Dark legend of Polish literature Bruno Jasieński carried many enigmas to his nameless grave.
Dark legend of Polish literature Bruno Jasieński carried many enigmas to his nameless grave. From his early years as a futurist poet to his Soviet period, questions remain: What was his real name? How did he really die? Why was a Tajik mountain named after him?
Does Jasieński’s transformation from a dandy wooing crowds with extravagant verse and prose celebrating the coming of the revolution in the West (for example, his outlandish serial novel I Burn Paris published in English by Twisted Spoon in 2012) to a Soviet writer travelling through Central Asia and preferring to write in Russian, hold some sinister secret? A closer look at the idiosyncrasies of his life sheds some light over the ill-known, shadowy character.
A Name from nowhere
Jasieński was born Wiktor Zysman on June 1, 1901. His father was a Jewish doctor in the surroundings of the south-central Polish city of Sandomierz, an important man for his small community. For unclear reasons, little Wiktor was adopted by a certain Jan Jasieński, reasons all the more unclear since Jan Jasieński did not exist. Perhaps Jakub Zysman did not want his son to bear a Jewish name.
After turning 19, Jasieński dropped Wiktor in favor of Bruno, an uncommon given name in Poland. This eagerness to change names while his father was a well-known, respected citizen remains difficult to explain, but contributes to the theory that even from his earliest years, Bruno Jasieński had something to hide.
In his youth, as with all dandies eager to imitate Western ways, Jasieński paid particular care to his clothes and mannerisms. Known for his unusual colour combinations, he generally wore brown shirts with black ties, or blue shirts with red ascots, accompanied by the holy trinity of dandy accessorizing: a silver cane, a monocle and a long cigarette holder.
In addition to his love for overbearing cologne, he did not trill his 'r' –normally very much trilled in Polish – which lent him somewhat of a French accent, although he himself insisted this was a speech defect over which he had no control.
The Powlesh Repablyk
Furthermore, it is unclear whether Jasieński was dyslexic, as one can surmise when reading his manuscripts, or if his spelling was a conscious attempt at simplifying the often complicated rules of Polish orthography. One can conceivably admit that the difficult Polish language may pose problem even to a native Pole, but some of Jasieński’s mistakes evoke a desire to shock rather than orthographical incompetence – for his country he wrote 'the Powlesh Repablyk' and for Jesus, 'Krayst'. The latter hypothesis would correspond to Jasieński’s dark sense of humor, which we can also witness in his cycle Epitaphs for Great Poles (Unfortunately Still Alive).
I Burn Paris
His I Burn Paris, first published in French, tells the story of a frustrated worker during a plague epidemic. The story, or rather its success, got Jasieński deported from France, from where he went to Moscow via Saint Petersburg. It is then that begins the Kafkaesque metamorphosis from a colourful cosmopolitan poet to a dull writer-apparatchik in the USSR.
Little by little, his colorus fade away as he toils, along with several other authors, on a book entitled A History of the Construction of the Stalin Canal Between the White and the Baltic Seas. The book deals, among other not- so-subtly-disguised political claims, with how building the infamous canal contributed to reeducating forced labourers. Jasieński’s chapter was entitled 'Conquer the Class Enemy'.
Jasieński’s political career led him to Tajikistan, where he began to supervise border activity near Uzbekistan from 1930 onwards. These travels inspired the social-realist work Man Changes His Skin. The novel, a textbook example of Soviet literature of the 1930s, includes plenty of poetic descriptions of irrigation systems built in the plains of Central Asia, imposed on rural areas with love from the almighty Soviet power. Nevertheless, his labour brought him some fame, since he was awarded honourary citizenship by Tajikistan, and a mountain in the Pamir range is reputedly named after him.
The final mystery
Up until 1992, it was universally believed that Jasieński had been sentenced to 15 years in a labour camp then died on the way there. In 1992, however, it was discovered in Moscow archives that he had been shot on September 17, 1938 then buried in a nameless grave near the Russian capital. According to the same archives, he received a death sentence on the grounds of 'Polish nationalism'.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 17/09/2013, edited and translated by LB, 17/09/2013