A Novella by
Brian Walter Budzynski
120 pages, $12 cover price
($5 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)
Release date: 2013
Stalinist Poland. The terrors of the Second World War yet reverberate nearly a decade since its close. In the small village of Maljenka, a man is arrested for making an anti-Stalinist remark, but his punishment is not the gulag. Rather, it takes the form of a decrepit barn, deep in the wooded canopy beyond Nadmorski Park off the Baltic coast, where four other men serve their own sentences under the eyes of a small cluster of guards. Nameless, all of them, the four men traverse each day away from the barn, returning at dark, and never speak to their new consociate of what comprises their hours away. In ignorance blooms the seed of terrible possibility. Until an event of perfect cruelty leaves the guards no choice but to add this fifth man to the work detail and to trek him alongside the others to where lies a truth as horrifying as any event since the travails of the war.
The Remark is a story of the radiating effect of postwar occupation and of what sustains the human spirit in the stark face of forced labor, and, ultimately, a song for the anonymous thousands lost like ash on the sea.
In The Remark, Brian Budzynski depicts a Stalinist world as surreal, horrific or absurd as something out of Kafka or Kundera, yet flavored with the stark, realistic precision of American minimalism. An affecting and harrowing debut.
author of My Sister’s Continent and Slut Lullabies
Budzynski’s masterfully crafted novella reads like a gripping military thriller set on paper. However, this is no formulaic treatment, but rather a fascinating character study of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. What follows is the riveting story of how he and his fellow prisoners decide to fight for their lives. This is the ultimate action story for the thinking reader.
from Chapter 2
I ate much too quickly and once finished found that I was not only still hungry but my stomach was taking the fill roughly. I drained one glass of the sour water and nursed the other in my hands like a vodka. The rest ate slowly. I found myself staring intently at each of them, sizing them up, trying to assume from their features their crimes.
Finally, One spoke with an upward turn of his chin, head tilted in my direction.
The rest murmured through mouthfuls of soup, unsurprised. Then, casually, as if restarting a conversation previously abandoned, they each in turn told me of their crimes. We had little time, so all were brief, but their tales they later augmented once we were back in our cell and there was little else to speak of.
Two had become, like many, a criminal to survive. The family shop-a florist’s and knick-knack shop in a lousy corner of Gdansk-was bought by a local committeeman from Two’s older sister once she had decided to marry the Italian soldier she had been running around with. Two was left with a fraction of the proceeds and the promise of a postcard, once his sister and the soldier settled down. He did not resent her for this. The deal she had struck allowed Two to keep one of the single bedroom apartments in the adjacent building, which they had shared until the Italian came along. Hanna deserved her happiness, he said, and though he did not think that the Italian deserved her, Two had made no trouble when it was announced that they would marry in the soldier’s own home village. He didn’t care that he was not invited or wouldn’t have been able to make it if he had. Hanna was getting out, and that was as good a gift as he had ever gotten. Her postcards, of which there had been only four, were short, happy affairs that reiterated her feelings of love and safety and the hope for a large family. All arrived within the first six months. After a year, he could no longer afford to eat, the proceeds having dwindled to coins and work eluding him. He took any odd job that was offered him or that he could get by request, often the filthy work that was the last to go when day laborers gathered on the Gdansk piers for selection. He had no education, having left school following his parents’ murder at the hands of the Nazis. After that, he was too old to go back. He shoveled shit, cleaned grease traps, cleaned toilets, polished machinery, dug well holes, was a fry-cook. Every job he left under suspicion. Eventually, no one would even look at him on the ports and he was exhausting the kindness of the local merchants who gave him scraps of this and that in return for a good sweeping out of their stores or an hour’s worth of stock work.
He eventually found work with a butcher, running the counter. He found he was good with people. He could empathize with their desperation and aggressive natures. They liked him. The butcher was a kind man and offered to teach Two a trade, something he could do for a living. He was arrested after three days of employment for hiding a rack of pork ribs under his work shirt. (He refused to explain the impulse which had got him nabbed. Or perhaps he couldn’t. I suspect that thieving to survive had become as automatic to him as the intake of breath.) His trial and sentencing took place in absentia, by which time he’d already been brought to the barn to work off his ten years.
Two bore a smile through his brief tale, his brilliant white teeth a reflection, I felt, of the clean sweep God had made of his head. Though never confirmed-and I did ask-he couldn’t have been more than twenty, and I doubt even that old.
