Szczeban Towardoch’s novel “Humility” – Culture

Polish novelist Szczepan Towardoch strikes a fine balance in his novels. On the one hand, it satisfies the desire of a large number of readers for stunning historical photo sheets, and on the other hand, it gives space for personal (and often provocative) reflections on politics, nation and class. Towardoch’s readers are treated to the requisite dose of sensory surprise that keeps them impatient enough for the author’s most meticulous walk. It’s the same in his new novel, Demot, a daring journey through the turmoil of the antebellum penultimate period, told after the character of an Upper Silesian lieutenant named Alois Pokora (German: “Demut”).

Twardoch’s style is immersive, expressive, and even ecstatic, but at the same time cool, disciplined and subtle. The tone was already set with the first sentence: “I am thinking of your face when the first white star flashed in the black sky, still far from the horizon.” The star fragments, the sky is arching over Flanders, and the horizon is ahead. We’re at war, but it’s about the woman. In the trenches, the lieutenant indulges in an unrequited love for Agnes, his goddess and his lover, who torments him as much as she can. “The geometry of your features is burning deep in my mind, deeper than my parents’ faces.”

At the action level, great action cinema is presented

Twardoch likes to put it on thick, but with great consistency and a plan. At the plot level, great action cinema is offered (it’s no coincidence that Twardoch’s critically acclaimed novel “The Boxer” has already become a TV series called “King of Warsaw”), but cultural and political problems are also discussed with some seriousness. In Towardoch, “authoritarian” and “liberal” style of thinking meet in a rare and interesting way.

Let’s start with the second: it relates to events that have a concrete historical and social background. If you will, it’s about the history of the mentality, about supra-individual experiences of humiliation, decadence, and lack of belonging. Pokora tested him and endured as a citizen and soldier of the German Reich and representative of the Silesian minority whose mother tongue is Silesia (“Polish water”). A non-German, non-Polish of proletarian origin, Pokora harassed and despised him from an early age.

Szczepan Twardoch: Humility. a novel. Translated from Polish by Olaf Kohl. Rowohlt Berlin, 2022. 464 pages, €25.

(Photo: Rowohlt/Rowohlt)

The discrimination fueled him with the feeling that he would always be someone no one else could bully. The Upper Silesian Twardoch devotes a great deal of space to this Basic Constitution of Upper Silesia for being the linguistic, social, and political “underdog” and here also sexually. Although the protagonist of his novel (for reasons that only become clear at a later stage) was highly educated, Pokora studied philosophy at Breslau before the war, but everything he does and thinks revolves around the wounds of an early injury, as Twardoch never tires of showing up.

But of course, Pokura isn’t just the poor guy you think he is. As with previous Twardoch characters, the boxer’s heart beats in him. In addition to his hero’s insult to the almost ecstatic psyche, he has a strong will to defend himself. Especially when you think that you are nothing and no one, there are many possible uses of war, which in the novel do not end even after the war. The pokora, polished by World War II and adorned with two iron crosses, would make itself useful as a war horse. After the war, he’s more dead than alive, throwing himself into new skirmishes as a random Spartak, consuming lots of cocaine with new friends, testing his sexual vigilance thanks to his gay buddies, and even facing Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in a key scene in the Red People’s Guards.

Pokora interrupts their somewhat routine observations about the revolution by explaining to masterminds bewildered about the political power of nothingness and non-unilateralism. According to Pokora, he was “completely cut off from our social class and never reached any higher class, any other class whatsoever. He was plucked from the village, planted in cities where I never took root. Even before the war” – Pokora himself recommends to comrades that it is “a pure anomaly” , lacks solidarity, has no classes, but is ready to fight.

Drama station for sexual errors

What does Towardoch get? That there can be no “class view” of those who are really declassified? But can Pokora not put his struggle for dignity at the service of a greater cause? It didn’t come to that, Pokora narrowly escaped the execution of Freikorpsman and then became Freikorpsman himself, although this commitment was also short-lived. He is rescued by a German aristocrat and gentleman who once went with him to school in Gleiwitz and has a homosexual inclination towards Pokora. But only in secret, because, he says, the friend actually wants to marry Rheitmeister Théwlett’s sister.

Captain Thewlett? Has Towardoch read ‘Male Fantasies’ by Thewillette? The great thing about the novel is that you think this author is capable of everything, like kitsch, clichés, pathos, flashy influences and exaggerations – but also read Theweleit. This novel is about soldiers’ bodies and erotic fantasies. But his hero is not a German man, who, after the war, as a Freikorps fighter, slipped into new armor against the imagined female (if we are to follow Thewlett’s interpretation).

This is again dismissed for being a German (or being Polish), which is why Pokora’s story can also be understood as a terminal drama of other sexual misdeeds. First, he is a kind of “Incel” – an involuntary celibate man – in the event of sadomasochism being dependent on Dominatrix, then Pokora, due to lack of alternatives, embarks on transcendent adventures, and finally ends up in the port of the heterogeneous nuclear family, from which, and with So, the old desire to succumb will soon sell it again. Pokura’s only really active commitment is his submissiveness – but is this also a reflection of his origins from an oppressed social class? The comrades of the Red People’s Guard may be right when they criticize that Pokora’s view of world revolution is too guided by individual psychology. This could also apply to Twardoch’s own novel, which she doesn’t (and doesn’t have to) decide whether she wants to offer fantastic fantasy cinema or a more in-depth social critique.

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