdist parables, by turns hilarious, unsettling and enigmatic.” Short story collection The Elephant by Sławomir Mrożek, reviewed in the Guardian. For more, please see this link.
You can purchase the book The Elephant via this link.