God knows what is really funny.

Polish-born Marek Hlasko (another name I hadn’t come across; thanks once again to New Vessel Press for yet another exceptional rediscovery) could scarcely avoid filtering his hellish experiences through his fiction (an autobiography titled Beautiful Twentysomethings, published in 1966, would cover such nightmares in more linear, if we can ascribe such a workaday word to what Hlasko saw and surely struggled to fathom, fashion) and Killing the Second Dog (Drugie zabicie psa, 1965; tr. from the Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz, 1990) makes no attempt to either utilize such experiences symbolically or merely hint at them. Some are incorporated in the novel towards the end, purposefully off-center, mentioned in passing, deliberately tucked away in a digressive moment, as part of the main protagonist’s withheld reminiscences. This doesn’t mean they’re not central, of course: their marginal position resounds through the preceding pages after the fact, rendering the at times almost farcical proceedings that have unfolded retrospectively more substantially melancholic and resounding.

Review copy courtesy of New Vessel Press.

Review copy courtesy of New Vessel Press.

It’s a book, though, that spins you through a series of knockabout escapades and fools you, to an extent, much as the two-hander con artists have been, we can assume from idle remarks on the subject, duping their widowed quarry out of various amounts of money. As mentioned, it’s right on the cusp of farce, with a retinue of dispossessed fringe characters capering in and out of narrative focus, throwing hard-boiled lines at one another and then retreating whilst our omniscient half of the trickster couple muses mournfully upon his lot. Hothead hunchbacks, impudent drunks, somberly cynical bouncers, incorrigible kids: it’s a fairly riotous assemblage of unconventionals, and Hlasko’s stage-management of his players is orchestrated to tight perfection. No one outstays his or her welcome as nobody gets much lengthy opportunity to exchange quips with the two cons in question: they’re restless enough that we don’t have to be and are soon amidst another scene, the pace befitting an awful lot that’s squeezed into the 140 pages or so. People are moved around dependent on their narrative use or ability to take an amusing verbal venting, before the next piece of the jousting jigsaw snaps into place.

We first meet our protagonists (two Pole’s, Jacob and Robert) on the way from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and they’re sharing a taxi with an unknown man who’s in a “bad way.” Immediately we’re given a sense of the mindset of our main man and narrative guide and just how he sees himself, as the cab driver takes “each turn with a screech of wheels that made us feel like actors in some B-grade movie.” The scene is set: we’re in a lo-fi shadow world of fast uncertainties, and when the stranger dies as they arrive in Tel Aviv, the overtones are unmistakable. Particularly when the dead man has a magazine cover placed over his face bearing “the picture of an actor on the cover; his blue eyes watched us with a piercing stare.”

Straight off, a large dose of sinister cool, and there’s much mention of Hollywood, Chaplin, Spillane and Brando throughout. Killing the Second Dog is ripe with pervasions of stylised bravado and tawdry glamour: as with Chandler’s Marlowe, the sense of inner and outer as deeply entwined, as though a strict adherence to a deeply contrived sense of referential order need be maintained for the central character to endure. Reality is reconsidered as cinematic; attenuated, bleakly simple order is imposed upon chaos. There is a reluctance to jettison the grand sweep of the slickly fictional, and there are no mere incidentals. The lies assumed by the two con men are (for a while at least) as valid as anything else in a world of no value other than as the setting for fantasy.

(There is a constant sub-element throughout that involves the phony battle between “high” and “low”: Jesus Christ, St Paul, Shakespeare, Goethe, Chekhov all appear at moments of weakness and doubt. Our man invokes the latter in a moment of candid self-reproach; the likes of Chaplin and Brando become motivational factors when he’s preparing to assume his criminal alter-ego once more. Hlasko doesn’t differentiate: he’s showing a little contempt, perhaps, for irreproachable icons, or, more likely, those who thoughtlessly deify. The second of the two men, Robert, occasionally speculates as to how he might yet stage Shakespeare, his hero (imprisoned renditions of Hamlet and Macbeth are mentioned: their bearing on the plot here not to be dismissed), and has a somewhat grander idea about their nefarious acts, a necessary self-delusion. (“Shakespeare isn’t theatre, it’s life.”) Robert clings on to the belief that the skill involved in fabricating a believable story, and then performing it successfully enough to swindle unwitting victims, is worthy of some form of reverence. There is a constant duel bubbling away, and hard reality is not the world outside stripped of its illusory aspects: it’s high or low art, depending on which of the two you’re willing to believe (neither) and what kind of mental state they’re in. They measure themselves not morally, but by how their performance fares comparatively, such little stock do these characters put in the world. What’s “real” for the individual is far more important here than any mass understanding: the construction of a new world, the responsibilities of having to decide what forms it, exiled from the “actual” one, and two Poles in Israel . . . I needn’t overstate that element.)

