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.

The con itself is a relatively simple bait and switch in which Jacob befriends lonely women vacationing in Israel, presenting himself as a violent but charming hard-luck case whose circumstances have forced him to act as he does. He reels these women in and gradually lets them see his hidden sensitivity, partly through his love for his dog. He leads them to believe that they can save him. He does all this through silence and intimation and spasmodic bouts of defensive deflection, letting the women project their romantic visions on him. Once they’ve fallen for him, he leads them to believe that the kindness they’ve shown him has led him into an existential quagmire, and that his shame over the ugly person he’s been weighs so heavily on him that he can’t forgive himself. Lashing out in the only way he knows how, he kills the thing he loves most in the world, the dog, and retreats into a catatonic despondency, leaving Robert to explain that he’d meant to kill himself and coax the women into giving him the money in a gesture of pity and sentimentality.

The bulk of the book consists of tracking the two men through a performance of this con. They’ve run it many times before but this time, Jacob doubts his abilities as an actor. As one of the secondary characters says about him, “He’s too old. He’s got the saddest kisser the world has seen since the death of that saint who used to sit on a pillar.” The work is beginning to take an emotional toll on him. Instead of faking his despair, he’s experiencing it. When he expresses his doubts to Robert, Robert is philosophical, if willfully obtuse, about them. “The principle you have to base your performance on is very simple,” he says. “If you’re locked up in a dark room, you become accustomed to the darkness after a while. But if someone keeps turning the light on and off, your suffering is unbearable, because each time you’ve got to get used to the light and darkness.”

By the end of the book, the distinction between the false sensitivity Jacob displays as part of his con and the true sensitivity he must deny in order to do the deeds required for his survival has been erased completely. Which, of course, is why he’s so masterful at performing the con. They get their money. They send the woman packing.

As Jacob steels himself for the next performance, he wonders over what’s left of his humanity: “Why haven’t I ever said or written that there is no greater misery than living without awareness of God, contrary to His commandments? I don’t know. And why haven’t I ever said that the worst sin is to betray the love of another human being? I don’t know. Maybe it was too hot for such profound statements, or maybe I’ve forgotten.”

The thought passes. He does what he has to do. He heads to Jaffa to buy a new dog and begin the tawdry show all over again.

The cycle of cruelty continues on, everyone unendingly trapped in his or her roles — a bleak vision befitting Hlasko’s experience of the world. He may not have had the answers Camus did for the moral problems afflicting our world. He may have been too caught up in his own emotions, his anger at women, at the totalitarian ruthlessness of his experience, to find the wisdom Beckett does in desolation. But he embodied his era’s crisis of faith.

Though Hlasko’s hard-boiled prose style and Gitane-scented philosophical machismo show their age, “Killing the Second Dog,” with its class-based nihilism and depiction of the itinerant loser’s sullen resentment, still has much to say. The ritualized cruelty in the book gives it the feel of a parable. His men aren’t just grifters and working-class joes grinding out their days. They’re pawns of a society (communist, capitalist, it matters not) constructed to flatter them with false images of themselves while it uses them for their labor and causes them pain. Their tragic flaw is their ability to feel. And knowing this does them no good at all.

Joshua Furst is a contributing editor of the Forward.


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