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Excerpt from Mercedes-Benz by Paweł Huelle translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
One spring morning less than two months later a vast, colourful sphere came into bloom on the green behind the factory…
“Please slow down at once,” said Miss Ciwle, raising an eyebrow, “or we won’t have a chance to chat. So your grandfather’s next car was a Mercedes-Benz?” she asked, just as if our last conversation had only ended yesterday. “Was it really better than the citron?” “To be precise,” I said, slowing down to 60, “not his next, but his next few cars, because at the time Mercedes was the first company to introduce a one-year system, based on the idea that after 12 months you could take back a used car and, for a supplement of 500 zlotys, drive a brand new car out of their garage.” “Their garage?” wondered Miss Ciwle. “That’s what it was called in those days,” I said, not letting her interrupt, “because in those days the word “salon” didn’t refer to a hairdresser’s for example, a shoe shop or a laundry, like today; in that era a salon was still exclusively for various forms of social intercourse, making music, drinking wine, perhaps a game of bridge. So every year,” I went on, “Grandfather Karol drove out of the Mercedes garage in a brand new car, but it was always exactly the same model, with the same moss-green body colour to boot, and if Grandfather was so very fond of the 170, it must have been because he was the undisputed winner of the fox hunt in it every single year.” [private]“Never,” said Miss Ciwle, signalling that at the Kościuszko roundabout I should turn left into Slowacki Street, “now you’re talking through your hat—fox hunting’s an equestrian sport. How could you chase someone with a tied-on fox’s brush across the fields and open ground on four wheels? It doesn’t make sense, not even if the fox were motorised, and that’s impossible anyway. What a lot of stories you must cook up! Please do it well so I can’t feel it at all, clutch, change gear,” she instructed me, “let’s go up the hill in a lower gear!” As we zig-zagged up the moraine towards the airport a suburban scent of lilac and mown grass floated through the open car window, along with the cool shade of the beech woods, gloomy even in spring.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but you don’t appreciate the inventiveness of the pre-war engineers. One day some balloon races were held in Mościce for the first time ever, no less than the national heats for the Gordon Bennett Cup, so when the engineers gathered at the club that evening, thrilled by the marvellous, fairytale sight of those spherical shapes in the sky, one of them came up with a revelation, the truly Wagnerian notion of combining their favourite sport of motoring, to which they were entirely devoted, with the sport of ballooning from now on. And in this simple way,” I said, looking deep into Miss Ciwle’s eyes, “the idea for a completely new kind of fox hunt was born, a revolutionary, democratic form of the sport, because after all,” I calmly explained, “just like his colleagues, Grandfather Karol might be invited by Prince Sanguszko to go shooting, for instance, or even to the spring ball at Gumniska, but to be asked to go fox hunting on horseback was not so likely—that was in the realm of the Almanach de Gotha; without at least seven batons on your crest, without sashes and maces, portraits too, in short, without high enough birth you were not comme il faut. So straightaway my grandfather and Engineer Krynicki devised the rules and regulations of the game, straightaway a collection was organised to cover all the costs of the races, above all to pay for the balloon which was to be the fox. One spring morning less than two months later a vast, colourful sphere came into bloom on the green behind the factory, and at twenty-one minutes past ten local time it flew off into the ether. Steering it from the gondola hanging underneath was Mr Szuber from Sanok, who was an expert in aeronautics as well as being an ensign in an airborne regiment. So just imagine the excitement of the assembled motorists,” I said, looking Miss Ciwle in the eyes again, “when half an hour later they were given the signal to jump into their cars and go their separate ways in search of the wind-driven sphere. But before they cranked up their starters, before the pilots unfolded the maps, first they tried to make visual contact through binoculars, because of course they needed to know in which direction the balloon was gliding, whether to go north after it to Szczucin, or the exact opposite, towards Zbylitowska