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Sunday, 16 October 2016

His Current Woman

I don’t drive a car; I don’t own a boat; I don’t use a computer and the only complex device I’m familiar with is a woman – Jerzy Pilch, His Current Woman


Although it’s often frustrating how long we Anglophones have to wait for books by our favourite (or at least new and interesting) authors to appear in English translations—and not all do—it’s still a good time to be reading if you’re at all interested in something other than an Anglo-American take on the world. The problem is that, although the world is in many ways shrinking, our understanding of it has not expanded to meet it halfway. Subtleties often fly over our heads or scurry between our feet. Case in point: the protagonist in Jerzy Pilch’s novel His Current Woman, Paweł Kohoutek. Kohoutek means “little rooster” in Czech and once you realise he’s a lothario it’s not hard to see why the name’s appropriate—little cock, or as we Scots would put it (and it’s an expression rarely voiced without being laced with anything from disdain to out and out contempt): wee prick. And he is. He’s a wee prick. Of course if you’re not Scottish you won’t know how we use the expression—it can even be a term of affection—and so none of this is especially helpful other than underlining my initial point: you’re not always going to get the joke. I didn’t. And it wasn’t’ until I read Joanna Diane Caytas’s article Strong and Weak Forces of Otherness in Struggles for Social Control as Reflected in Jerzy Pilch’s Inne rozkosze (His Current Woman) I started to see there was more to this book than I’d first realised. Even the title. Inne rozkosze doesn’t mean “his current woman”; it translates as Other Pleasures. I can see why they would change it—Kohoutek’s love interest is only once referred to by her real name (Justyna Kotkowska); the rest of the time she’s simply his “current woman”—but there was a reason why Pilch chose that original title. It is, I assume, either a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 2:8—

I also accumulated silver, gold, and the wealth of kings and their kingdoms. I gathered around me both male and female singers, along with what delights a man—all sorts of mistresses. (International Standard Version)

—or a direct translation from one of the numerous Czech Bibles out there. It doesn’t really matter. In the book the verse is rendered as, “You have got your men singers and women singers … and other pleasures of the sons of men…” Actually it says “gat you” which I’m assuming is a typo.

Young's Literal Translation is worth a mention here because it doesn’t use the word “mistresses” or “concubines”: it says “a wife and wives”. My wife and I have recently started watching a show called Hand of God. Brief summary: A morally-corrupt judge suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Following his epiphany he finds he can no longer have sex with the hooker who calls on him once a week and yet he can’t give her up, so, at the end of the last episode we watched, he persuades his minister—who also has issues—to “marry” him and the hooker so he can have sex with her with a clean conscience. Yeah, I know. In His Current Mistress Kohoutek, who is not a well-read man, similarly deludes himself. He explains his reasoning to his mentor Dr Oyerma:

“I accept that I’m just a common philanderer, the most ordinary kind of adulterer. A low grade Casanova, a second-rate Don Juan. Fine, so be it: That’s all that interests me; it’s all I think about; I accept it, though that’s an oversimplified and ugly way of stating the truth, because after all it’s not the case that I bring myself down to my own genitalia, that I reduce my current women to their erogenous zones; quite the opposite, it’s precisely at such times that infinity opens up before me; at such times God is close, for in the Gospel according to Matthew the Lord Jesus saith,‘Where two come together, I am between them....’”

The doctor, after giving the matter some thought, responds thusly:

“There’s just one thing I have to make clear to you right away, since as you know I’m fond of precision. Though reading books tires you and bores you, Kohoutek, when you do it, at least do it attentively, especially when you’re reading the book entitled the Holy Scriptures. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the Lord Jesus does not say, ‘Where two come together, I am between them’; He says, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them,’ and that means something rather different.”

