Still Waiting for Godot

Marek Hlasko’s Israeli Grifters Embody Bleak World View

The Stranger: After escaping Poland, Hlasko lived for a time in Israel where his 1965 novel ‘Killing the Second Dog’ is set.
Courtesy of New Vessel Press
The Stranger: After escaping Poland, Hlasko lived for a time in Israel where his 1965 novel ‘Killing the Second Dog’ is set.

By Joshua Furst

Published May 07, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.
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Killing the Second Dog
By Marek Hlasko, translated from the Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz
New Vessel Press, 143 pages, $15.99

In the aftermath of World War II, while Europe was responding to the dissipation of the old empires and feudal orders by reconfiguring itself around capitalist and communist ideologies, its novelists took it upon themselves to stare into the darkness of the human soul. Existentialism was in vogue, and for good reason.

The land had been ravaged, the people, both soldiers and civilians, slaughtered like ants in the footprints of the bombs that had slammed down on the cities. An entire race of people had been incinerated in mechanized factories built for this purpose. The assumptions that had allowed for some semblance of morality in society were as shattered as everything else. Nietzsche had proclaimed God dead decades earlier, but here was unassailable proof that he’d been right.

Albert Camus, the most hopeful of these novelists, and not coincidentally, given his Algerian roots, the one with the greatest understanding of Europe’s myopic sense of itself, struggled to define a secular justification for moral action. Samuel Beckett, the most pessimistic, sat stoically in the rubble and listened to the void until, like a prophet, he received a vision of the silence of God. Between these two poles, a great rabble of lesser writers scribbled away trying to understand the hell their world had been revealed to be. Marek Hlasko was one of them.

Hlasko was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1934. His father was killed fighting the Germans in 1939, and after the Warsaw Uprising, Hlasko and his mother fled to the south where they continued to live under Communist rule after the war. He learned the lessons of brutality and chaos early on; though his mother instilled an artistic sensibility in him, his aggressive behavior got him kicked out of school often enough that by the time he was a teenager he’d dropped out and become a manual laborer, something he would return to again and again when he wasn’t being celebrated by the demi-monde for his bad-boy attitude.

For a brief moment in 1956, when his first book, a story collection called “First Step in the Clouds,” was published, he seemed to be poised to become the enfant terrible of European literature. But as the iron wall of Eastern Bloc censorship slammed down, he saw this moment pass. For the rest of his life, he’d bounce back and forth between hardscrabble poverty and glamorous, artistic dilettantism.

Escaping Poland, he took refuge in France, West Germany, Italy, and for a time, Israel, though he wasn’t Jewish. This is where his newly reissued 1965 novel “Killing the Second Dog” takes place. And like all of his books, this one draws on his own life, distorting, distilling and ritualizing the difficulties he experienced in the Holy Land.

The story revolves around an aging grafter named Jacob who makes his money performing elaborate long cons on women “of a certain age,” as they used to say, in a seedily cosmopolitan, thoroughly secular Tel Aviv, which Hlasko paints as a less romantic Casablanca, or a Hebrew-inflected Tangiers where everyone, Jewish or not, is either hiding or stealing, barely surviving as they wait to get somewhere else. Jacob works with a partner named Robert who manages their money and masterminds the cons. He fashions himself a theater director and dictates every action Jacob takes, procuring the women who will be their marks, rehearsing their “script” with Jacob late into the night, hovering nearby so he can monitor Jacob’s performance as the trap is laid.


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