The Knotted Cord by Jerzy Pietrkiewicz

I bought this book because I could not find the one I actually wanted, “Future to Let,” which I started reading in a Polish translation in the Polish Weekly. “Future to Let” is being serialised, but I thought I couldn’t wait that long. Anyway, I prefer to read in English and it was originally written in English.. But I couldn’t find the book anywhere, and meanwhile I missed a couple of weeks. So I bought this one instead. Very different – very strange.

One of the strangest books I have ever read. It was written in English in 1952 or thereabouts by a Pole who had only learnt Polish in the last decade or so, during the war. Following in Joseph Conrad’s footsteps language-wise, he nevertheless fictionalised his life in prewar Poland and made it very clear that the superstitions, religion and magic beliefs of that time were real powers in the life of the villagers.
What surprised me most in the writing is that he continued to use Polish words without reference or explanation. Of course most people would be able to work them out – mamo – vocative for mummy, Pan, pani , sir, madam, Mr Mrs, but he doesn’t bother to find out what the name of the plant szalej is in English (cowbane or hemlock). In Polish there is a play on words – szalej means crazy, and the old woman makes her husband tea with it – he survives, so then she drinks it and goes crazy herself – and then commits suicide, much to the consternation of the little boy. Especially as she uses his knotted cord to do the dirty deed.

Bronek, the little boy, is put into a brown monk’s habit, with its eponymous kntted cord, for three years, at the age of seven, as a sacrifce- gift to God for having survived an illness. No one asked him, no one explained. Bur he was a good boy and did his best, for love of his mother. As the story unfolds he discovers through a number of tactless half repeated stories that he is to blame for his mother’s suffering. She gave birth to him at the age of fifty, her tenth child, and obviously it had been a difficult birth. The midwife crone takes all the credit for her survival, while young Bronek increasingly takes the blame, especially as it transpires that his mother has a dreadful and not to be talked about cancer.

What was interesting for me is that she is sent away to Warsaw to hospital to be the first woman to have radium therapy for cancer which burns her insides even more. This is presumably in about 1930 – a very new and expensive treatment then.

Another important and interesting feature of the novel was the attitude to religion in Poland at the time. Ostensibly a Roman Catholic country, the peasants and country folk can conceive of no other religion. Yet the constitution says very clearly – and this is emphasized in the book, that all religions must be tolerated and one must not be set against the other. However, there is a shocking scened when some Mariavite pilgrims come to the village with the monstrance borne aloft by a woman. the little group is lynched and put into jail for their own safety. their forgiving spirit is in sharp contrast to the villagers’ own idolatry and superstition and violence.
(The Mariavite church has a fascinating and little known history, so it was interesting to see it mentioned in this novel.It was a very forward thinking sect, with women in the forefront and the Polish language being used, long before the Second Vatican council allowed it in 1965. Wikipedia is good on this.)

The knotted cord itself turns up in every chapter – at the end the boy sees a version of it wrapped round his mother’s habit in her coffin. A horrible moment for him. He has vowed to her never to cry – she warned him he would suffer more. He does not weep – and so is taunted by his cousins as beng less of a man. Mother is always right.

3 comments on “The Knotted Cord by Jerzy Pietrkiewicz

  1. he was indeed – i have still failed to find an English copy of Future to Let, though I did manage to obtain it in Polish yesterday. i read Polish more slowly though and it seems silly to read a book in translation when I know the original language!

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