Hill. So that was more or less the scene,” I went on. “Mr Mierzejewski jumped into his enormous Packard, in which he usually transported eight children, Mr Nartowski slammed the door of his Hanza, Mr Hennel was ready to roll in his beautiful Tatra, Mr Kubiśnski was on the starting line, revving up his two-stroke DKW, and Jerzy Giorgiades, whom everyone took for an Armenian, but who was actually a Greek, was there to chase the balloon-fox in a fabulous Chevrolet, with Mr Jasilkowski in a Buick, whereas Engineer Hobbler drove a two-door BMW, as opposed to Engineer Wojnarski, who raced in a four-door Opel Olympia. Naturally, that wasn’t all—here I should add Mr Zbigniew Krystek in his Opel Kapitän, Mrżaba in his Fiat 504, Mr Mrowec in his Fiat 1100, Mr Krynicki in his Steyr, Mr Zachariewicz in his old Ford, and Mrs Kszyszkowska in her Adler Junior. And as for Mercedes-Benzes,” I said as we drove out onto the plateau where at last I could change gear and accelerate, “there were three in Mościce; Dr Świerczyśnski and Engineer Śledziśnski both drove the same make as my grandfather, but both their models were two-door 170s, while Grandfather was steadfastly loyal to the four-door version. Motorcyclists entered the race as well, on Ariels, BMWs, Zundapps, BSAs, Victorias, Indianas and Harley-Davidsons.”
“Not bad,” said Miss Ciwle, interrupting this litany. “Please turn round at this forest road, because we’re not going to the airport. By the way, it’s practically impossible to interrupt you. So was that Mercedes really the best?” she asked, smiling so sweetly that I almost let go of the steering wheel. “You know, I don’t mean the make, but that particular model—you said yourself how much it constantly needed doing to it every 500 kilometres.” “They were all like that in those days,” I immediately cut in. “It was down to modern technology, not any specific make or model, so the four-door 170 never failed to bring my grandfather good luck in the races, helped, of course, by Grandmother Maria as the pilot. For several evenings in a row before setting off on the balloon hunt, my grandfather would listen to the weather forecast on the radio, and go out onto the roof at night to observe the sky and the clouds, the configuration of the planets too. Then he’d sit over a map in his office, tracing the balloon’s probable trajectory in all possible directions and at every likely wind speed. Finally he’d reckon it all up and jot it down in his notebook in the form of tables and graphs, and that must have been why he always succeeded in winning, he always captured the trophy, because as soon as they’d taken the balloon’s bearings at the very start, Grandmother Maria would glance at the tables and say: ‘In three quarters of an hour it’ll be over Zakliczyn, route number 13, version one, left at the second junction to Zgłobice.’ So Grandfather rushed straight for the goal by the shortest route, and if the direction or speed of the wind changed abruptly he’d stop the car for a moment, and there by the roadside, quick as lightning he’d set up an instrument he’d constructed himself, a little windmill on an extendible pole; Grandmother would take a precise reading from it and instantly enter the data into the tables, then off they’d go in hot pursuit again, equipped with a navigational variable that with the help of logarithms and integrals infallibly determined the new position of the balloon, and they always succeeded in catching up with the airborne fox before the rest, wherever it had gone. Just imagine what a beautiful scene—” by now we were at the bottom of Słowacki Street, near the Prussian barracks—“Grandfather Karol stops the Mercedes on the roadside verge and runs across the meadow, to conform with the regulations by getting as close as possible to the spot beneath the gondola, then he takes out a bugle and plays a hunting call, at the sound of which Ensign Aeronaut Szuber is immediately obliged to cut short his flight by switching off the gas fire that heats the air. By now they can see each other, now they’re waving at each other, and Ensign Szuber is throwing down the anchor line with the fox’s brush attached, my grandfather grabs hold of it, and every single time it’s the happiest moment in his life. Now his wife is running across the meadow towards him, and they hug each other, they kiss, sing and dance. Ensign Szuber takes the regulation bottle of champagne and three crystal glasses from a wooden box, and they drink to their victory, while other cars and motorbikes start coming down the road. It must have been a really fantastic feeling to win that sort of race,” I finished my tale at the roundabout