For years Kohoutek has been chasing women. He’s now forty but showing no signs of slowing down. How, exactly, he’s been as successful as he has is something of a wonder. He’s not exactly what you’d call a catch. He’s a vet. And I don’t mean war veteran. I mean horse doctor. But he clearly has the gift of the gab or whatever the Polish equivalent is. And that’s what’s got him into his current predicament. Let me explain:

When it came to seduction, Kohoutek was a natural. He thoroughly believed what he was saying. At the time of the telling, he really did want to spend the rest of his life with the woman he was talking to. He really did imagine to himself all those details and episodes. This was the source of his credibility and his narrative proficiency. […] He would wake up in the morning at the side of a woman with whom the previous evening he had been planning a life together, and he would say to himself, Good grief, what a load of nonsense I came out with yesterday, and he would flee in absolute panic.

And, up until now, he’s got away with it. Up until now. But that wouldn’t make much of a story, would it? The book opens as follows:

When in the year of our Lord 1990 Paweł Kohoutek, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, looked out of the window and beheld his current woman crossing the lawn, with his usual conceited fatalism he imagined that an adventure had befallen him which ought to serve as a warning for all. Kohoutek’s current woman was wearing a navy blue overcoat; her divine skull was covered with a funky little hat, while the colossal suitcase she was dragging behind her left a dark trail of final defeat in the pale November grass.

This is clearly going to be a problem. Actually, no. The following group of eccentrics is going to be the problem:

Kohoutek’s current woman might have been spotted by Kohoutek’s mother. She might have been spotted by Kohoutek’s father. She might have been spotted by the pastor’s wife or by the pastor. She might have been spotted by Miss Wandzia or by Miss Wandzia’s mother. She might have been spotted by Oma, Kohoutek’s grandmother. The postmaster, Kohoutek’s grandfather, as he took some fresh air, might also have come to the conclusion that someone closely associated with Kohoutek was on the lawn. Kohoutek’s current woman might also have been seen by Kohoutek’s child, and she might have been noticed by Kohoutek’s wife. Anyone might have spotted her

Apart from living in the same house together—it’s a very big house—the collective have one other thing in common: they’re all Lutherans. Some 87% of Poles are deemed to be Roman Catholics but the number of Protestants is not exactly small. The Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland has—depending on which Wikipedia article you trust—between 60 and 80,000 members. Pilch was brought up as a Lutheran in Wisła in the Beskid region in Cieszyn Silesia, Southern Poland and close to the border with the Czech Republic and this is where the action takes place; it’s the only town in Poland with a majority Protestant population. The characters in the novel come across as isolationists, more than keen to protect and preserve their way of life. Think Amish or Mennonite and you have the right idea. Of the 81,000 German-speaking immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania almost all were affiliated with Lutheran or German Reformed churches. To this day they speak Pennsylvania Dutch which is a form of German (the “Dutch” being probably a mistranslation of Deutch). Likewise in Wisła German language use is part of cherished local tradition going back centuries. The distinct local dialect is based on the Polish language, but major German and Czech influences have remained strong, and the vernacular differs markedly from the Silesian dialect spoken in Upper Silesia.

The point is they’re old-fashioned, God-fearing people who tend to frown on things like lying and adultery. So when Kohoutek’s current woman abandons life in Kraków and appears out the blue—“[s]he may have been brought here by a mad feminine love, or perhaps feminine cruelty”—expecting him to make good on his promises the scene is set for a jolly good farce. Kohoutek secretes his madwoman in the attic of the old slaughterhouse (fairly obvious nod to Jane Eyre) but that’s understandably only going to buy him so much time. She would be found sooner rather than later especially since the family was busy hunting down a “a two-litre jar of beef meatballs that Oma, Kohoutek’s grandmother, had hidden somewhere” and it was only a matter of time before one of them climbed the stairs to see; obviously because of Oma’s age and the difficulty she has walking this would not be their first choice but that doesn’t mean it was off the list completely.

