Brian MacDonald’s piece (“Under the Literary Influence,” 20 February 2009) on the New York Times “alcohol and American life” blog Proof (who knew?) surveys a terrain familiar to fans of Raymond Chandler, Malcolm Lowry, Hunter S. Thompson, and company. Imbibers of this canon rarely look to foreign-language writers for their fix, but there’s one book that by all rights should become a staple on the menu: Jerzy Pilch’s THE MIGHTY ANGEL, which Bill Johnston has translated for Open Letter, and which comes out on April 28th.
True to his Protestant background (one of the 2% of non-Catholics in Poland), Pilch has produced a postmodern, latter-day-Pietist diary of alcohol addiction, and recovery, that is both product of and commentary on the giddy, groggy matrix of writing and drinking. The narrator paints periphrastic portraits of his fellow inmates on the alco ward–Columbus the Explorer, the Hero of Socialist Labor, Simon Pure Goodness, Don Juan the Rib, the Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Queen of Kent–all the while composing his own story as simultaneously an “emotional journal” and a love letter to the “woman in a yellow dress with spaghetti straps” he sees one day outside his window. The book, for which Pilch received the prestigious NIKE Award in 2001, is more complex than it may appear, playing as it does with multiple modes of writing and eschewing straightforward plot in favor of a stylized confessional voice. At different moments it also approaches the generic openness of the silva, which is described by Przemyslaw Czaplinski (following Ryszard Nycz) as:
part of the tradition of unobliged writing, which means that a work rooted in this school of poetics does not compose an entirety, be it thematic, generic or aesthetic.The narrative evolves from situation to situation, driven by associations, recollections, and above all opportunities… [and] can accommodate portraits, anecdotes, sketches, essays, stories, micro-dramas, commentaries, tableaus or notations of ideas for works. (“Letter from Poland,” Context 20)
But it is also simply a lot of fun to read, no small thanks to Bill Johnston’s exquisite translation (it’s clear that Johnston really enjoyed working on this book). And as far as critical assessments of THE MIGHTY ANGEL go, this nugget of commentary on Brian MacDonald’s blog post is, if inadvertently, right on the money:
I just don’t think it’s possible to find a replacement for the good author with a bad monkey on his back. As they stumble through the haze of their addictions and fears they give insight to the mathematics of need like no other. (Fred X. Quimby)