where Grunwaldzka Avenue meets Kościuszko Street, “when you consider that according to their regulations only one competitor and his pilot could triumph—there was no second or third place, just like hunting on horseback, where only one rider tears off the brush and rakes in all the honour, and he’s the rightful, one and only king when everyone drinks his health at the club that evening.” “Was the prize a big one?” asked Miss Ciwle, taking a roll-up from her silver cigarette case and lighting it with the car lighter. “Was it bigger than the reward given to engine driver Hnatiuk for ramming the Citroën?” “What on earth do you mean?” I said, moving smoothly into the middle lane. “Mr Hnatiuk didn’t get his reward for destroying anything but for promoting the locomotives made at Chrzanów. As far as I remember he got 1,500 zlotys, a lot for those days, considering a Polish Fiat cost around five thousand then, and a gold Omega on top engraved with a dedication: To a Hero of the Polish State Railways from the Management. So no, the prize for winning the race was purely honorary—it was a bronze badge shaped like a fox, inscribed Mościce Balloon Hunt, with the date; what’s more the winner always stood the first three rounds at the club, so from the empirical side of things, on top of the honour and glamour of winning he had to pay extra.” “Not like nowadays,” sighed Miss Ciwle, “these days people try to make money out of anything at all—it’s reached a point where if they could sell their own shit no one would be put off by the stink.” “Now you’re exaggerating, surely,” I cried. “It’s true dialectical materialism has changed into materialism of the practical kind, but is that a reason to see it all that way?” “You don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said, taking another drag at her roll-up and blowing out a thin stream of acrid smoke. “Have you ever heard of Doctor Elephant?”
Moments later, when I had answered in the negative, in a subdued tone Miss Ciwle began her tale, and I can tell you, my dear Mr Hrabal, shivers went down my spine at the thought that I might have been ill like Jarek, I too could have ended up in the clutches of Doctor Elephant, who was indeed an expert at removing aneurisms from the brain, but was even better at reducing his patients to ruin by demanding bribes, firstly for a hospital bed, then for endless consultations, and finally for the operation itself, which he went through with even when it was a foregone conclusion and he knew perfectly well the patient was bound to die, and even in cases where the operation wasn’t necessary; for Doctor Elephant was a past master at making money disappear and always knew how to squeeze it out of desperate people, who to save their loved ones were willing to sell literally everything and get into debt too. Such was the case of Jarek and his sister: first of all, to get a place at the clinic and pay for the operation they had sold their flat, then it turned out the diagnosis was wrong, there would be no operation, the illness was atypical, requiring further, longterm treatment, so at that point Miss Ciwle had made her way into Doctor Elephant’s consulting room and demanded her money back, at least the cost of the operation, at which Doctor Elephant had coldly declared that he would call the police at once and have her prosecuted, because this was provocation, it was an outrage, how dare she accuse him of fraud right there, in his own consulting room—where, when and who had seen her give him such a large sum of money? “The son of a bitch just threw me out,” said Miss Ciwle with tears in her eyes. “The flat our parents left us has gone to the devil, was immediately discharged from hospital, and in no time at all I had to turn the allotment shed into something habitable for the winter, because otherwise we’d have had to sleep at the station, and it’s pure luck that our parents left us that worker’s allotment too. I can assure you,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette in the ashtray lid, “our case isn’t at all exceptional, and now I’m taking Jarek to various miracleworkers, who even if they can’t cure him at least won’t rob us, because they never take more than for a visit to the dentist, and besides they pay for their own consulting rooms and some sort of taxes, unlike Doctor Elephant whose research, consulting room and equipment we suckers finance out of our own purses.” “It’s outrageous,” I cried. “Can’t someone catch him out?” “How could they?” said Miss Ciwle, wiping her nose on her handkerchief. “Let’s change the subject—did your grandfather’s Mercedes have overhead or side valves?[/private]