Magic in Practice: Jacek Kaczmarski’s ‘Walls’
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Jacek Kaczmarski’s ‘Walls’, Cover of the 'Mury' (Walls) album by Andrei Khadanovich, photo: Vitold Leevsky, mury.jpg
A fascination with Jacek Kaczmarski led the Belarusian poet, philologist and translator Andrei Khadanovich to record an album of songs by the Polish bard in his own translation. The song ‘Walls’ (Mury) has now become the anthem of the protests in Belarus.
It was the late 1980s and my friend and I were 15 years old. We skipped a sports class and went to the cinema in a military town near Minsk.
The film was mediocre, but one of the main roles was played by a cult rock musician. For about fifteen minutes, however, we were unable to pay any attention to what was happening on the screen because some strange guys started wandering around – boys in unmarked uniforms and soldiers’ summer caps. They were the sons of local army units enjoying their last months of freedom before they had to join the army, and when they realised we weren’t from there, they decided to fight us. The end credits appeared on the screen and a song came through the speakers. Such a song that for about three minutes I forgot the entire world and my own fear. Warmth ran through me even though it was freezing cold in the cinema, and I no longer felt any danger. I was just a bit surprised by the reactions of my friends and the boys in the field service caps. They were gearing up for a fight. I naively thought: how is this possible? How can you attack someone after something like that?
It turned out that you can. They greatly outnumbered us, and were all several years older. ‘Comrade athletes, how about a little warm-up? It’s chilly in here’, one of them said as we left, obviously making us a proposition that couldn’t be refused. Then, I have a foggy recollection of getting hit very hard in the back. I flew through the air and landed somewhere, got up, fell again, got up… Finally, I was back home in my own bed recuperating, listening to my friends’ brave stories of the attack, in which none of them had been seriously injured. A girl I’d been hanging out with for the past three weeks sat on the edge of my bed, visiting me. She had also been in the cinema at the time and saw everything that happened. ‘When I heard that song, I knew everything would be okay.’ I laughed loudly: the magic had started to work.
Almost like in the movies – some years later… The wall fell, and with it the Soviet Union. Not completely, though. Not in our country. The Lenin monument still stands where it has always stood. The one in Independence Square, above the metro station called ‘Lenin Square’. I climbed this monument on 19th December 2010. The situation required a poem, or even better – a song. Full of energy, but without false pathos. A song that had passed the test of time and remained meaningful here and now. One that would allow us to forget, for three minutes, the fear that overpowered us. One that would warm us up and alleviate the nightmare of that moment. And it would be best if it could move everyone, not just me. In short, the situation required Walls – in which Lluís Llach’s Catalonian magic is preserved and passed on to listeners by Jacek Kaczmarski. It’s hard to believe that Kaczmarski didn’t write the music, if you weren’t aware of that fact before. It’s like a relay race between epochs, from the time of the struggle against the dictatorship of General Franco to the time of the Polish ‘Solidarity’ movement, miraculously flowing from one language to another. And I, unworthy of it, with a little luck, could take part in this miracle.
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Three verses and a chorus. The chorus could be sung together with the listeners or even shouted a capella in those poor acoustic conditions (many people joined in). The first two verses perfectly suited the atmosphere of the moment, but the third raised some doubts – should we sing it or not? Its meaning was deeper, wise, tragic – these words weren’t suitable for shouting at a demonstration. Besides, have a little humility, Mr. Translator – who said they would let you sing the text to the end? Exactly. After the second verse, some ‘pilots’, or maybe rather ‘cosmonauts', suddenly appeared in a solid line, wearing helmets that effectively protected their ears from the effects of magic – Catalonian, Polish or any other kind. The ‘cosmonauts’ had also received orders to organise a ‘little warm-up’ for the fight. The batons struck against the shields in a steady rhythm. Mass arrests began. The majority of the protestors took to their heels – including Kaczmarski’s translator, who hightailed it off the Lenin monument and ran through Independence Square to the ‘Lenin Square’ metro station. Every step of the way home, I met old friends whom I hadn’t seen for years. They were worried because they’d also ‘seen the film’. One friend tried to thank me: ‘During those three minutes it seemed to me that everything might end well’. Many people called me that evening to make sure I was okay. I was very surprised that people could say so many nice things in the midst of such a grim situation. And one friend even joked: ‘Anyone can sing, of course, but those two verses came out so well that the ‘cosmonauts’ couldn’t stand it – they went into action just so they wouldn’t have to listen to the third verse’. I burst out laughing. It was clear the magic still worked.