That the fantasy should eventually dwindle as reality returns should come as no surprise. Before that, we have the plot to dupe an American widow out of enough to last until the next setup (their forte being lonely, easily susceptible ladies). Their “performance” and means of manipulation is an act that doesn’t run cheaply, however; their dog is a key component of their carefully assumed guise (to say exactly why would be to give a rather odd plot point away; the dog will obviously serve as a symbol here — it’s a painful truth, pretty much, in these pages, and a cynical affectation working on many levels — but its function is largely one of fairly despicable emphasis) and eats way better than they do. Their rehearsed roles, however, are wearing thin: the joke’s getting a bit old and the punchline is less and less certain to pay off, for Jacob at least. He’s losing faith in their carefully constructed lines (which Robert is solely responsible for providing), and formulating new ones often comes only from the realisation of the same, as they debate the dialogue details of their current conquest.

“Robert, do you know what a loser is? It’s a guy who keeps on losing. I’m a loser, Robert. You heard what he said: find some handsome young fellow. If you plan to go on with this hustle, one day you’ll have to do just that.”

“Hey that’s really good! What you said about being a loser. You have to tell her that. Say you love her, blah, blah, blah, but there’s been a lot of misfortune in your life, blah, blah, until a warm female hand grasped yours, blah blah . . . it’ll come out great.”

Not only do we see the contemptuous comedy in full flow here, we see a bit of a confessional: these wretches have immunized themselves, when together, from admitting vulnerability, but their exchanges are, for me, Hlasko’s ambivalent confession (Hlasko was deeply affected by his estrangement from his wife, Sonia, effectively exiled by his country (who didn’t take kindly to Hlasko’s satirical, uncompromising bent) and terminally haunted by what he witnessed as young boy in Poland, a matter best explicated by the closing excerpt from the novel at the end of this review — all factors that led to three suicide attempts, the last of which, in a hotel in Wiesbaden in 1969, was sadly successful) and add another layer of poignancy to this most painful of picaresques. When we learn (as I did only by reading the biographical notes that precede the novel) just how directly lifted some of the horrors here are, we can only assume that they’re unchanged for many reasons all pointing to direct authorial interpolation.

The world-weariness is also partly put on to negate any perceived weakness; this is a withdrawal from the world as well as a refutation. It’s all a charade with an ever-alterable script that can only ever achieve comic effect. People are marks: for seduction, for ridicule, for gags.

The brilliance of Hlasko, here, is that at no point is anything ever over-stated: he balances a kind of dysphoric relentlessness with witty, enjoyably grumpy exchanges. These failed actors are treading pavements now, not boards, but they’re no less immersed in the serious art of fulfilling a role, and a certain strain of absurd, existentialist luvviedom.

“This goddamn beast is costing more than both of us together. Maybe we should get rid of it.”

“It’s up to you. You’re the director. I’m only going through the motions. I don’t even know my part well.”

“One day you’ll be a real actor.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that,” I said. “But have it your way.”

“You’d make a good one.”

“My voice is lousy.”

“What do you mean your eyes are lousy? You’ve got great eyes! Who the fuck told you they were lousy?”

“Nobody said anything about my eyes. I said my voice was lousy.”

“Well, work on it. It’s a matter of training. But you’ll never be able to play in a comedy. That’s your weak point.”

“Do you mean that what I’m doing now isn’t comic?”

“Depends on how you look at it.”

“Robert, let’s get rid of the dog.”

“No, the dog’s not a prop. It’s an actor. I’ve just realized it. It’s an actor. You’re playing together. And you need it to play out your anger.”

Their current dupe comes replete with nightmare child, an awful little brat who seems to be singlehandedly earning the enmity of everyone in sight; he’s like some demonic personification of an America that exists entirely in Jacob’s mind. In any case, Jacob befriends him (and we’re meant to wonder how genuine their accord is; there is recognition, on Jacob’s part, as to why the child is as errant as he is, but it may simply be part of the con, another means of completely contrived ingratiation).