Over the next nineteen chapters—and a chapter-long epilogue—we watch Kohoutek struggle not only with the practicalities of having his mistress so close to hand but also himself; things have come to a head and certain truths have to be faced and dealt with. What adds a nice touch is who Pilch has as his omniscient narrators, the ghosts of old Lutherans who come out with things like:

We old Lutherans, who are at the same time the real narrators of this story, cannot refrain from mentioning that in the Cieszyn region of Silesia spring has all the abruptness of a reformation—sudden heat waves sweep the length and breadth of the land like heretical fires.


We old libertines, laughing as we observe this scene, yet filled with dread from a peculiar kind of sympathy, might add that Kohoutek’s anger and desperation were undergirded by a rational cunning.

It’s a nice touch.

Where this book rises above farce is in its presentation of Kohoutek. There’s an innocence to him and an ignorance; despite years of experience he really doesn’t understand women. He certainly doesn’t understand his wife although she understands him far better than he ever could understand himself. (So often the case.) Or his mother. Or his grandmother if it comes to that. And he certainly doesn’t understand his current lover. On one level, certainly at the start, this looks like a light read—how is he going to get out of the current mess he’s in and how soon before another crisis arises?—but, as Caytas puts it, “it also raises essential questions of identity, tolerance, and personal integrity.”

The whole “madwoman in the attic” trope is worth dwelling on for a moment because it’s a little too easy to reduce Justyna to “the other woman”—and there have been plenty of bunny boilers, stalkers, jilted lovers and the like—simply because of the way the text insists on always referring to her in relation to her lover. (If you wish to wallow then Anna Szawara’s paper Jerzy Pilch’s Madwoman in the Attic: An Inquiry into the Modern Woman In Pilch’s Inne Rozkosze (His Current Woman), and the Significance of Her Sexual and Textual Influence is worth a read.) In the same episode of Hand of God I talked about earlier there is a scene where Crystal is asked how much she hates always being defined by Pernell, her husband. Her response:

I love my husband, but... [chuckles] I did not get my ass into Stanford and build my business from scratch so I could be called “the judge's wife.”

The wife in His Current Woman is a lot like Crystal. She’s intelligent and perceptive and Justyna is painted like a young her. In Szawara’s essay she notes:

I argue that although this woman was written by a man, her function in the plot is parallel and perhaps supreme to the function of the protagonist within the novel. She is leading the action from the first line of the novel, a constant presence and concern of the protagonist throughout…

There’s truth there but not only her. I would argue that all the major female characters in the book are the ones with the real power. Justyna isn’t mad when she arrives. As Dr Oyermah suggests rather than being led to Kohoutek by a demon she might simply have decided to pay him a visit because she’s “just an ordinary unpredictable young lady.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t become mad—in the broadest sense and including angry—because of the way she’s manhandled and mishandled. And the culmination of that is her face appearing at the window during Oma’s birthday resulting in a chapter that PG Wodehouse would not have been ashamed at writing.

This is a delightful book. What may dissatisfy some is that most of the characters are pencil sketches rather than oil paintings. To be fair most everyone gets their five minutes in the spotlight but it’s hard not to want to know just a wee bit more. Things are tied up at the end but a part of me would’ve like a twentieth chapter rather than jumping straight to the epilogue but I can’t gripe; I’ve done the same myself, skipped all the stuff I couldn’t be bothered writing about and given the readers just enough dots to join. We do get to find out what happens to Paweł and Justyna—or at least where they’re heading—but I guess it’s up to each reader to decide how happy the ending is.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


Only four books by Jerzy Pilch are available in English at the moment:

  • His Current Woman trans. Bill Johnston: Hydra Books/Northwestern Univ. Press, 2002
  • The Mighty Angel trans. Bill Johnston: Open Letter (University of Rochester) 2009
  • A Thousand Peaceful Cities trans. by David Frick: Open Letter (University of Rochester) 2010
  • My First Suicide trans. David Frick: Open Letter (University of Rochester) 2012

I would be keen to read more by him. This bio certainly makes me curious to read more.

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