I first heard Kaczmarski in Warsaw in 1996. Not live, but from a large cassette tape player in the Belarusian editorial office of Polish National Radio, where my friend and I were invited by Aleś, a journalist we knew. ‘Listen!’ he said. ‘This is brilliant! Kaczmarski started off as a disciple of Vysotsky [the Russian singer-songwriter and poet], but he’s gone further!’ I couldn’t really imagine how one could ‘go further’ than Vysotsky, so I responded with a sceptical smirk. But when Aleś pressed play on the tape-player, my disbelief disappeared. I didn’t even understand half of it because I knew almost zero Polish at the time, but the energy of the song made a huge impression on me. There are times when you listen to a foreign poet reading his poems before he passes the microphone to an interpreter. And even though you don’t understand a single word, right before your eyes a poem in a foreign language materialises in the air which later, when you hear the translation, turns out to be the best version. It’s also possible to observe the reaction of listeners who know the language. While I listened to the recording, I looked at Aleś, and his delight infected me too. He was listening to the song Our Class (Nasza Klasa) as if it were about him and his own classmates.
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Later, I was able to observe the effect of the song Our Class more than once: when my Belarusian friends listened to the original version, when I presented them with my translation, and even when I performed this song in Belarusian for Poles who, to my surprise, didn’t judge my work too harshly – on the contrary, they responded to it with great understanding. The range of reactions was extremely wide – from tears of emotion to pointing out mistakes with barely concealed irritation. Everyone tried to prove either the ‘inaccuracy’ or ‘accuracy’ of my version, but they were judging it from the perspective of their own experience, their own personal reception of the song, rather than philological fidelity to the original.
Or maybe it isn’t possible any other way? At least my experience of translating Kaczmarski’s song lyrics proves that this principle works. When I translate some particularly important and difficult lines, I have to do it in such a way that it becomes something personal for me. And so, it’s not surprising when an attentive listener catches Belarusian allusions, quotations and realities. Just in the parts of songs, of course, where the Polish lyrics also make reference to something.
And such references appear very often. Pushkin’s declaration that ‘poetry should be stupid’ absolutely does not apply to Kaczmarski, who always remains an intellectual poet. I think the key to his poetics is in his famous song Armour (Zbroja). It expresses both Kaczmarski’s ethical and aesthetic programmes. Armour ‘forged for a giant’, too large for its owner, constantly forces him to grow into it. In my opinion, this image effectively conveys the way Kaczmarski plays with cultural traditions by including in his songs translations of Vysotsky and Jacques Brel and writing lyrics inspired by Tarkovsky’s films, paintings (Encore, Encore! by Pavel Fedotov), history, classical mythology and biblical motifs. As if trying on other suits of armour, the songwriter looks closely at the lives of various other artists, ranging from Bruno Jasieński to Bob Dylan. Kaczmarski – to quote a classic author – draws his magic from wherever he finds it.
The White-Red-White Banner of Polish-Belarusian Literature
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Andrei Khadanovich at the 11th Literary Port Festival in Wrocław, 2006, photo: Bartłomiej Sowa / AG
Of course, this magic doesn’t work on everyone. The first part of Our Class might just sound like a boring list of names to some people, so long that they don’t even want to listen to the rest of the song. I try to remind myself that besides the ‘cosmonauts’ there also exist nice ‘aliens’ whose world is no worse than yours – it’s simply quite different. Hoffman has already divided humanity into musicians and simply good people.
And since we’ve mentioned musicians: in the band that recorded this album, the only questionable element was me. The professionalism of all the other musicians is beyond doubt. I consider working with people such as the sound engineer Andrei Bogdanov and musicians Olga Podgajska and Vitaly Epov to be a great gift which I didn’t deserve either as a writer and translator, or as a singer. They didn’t resist when I took them on a voyage through the realm of Polish literature, and they did a great job. It was certainly thanks to Kaczmarski’s magic, once again, that this was able to happen.
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Originally written in Belarusian, translated from Polish by Scotia Gilroy, 1 Sep 2020
Read the original Belarusian version here.