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Lidia z Kamerunu
(Lidia from Cameroon)

Ewa Stańczyk

By Wojciech Albiński. Warsaw: Twój Styl, 2007. 246 pages. ISBN 978-83-7163-446-8. Paper. In Polish.

Królestwo potrzebuje kata, Albiński’s second book, is a collection of five short stories. The writer debuted with the highly acclaimed collection Kalahari (2003) which earned him the Józef Mackiewicz Award and a nomination for the Nike Prize. Albiński’s oeuvre is based entirely on his experience of living in South Africa, where he emigrated in the 1960s.

The first story in the collection, “Córka odnaleziona” (Found Daughter), describes Dr Roven’s affluent family which has been shaken by the disappearance of his daughter Paula, who revolts against her parents’ middle-class lifestyle and their deliberate blindness to South African problems. Roven finds Paula asleep in the flat of his patient, the Composer, who was diagnosed with HIV earlier that week. Trying to prevent his daughter’s relationship with the man and her potential contraction of the virus, he is planning to kill the patient.

The protagonist of “Obawiamy się buntu žandarmów” (We Are Afraid of the Gendarmerie Rebellion), Allain Bollet, is also a doctor. The first-person narrator, a building contractor, meets him during his business trip to West Africa. The doctor’s wife, Christine, suffers from boredom and the African climate, while Bollet treats the brutal local war as an experimental site that permits him to undertake difficult surgeries and improve his cancer and AIDS treatments.

“Ostatnia misja porucznika Lance’a” (Lieutenant Lance‘s Last Mission) provides a model representation of an African country in a state of postcolonial chaos. The Leading Farmer, responsible for genocide, becomes Prime Minister in the new government. Crowds of limbless victims revolt against him. The Leading Farmer disappears, while the law-abiding Lieutenant Lance, who had earlier arrested the PM for poaching gorillas, is seriously injured.

“Królestwo potrzebuje kata” (The Kingdom Needs an Executioner) is the only story in the collection in which the first-person narrator’s nationality is clearly defined as Polish. There is a job opening for executioners in the local prison for which many international candidates have applied. They have been unemployed since the Bosnian War. The narrator discusses the opening with the applicants he meets in the hotel. He also comes into contact with a British couple. The husband, who manages a sugar plantation, complains about the injustice of history, referring to the end of the Second World War: “When we celebrated victory, you lost your country” (136). The Polish narrator states that it is now history and cuts off the conversation.

“Komisja” (The Commission) describes one of the sessions of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after apartheid. Matabela is one perpetrator standing before the Commission. Luli, his partner, comes to the hearing with their baby boy, who was born after Matabela’s imprisonment. She named their son “The One Who Waits”. Despite telling the truth, Matabela is refused amnesty on the grounds of appropriation of someone else’s property, which is viewed as a nonpolitical and personally-motivated crime.

Lidia z Kamerunu, which is an extended version of the collection Antylopa szuka myśliwego (The Antelope Looks for a Hunter, 2006), is Albiński’s fourth book. It consists of eight stories. The first story, “Śmierć plantatora” (The Plantation Owner’s Death) takes its title from a film about the colonial period that is being shot by the African production company Luluwood. One of the actors, Wilson, tries to persuade the narrator to take part in the film, claiming that the producers need white actors and that his “only job would be driving a jeep in the bush and shouting commands” (20). The dramatic yet understated ending suggests otherwise.

“Kto z państwa popełnił ludobójstwo?” (Which of You Gentlemen Committed Genocide?) refers to the most recent tribal wars, such as the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda. The main protagonist, the African doctor Klarysa, leaves her country as the wife of her French colleague Pierre de Duran in order to avoid death. When the civil war ends they return, but Klarysa, who has lost her family in the genocide, cannot deal with memories of the massacre.

The protagonist of the story “Ojciec Izydor” (Father Isidore), is a Polish priest, theologian and scholar interested in revolutionary ideologies. He acts as an expert in the trial of a group of men charged with planning to overthrow the government in order to introduce the communist system. Father Isidore persuades the court that the offenders were not familiar with communist ideology, thus saving them from spending the remainder of their lives in prison. His verdict causes allegations that the expert might either have a black lover or be a hired spy.

The two stories that follow,“Antylopa szuka myśliwego” (The Antelope Looks for a Hunter) and “Nowa, nieoczekiwana kariera” (The New and Unexpected Career), describe two white South African men who try to improve their financial prospects in the changing political and economic reality. The protagonist of the first story, the successful architect Artur, ends up being at once a victim and an associate of a Nigerian mafia, while Albert, an ex-engineer, decides to take up a career in the fake African art trade.

“Moro i mistrz” (Moro and the Master) tells the story of a novice medium Moro whose first show appears to be a failure. He is charged with failing to create a miracle and disappointing the public. His teacher comes to the rescue and pays the fine.

The eponymous Lidia (“Lidia from Cameroon”) is a Cameroonian girl who becomes the wife of the president of one of the neighboring African countries. President Fox, whose fourth term is coming to an end, is considering resignation for health reasons. Lidia tries to stop him, afraid they will be prosecuted once her husband loses power. In the meantime the doctors discover that Fox is suffering from a brain tumor. The president’s illness throws the country into turmoil.

The closing story in the collection, “Czekając na Rosjan” (Waiting for the Russians), is set in a nineteenth-century British colony. Nonkawuse, a girl from the Xhoza tribe, brings a prophecy that was passed on to her by two strangers. The Xhoza people are to expect the imminent arrival of Russians. They will be black and they will come from the sea. To make sure the prophecy is fulfilled, all the cattle must be killed and crops destroyed. Most of the Xhozas obey, which brings famine and chaos. The British cannot understand their motivation.

Wojciech Albiński’s stories, which are chiefly set in postapartheid South Africa, paint the difficult, backtracking, and long-term process of decolonization, which in Franz Fanon’s words “sets out to change the order of the world, [but] is obviously a programme of complete disorder.”[1] The images of lawlessness, poverty, and illness are entwined in both books, with representations of middle-class affluence hidden in beautiful houses behind tall barbed-wired fences. Albiński’s sparse and minimalist writing does not, however, judge anyone or anything. It is equally transparent whether it speaks of people, their race and way of living, or of African history. Albiński shows Africa as it has never been presented before in literary works. His prose represents a new style of Polish émigré literature. It steers away from nostalgic mythologization of past and present, abandons Polonocentrism altogether, and acquires a universal human appeal.

1. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Constance Farrington (London: Penguin, 1990), 3rd ed., 27.

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Last updated 12/6/08