The modern literary tradition—in particular, the Lost Generation writers and their contemporaries—has done something curious in romanticizing the throes of alcoholism. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were all raging alcoholics and filled their novels with characters who acted likewise. But never before, and rarely today, does a novelist confront addiction so intimately and personally as Jerzy Pilch in his recently translated novel, “The Mighty Angel.”
A darkly humorous, yet undeniably serious, look into the life of a repeatedly relapsing alcoholic (also named Jerzy) and his recovering brethren in and out of rehab comes as no great surprise from one of Poland’s most celebrated writers. “The Mighty Angel” cemented Pilch’s reputation, earning him Poland’s NIKE Literary Award in 2001. It was well-deserved. Pilch unflinchingly confronts the emotional reality of alcoholism and suggests a more sobering reality beyond sobriety.
It’s unclear for whom the narrative is intended. As the narrator, Jerzy speaks to himself, speaks to his lover, speaks to himself again (this time sober), speaks to the girl in the yellow dress, and—it seems—speaks to us as well. In his own words, he is “writing about you and [he’s] writing about [himself] not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.” His ambivalence towards alcohol abuse—and, for that matter, toward any direction for his life in general—composes the novel’s substance. This ambiguity forces Jerzy to face a constant struggle: “...therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature, and at a certain moment our paths inevitably diverge.”
Pilch calls on the words of writers and thinkers like Leibnitz, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Kierkegaard to answer his existential questions. But he hesitates to analyze his own life as an alcoholic, and he uses the stories of his fellow addicts instead: Don Juan the Rib, The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Queen of Kent, the Hero of Socialist Labor, and various other minor characters. Despite a dense population and a strangely episodic narrative framework, each of Pilch’s characters reads as an emotional mirror; their struggles with alcoholism map a microcosm of the struggles of the human experience. Pilch seems to suggest that rehabilitation is an experience akin to religious purgation, or even experience in combat, referring to the time before and after as “civilian life.” Jerzy’s addiction even finds a human counterpart in the form of his obsession with the mysterious poet Alberta Lulaj, “the girl in a yellow dress.”
Pilch’s memoir-like style blends black comedy, amateur psychology, and homage to Homeric epithet, like “Don Juan the Rib, in civilian life a hairdresser, and additionally, a musician.” Epithets like this one, while routine, help define the characters as much for Jerzy as they do for the reader. But as it turns out, the validity of their stories is uncertain; Jerzy stakes his position in the rehabilitation center by retelling (or rather, recreating) the lives of the various alcoholics. A typical truck driver becomes the Most Wanted Terrorist in the World; a hairdresser and musician becomes Don Juan the Rib; and a particularly religious patient becomes the reincarnation of John the Baptist.
In his mind, alcohol is Jerzy’s muse; as long as he drinks he will have material to write. Jerzy takes no time to avoid drinking again after leaving the center; he hails a cab to the bar whose title the novel bears. But the Mighty Angel is a name that Jerzy attributes to his love as well—the elusive girl in the yellow dress. The question arises whether this angel, this manifold savior, is just as fragile and just as fraught as the alcoholics that worship it. While Jerzy seems to have escaped this cycle of rehabilitation and relapse by the novel’s end, the reader is left to wonder whether its only a matter of time before he regresses again. His fascination with this cycle, with its own sobering reality, perhaps as much as his own addiction, almost goes as far as to guarantee his return: “Even now they believe they won’t drink anymore; they’re profoundly convinced they’ll never drink another glass in their lives. They promised themselves this in all honesty. Naturally, they’re incapable of it… Sooner or later the talons of addiction tighten around their thirsty throats.”
So, the real outcome is left to our speculation. Jerzy tells us, “I was ruled by my tongue. I was ruled by women. I was ruled by alcohol.” In the end, Jerzy admits to his sobriety and owns his mistakes and successes: “...to my credit was my despair; to my credit were my prayers, and to my credit is my love.” But ultimately more intriguing is Jerzy’s mental block on the question of alcohol and the nagging doubt that this lack of resolution instills in the affixed reader: “…in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”