Paul Barley’s simple path

He introduced Poles to Jack Crabb (from "Little Big Man"), to Yossarian ( from "Catch-22") and to Kilgore Trout (from "Breakfast of Champions"), all who were to become for many a daily reference point, an ironic echo. But perhaps more importantly, he also made Poles aware of himself, of Lech Jęczmyk

All the obituaries of Jęczmyk cite the names of these four writers: Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Berger. Rightly so. However to complete the list of the major five authors he translated one must also add the name of Ursula K. le Guin. And, of course, there are others whose names should be added to the list of those he translated as well. For example, admirers who are more into fantasy, would want to add that of Brian W. Aldiss, while those favoring the high literature of the 80s and 90s would opt for Kazuo Ishiguro, and fans of American prose as the 20th century slipped into the 21st would nominate his translations of Chuck Palahniuk. And even then, there would be more -- J.G. Ballard's unforgettable "Empire of the Sun", Kenneth Brower's "Spaceship and the Canoe", and dozens of minor English and Russian things to be found in the sci-fi anthologies "Steps into the Unknown" ["Kroki w nieznane" -- the Polish sci-fi anthology series, launched by Jęczmyk in 1970] or in old issues of "Fantastyka" [the Polish monthly fantasy and sci- fi magazine], which Jęczmyk helped found. (Indeed, it would be worthwhile at some point to compile a complete list of all of Jęczmyk's translations).

However, to revert, it is no coincidence that the names of Philip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Heller, Berger, always appear first among the authors Jęczmyk translated even if he never was the sole and exclusive translator of their work into Polish. (That rare status, when a translator assimilates the entire oeuvre of a given author, is exemplified in the work of Piotr W. Cholewa, who brilliantly translated Terry Pratchett's multi-books into Polish). But not so with Jęczmyk. Other translations of books by Dick, le Guin, also Vonnegut, do exist. Some are really great -- for example Wacław Niepokólczycki's translation of "Pianola".

A good school of irony

And yet the distinguished quartet of Dick, Vonnegut, Heller, Berger always surfaces when considering Jęczmyk's work as a translator. Four very different authors, with very different styles and yet linked by a common tone of contrariness, mockery, irony. "Catch-22" -- once we stop being dazzled by its high-end pure nonsense humor, Orr's flairs, Milo Minderbinder's deal-making, the slyness of L.P. Wintergreen -- is a radical destruction of the myth of G.I. Joe and the ridicule and humiliation of the army that brought freedom to half (sadly only half) of Europe. And this is why the book became the favorite reading of the Woodstock generation. The bitterness and distaste with which Vonnegut describes the towns of the Midwest, the the calculating cunning of publishers, writers and women, the pop culture of the United States in the third quarter of the twentieth century is so virulent that had the propaganda specialists in the Eastern Bloc had more sense, they should have published it in large quantities. "Little Big Man" was probably the first such successful deconstruction of a straightforward narrative about brave gunslingers and good Indians from the Wild West: once read, it was difficult to watch John Wayne westerns with a straight face. Dick, the least historical and political of the four, also persistently constantly questions the reality of the world and the honesty of human motivations. This, you could say, is a four-pack of mockery, perfect for formatting contemporary professional Polish scoffers like Maciej Łubieński, Wojciech Orliński or Krzysztof Varga.

Yes, they too "come from him [Jęczmyk]". But how to reconcile this harvest with a detail from one of Lech Jęczmyk's biographies that says he was "a co-organizer of the guard in the church of St. Stanisław Kostka in Warsaw”? Or with his radical criticism of modern democracies, often expressing conviction that the old feudal formula was returning in a new technological version, with the rule of a narrow elite and plebs deprived of real rights? Or with his several years of activity in the now-forgotten circles of the Polish Independence Party [Polska Partia Niepodległościowa, 1985-1992]? Consider his activities in the 1980s when he was a distributor of underground publications at a time when he was being investigated by the then Security Service. (Paweł Tomczyk, in Jęczmyk’s extensive obiuary published by the Polish Press Agency, writes of how he was investigated by Department III-1 of the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, as part of the so called "Czytelnik" ["Reader", a publication house] registration questionnaire).