The American woman, whose bank balance these two rogues have their designs on, is suggestible enough to bend and finally melt at their (not especially convincing) bidding, but eventually Jacob has had enough, at least on this occasion, and following his getting slugged by a lifeguard due to his being in loco parentis of the catastrophe kid, the whole con act is suddenly shrugged off in a moment of stark revelation.

“Go away. I want to sleep. This is all so incredibly stupid, and the wind is getting on my nerves. Go to hell. I don’t want you or the money your father left you. I moved into this hotel to con you out of some dough; Robert was going to help me. Some other things were to happen, too, but I’m glad it’s all over now.” I turned away from the mirror and closed my eyes, but the instant I did that, I saw the gorilla coming at me, his jaw clenched in fury. I opened my eyes and met her stare; the expression on her face was both amused and watchful. “I hustled other women before,” I said. “But right now I’ve had enough. Not that I’ve become more sensitive all of a sudden, or that I want to reform. I’d be happy to live this way for a thousand years. But I don’t feel too well today. I’ll be going to Tiberias next, together with Robert, where we’ll try to swindle some other girl. I have no plans to leave for Australia. I don’t even know where it is.”

She laughed. “Why don’t you tell me you have a wife and kid, and that’s why you need money?”

“I don’t have any kids. I’ve spent more money on abortions than there is in the Vatican budget. Even though I’m careful. As you’ve probably noticed.” I went over and sat on the bed.

“Easy,” she said. “Easy. It’ll pass. It’s all because of this wind. Don’t talk. There’s no need to talk. I’m here with you.”

She put her arms around me so tightly I couldn’t move.

Hlasko’s final joke being that the woman still goes along with it; that this new twist is not, in fact, artifice, but a plausible attempt at distancing by Jacob, a reinforcement of impossible-to-fake verisimilitude. Again, people believe what they want to believe in the end.

All this, all the assembled outsiders and miscreants and rampant kids running amok, the willingly conned, the mistrustful misanthropy, is foregrounding, to an extent. The book works perfectly well as a romp, a crime caper, a collection of lost souls converging and failing to make a great deal of sense out of it all. But as Jacob reconsiders his confessional speech, and muses upon what he might have spoken of, but didn’t, we discover a bit of personal history and finally, beyond all the Mickey Spillane anecdotes and posturing misogyny, we can begin to understand who Jacob is. Our discovering such things can’t explain his actions on the streets of Tel Aviv but do provide a sense of why Hlasko has brought in such information at such a telling point.

There was so much I could have told her about myself and my life, but she probably wouldn’t have believed me. I could have told her how I robbed someone when I was fifteen and wasn’t caught. And how three months later a friend and I robbed a ticket office at a train station; my friend was arrested, and I gave myself up so we could go to jail together, because I enjoyed his company. But she wouldn’t have believed me. Nor would she believe me if I told her that I lost my virginity at the age of twelve to a ripe German girl on the day of her engagement to a young lieutenant. Nor would she believe me if I told her about the German soldier who set his dog on me and then started kicking me and broke my nose just because I wanted to play with the dog — this happened when I was seven. Nor would she believe me that in 1944, in Warsaw, I saw six Ukranians rape a girl from our building and then gouge her eyes with a teaspoon, and they laughed and joked doing it. Maybe I myself didn’t believe all this anymore. I should have told them that I bear the Germans no grudges for killing my family and a few more million Poles, because after I lived under the Communists and came to realise that by subjecting men to hunger, fear and terror, one can force them to do anything under the sun, and that no group of people is better than any other. Those who claim otherwise belong to the lowest human species and their right to live should be revoked.

After further devastating recollections, Jacob suggests:

I tried to tell these things to lots of people, but I don’t think anyone ever listened seriously.

We may speculate, then, that Hlasko might have supposed that “these things” can only ever be properly dealt with in a fictional setting. He set them down elsewhere, but there’s something terribly, doubly powerful at having them impinge on fictional lives and events that might have happily been cut adrift from the nightmares of history. I’m not referring to the potential exclusion of World War II, the Nazis, the holocaust, but rather to events that Hlasko witnessed that, ultimately, he can’t prevent rising to prominence, or subdue his own deeply personal experiences from turning the novel into something better, richer, and more intriguing than might have been the case. Killing the Second Dog is hard to encapsulate, with all this in mind. It’s certainly unmissable: a strange and disquieting work that also manages to be supremely entertaining.

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