Three was twenty-four years old, of Lithuanian extraction, and a Trotskyite. He smirked when he said this, as close as he ever came to laughing, because only after his arrest did he figure out exactly who Trotsky was. A student at the university in Gdansk, studying Russian history-there was, after all, no more official Polish history-Three’s subject was legitimate in the eyes of the Party, and he felt encouraged being around other people his age, drinking, poring over books, and sharing long, often pointed discussions punctuated by glances over shoulders to be sure nothing was overheard. Academics held a tinge of the clandestine. He fell in lust with a student named Magda. They shared a couple of classes and brought together their individual circles of friends. His family, like Two’s, had died during the war and he thought of himself as an outsider, a rebel in his own mind, even while educating himself in the history and language of the occupier. A member of their group, he never discovered whom, ratted on him to the police and he was arrested. Thank God, he remarked, that Magda was not sharing his bed that night, else her arrest would have been guaranteed as a co-conspirator. As far as he could tell, he was charged with antigovernment activity and anti-Stalinist propaganda. No evidence was offered to substantiate the charges. In truth, he said, his crime was being an intellectual, which was good for a fifteen-year sentence.
Four. Age twenty-two years. Sentenced to ten. He would not explain why. His face upheld a natural arrogance, but I sensed that it was a façade designed to be off-putting and thus self-protective. Of his family and the life he led prior to his arrest, he said only that his parents, both schoolteachers in a small province to the south of Gdynia, had been lost in the war.
It was my turn. I qualified One’s statement that I had been a loud mouth, explained about my family’s shop and what had become of it, but said nothing about my parents themselves, admitting only that they were gone.
The men listened quietly and asked no questions. None of our lives were unique. It is not possible for a suffering man to be in awe of another man’s suffering. To feign it the playact would be obvious. Their silence was authentic.
I expected One to be abstruse, to offer either vague meaninglessness or curt grunts meant to signify the totality of a brutal life, but to my surprise, he was full of ardor. Later, Three would explain that it was characteristic of the urka-lifetime criminals-to run off at the mouth about their offenses. In the company of other urka, it earned respect, fear, was a sort of requirement. A reluctant man could expect a beating for his modesty. One was the eldest of us, thirty years, and his twenty-year sentence was for speculating, in other words buying vodka in one place and running it in another. NKVD members were some of his steadiest clients and even though everyone knew what he was doing, thereby making him ripe for denunciation, fear had generally kept people in line. That and the reliability of his network. They could get most anything, and usually on short notice. He had a team of eight with connections all over Moscow. His men also committed smaller crimes: theft, assault, blackmail. One’s luck turned when he discovered an NKVD officer with a penchant for pubescent boys. The man came to him every now and then for a youth to be as quietly procured as a case of liquor, and for a time, One obliged. Eventually, he felt there was more money to be made from the situation and attempted to blackmail the officer. When the officer did not comply, One had two of his men pay a visit to the officer’s flat where they beat a calling card into his face. The next morning, he was arrested in a raid on the small warehouse from which he ran his enterprise. Three of his men were killed, the rest escaped through a wine cellar that fed into a sewage tunnel. He later heard they had been captured and executed, but, he said, this was probably not true.
They will say anything, those fucks, to hear you confess, he said, not for the information, just to hear it, to know they got it out of you. As though the beatings and food depravation were not strong enough tactics. The body is too easy to bruise.
He was sent to a labor camp where he cut stone for two years and set up a new network within the camp system. This time the trade was not vodka but women from the adjacent female camp. Prisoners paid what they had-extra food, clothing, any money they had hidden away-to be snuck at night to the female barracks to rape at will. Often a female prisoner would be selected by an urka to be his exclusive property, protection from the rest of the degenerate population given in exchange for unmitigated access to her body. One had two such women. The winter of his third year, a new man arrived and attempted to take control of the criminal element of the camp. He beat and raped one of One’s chosen women so badly she died two days later. One swiftly had him killed, retribution not for the woman-he found another-but to reestablish his superiority. He did not know the man was former NKVD, himself imprisoned for having an affair with another soldier’s wife. Residual comradeship amongst the prison officials added ten years to One’s sentence; yet the camp guards did nothing to break down the criminal system. They even used the urka as an unspoken auxiliary force to keep the rest of the prisoners-the politicals and intellectuals-in line. The urka were as feared as the guards. Everyone learned their place. Another assault, this time on an ordinary political, for nothing more than a dislike for the man’s face, brought One to the barn. He had been sentenced to execution for the assault but knew something was amiss. Politicals were disposable; every season brought more and more of them. Why such a dramatic reaction for this particular one? The guards ordered to drive him to the firing squad instead put him on a train for Gdansk, where he was met by the Brows. Waiting for him at the barn was Two. Three and Four arrived a few weeks later.
He still didn’t know why it happened, said he didn’t care anymore. His gritting teeth and sour tone said otherwise. He obviously missed being such an important man.
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