Vonnegut in a forage cap?

The distribution of underground publications and even his involvement in the Polish Independence Party may well be forgivable. But an organizer of the church guard with those elderly gentlemen flaunting their exaggerated pomposity in their linen forage caps! That's like a ready-made absurdist joke, one that might be used by Varga, or, indeed, by Vonnegut, were he writing about Poland. Was Jęczmyk similar to the French libertines ready as it were, after years of free life, to convert and join the Carthusians? Or could it be that his strongly declared distancing from the charms of modernity was simply a biographical practical joke?
Lech Jęczmyk as a guest of the International Festival of Comics and Games in Łódź in 2012. Photo: Wikimedia/ Zorro2212 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
No, his biography is not marked by libertinism or radical turns. Above all, as it is very characteristic of Lech Jęczmyk, modesty would never allow him (as happened to so many others) to make of his life either a monument to be worshiped at or a whip for those who think differently.

Nearly every recallection about him touches on his childhood in Bydgoszcz, and then wartime Warsaw where the Germans relocated his family to, and how after being blacklisted in the early 1950s [by the communist government] he failed to get accepted and pursue his dream of studying English philology. Instead, he read Russian studies, significantly sharing this experience with such later writers as Janusz Szpotański or Andrzej Walicki, who also managed to survive the worst years of Stalinism studying at what would appear to have been be the most ideologically rigid department [of the University of Warsaw]. It seems unlikely that Jęczmyk harbored any illusions at that time. His brother Janusz (1938-2008), a poet and translator of poems (including bitter rhymes in Vonnegut's novels translated by Lech) was arrested in October 1957 during a demonstration in defense of the "Po Prostu" [the independent literary weekly], which Gomułka [Poland's communist leader between 1956 and 1970] closed down.

  Lech Jęczmyk began his career as a translator and editor at the "Iskry" ["Sparks"] publishing house, collaborated with the student weekly "Itd" ["ETC"], and worked briefly at the Institute of International Affairs. He made a name for himself at the "PIW" ["National Publishing Institute"] after offering his services to translate works by Heller and Vonnegut as well as Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". (It was years before Kesey's equally anarchistic and non-God-fearing novel was eventually translated into Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz.) As Janusz L. Wiśniewski [the Polish scientist and writer] recalls, the Heller and Vonnegut books reached Jęczmyk through Robert Gamble, whom he had met during a "behind the Iron Curtain" trip by Harvard students from the US to Poland in 1958. Gamble was to remain involved with Poland for many years, establishing the "Media Rodzina" ["Media Family"] Publishing House in the Third Polish Republic. Habent sua fata libelli.

Dream about publishing house

Jęczmyk had little chance of establishing a publishing house in the People's Republic of Poland, despite his great desire to do so. In "Iskry" ["Sparks"], he created the legendary sci-fi anthology series "Kroki w nieznane" ["Steps into the Unknown", 1970-1976], his ambition being to turn the series into a monthly. However, this was not to be achieved until ten years later, when he co-founded "Fantastyka", a monthly sci-fi magazine, whose foreign department he initially headed before becoming the head of publication in 1990, a position he held for three years. Meantime, on orders of the Central Committee of the Communist Party's Department of Culture, he was dismissed from "Iskry". He then found a job managing the English-language literature department of the "Czytelnik" ["Reader"] Publishing House. As the publisher of "Kroki...", then with "Czytelnik as with "Fantastyka", Jeczmyk was involved in printing both foreign writers (Dick, Harry Max Harrison) as well as Polish authors (Maciej Parowski, Janusz Zajdel and Marek Oramus) and so was actually co-creating the genre of "sociological fantasy" that, inspired by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, was attempting to describe contemporary societies through the medium of science fiction. Literary circles repaid him in a special way: Maciej Parowski, creator of today's renowned Polish sci-fi comic "Funky Koval", is responsible for the character of Paul Barley, Funky's boss and friend, who is based on Jęczmyk. Barley, undefeated in the martial arts (and drinking), is a member of the DB4 expedition, while on Earth he is the president of the "Universs" detective agency.

The description of Barley is not accidental. Jęczmyk trained at judo from the time he was in high school. In 1967, he was a medalist at the Polish Championships and he remained a member of the national judo team until 1969, one of the first in Poland to achieve 1st dan status, judo's highest ranking. He became an active member of the Church of St. Stanisław Kostka [the Warsaw church known for its religious-patriotic sermons in the 1980s] because of his skills as much as his membership of the Solidarity Movement and his involvement with the Pastoral Care of the Creative Circles. He did not wear a linen forage cap or, and if he did, it was for disguise and camouflage. He was actually the head of the group protecting Father Jerzy Popiełuszko [the Catholic priest associated with Solidarity who was murdered by the Secret Service in 1984]. Who knows what would have happened had he accompanied Fr. Jerzy to Bydgoszcz on October 19, 1984?

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But he didn't. However, a few days after the kidnapping and death of the priest, Jęczmyk, a liberal atheist, flirting with Buddhism and, like everyone else at the time, celebrating Easter and Christmas Eve in the name of custom and in spite of the communists, woke up a deeply believing Catholic. He spoke about this in a series of broadcasts, and again in his 2013 autobiography entitled "Światło i dźwięk. Moje życie na różnych planetach" ("Light and sound. My life on different planets") so simply, so modestly, without exclamatory capital letters, without wrapping it all up in a "Friendship with a Priest" narrative, that even Wojciech Orliński [the Polish journalist] would not have been able to laugh it off.

How do you spell "Berdyaev"?

It is difficult to damage the reputation of so attentive a reader of Huxley, by representing the publisher of Dick and Zajdel as a follower of conspiracy theories (or an anti-Semite or even a flat earther) yet many who could not come to terms with Jęczmyk's political diagnoses did try. Yet Jęczmyk did not care. He published two collections of penetrating sketches under the title "Nowe Średniowiecza" ("New Middle Ages" – a title clearly borrowed from the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, whose name a journalist, seemingly unfamiliar with the philosopher, changed to Berzeiev, in the Jęczmyk obituary published in "Polityka" weekly). In those sketches, Jęczmyk did not deal with the political present and the struggle between the PO [Civic Platform political party] and PiS [Law and Justice political party] or those of Democrats and Republicans. He looked at civilization from the same perspective as Johan Huizinga, Fernand Braudel or Leszek Kołakowski, writing about phenomena that might appear like new fantasy at the time, but which today are obvious at first glance. They are and were about the semantic revolution and about how such concepts as "equality" and "freedom" become hollow and meaningless; and, at the same time, they deal with how the accumulation of financial, political and media capital by narrow elites can feel in no way related to the billions of proles [the lowest social class in George Orwell's "1984"].

Jęczmyk was consistent about these views. I think that when reading Vonnegut and Heller he was able from the very beginning to see beyond the mockery of the pompous Colonel Cathcart and General Scheisskopf, whose stupidity was no different than the stupidity of the officerss in Jaroslav Hasek's "The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk". The protagonists of Dick's "Vallis" and Vonnegut's "Mother of the Night" are helpless against the accumulated lie and try to escape the system at all costs. This is what Jęczmyk tried to convey to readers in Gomułka’s and Gierek's [Edward, Polish leader in 1970s] Poland. And then, everything turned out like a popular meme that in the 70s counterculture was about hippie vagabondage and transgression, but half a century later manifests itself completely differently. From the anarchist enthusiast of Heller, through Father Jerzy's bodyguard, to the critic of global turbo-capitalism coupled with cancel culture -- I think Jęczmyk’s is a really simple path.

A similarly simple path connects, so it seems to me, his life choices: translator, editor-in-chief, publisher, underground publication distributor, judo master and pilgrim. Everything he did, he did with conviction, modestly, and calmly: in no way did he fit into the culture or time of screaming old men, egotists, and influencers. Maybe that's why so many people will miss him.

– Wojciech Stanisławski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Lech Jęczmyk was not only a translator, but also an essayist
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