MADAME - Conference in Tours

                                                                  A fragment of chapter "Wen den Dichter will verstehen..."

Not long afterwards the director of the Department of Overseas Cooperation, a certain Gabriel Gromek, M.A., summoned Freddy to his office for what was known as a "little talk." He began by asking him how he came to be acquainted with "Mr." Billot and through what channels he had established contact with the university in Tours. He then proceeded to upbraid him, quite severely, for publishing his work in a foreign journal without obtaining prior approval, indeed without even attempting to obtain such approval or so much as consulting anyone on the subject ("quite unacceptable behavior!"). Finally, indicating that the matter was a mere formality, he asked Freddy to sign a brief promise of loyalty to the Polish government during his trip abroad. This well-known trap was the means whereby pressure was later exerted to draw people into collaboration with the secret police. Freddy was speechless. But he concealed his consternation and, knowing full well that if he did not go, neither would anyone else, replied poker-faced that in that case, thank you very much, but if these were the conditions he would rather not go at all. Too bad, but never mind, he could live without it. It wasn't so important as that. And he rose to go.

- Good heavens, Dr. Monten, there's no need to take it like that!- exclaimed the director of the Overseas Cooperation Department, furiously backpedalling; - No need to take offence. No one's forcing you. If you don't want to sign, fine, we'll just take your word for it. All these precautions are for your own good, you know. You haven't yet been to the West, you've no idea what it's like. Conferences and symposia are just the bait - the carrot they dangle in front of you to get you there. It's your collaboration they're really after: they want you to become their agent. They'll take you out for coffee, or to dinner in a restaurant, and before you know it you'll be betraying your country. Oh yes, they have their ways! They'll flatter you and fawn over you, and then they'll offer you money to sweeten the deal - just to open you up. Literature, classics, Racine, - he pronounced it Rasign - my aunt! All they want is to squeeze information out of you, and to get you to slander and defame our people's democracy. They'll be lying in wait for you in the corridors during the breaks. We know what they're like! That's how they operate. So I'm warning you: be vigilant!

Freddy listened to these ravings with an utterly blank expression, as if he hadn't quite grasped what it was all about. Assuming an air of studied distraction (the young scholar absorbed in his books, head in clouds), he asked, with seeming irrelevance, whether he would be going alone or accompanied on this "delegation".

- You will be accompanied by Dr. Dolowy,- he heard in reply.

Dolowy! Unbelievable! The last person he would have expected. Although perhaps it wasn't so surprising: assistant professor Dolowy was, after all, secretary of the Party Organisation and the dean's right-hand man. Still, there were limits. The man was a blockhead. He didn't even know French properly! Of course the only reason he was going was to keep an eye on things, but even so ... they might at least have sent someone with some knowledge of something. All he knew about was Louis Aragon and his precious Soviet Union. It was ridiculous. Who had suggested him? Who had approved it? Don't they realise they're making fools of themselves? They'll be the laughing stock of the academic world. But perhaps they don't care ... After all, sooner or later someone else will be invited and then some other Dolowy will get to hitch a ride on his coattails.

In the event, his fears proved unfounded, or at least excessive. Not that Dolowy suddenly revealed an unsuspected side to his nature, but his presence at the conference in Tours proved less burdensome than Freddy has expected. In fact, the man was hardly ever there. He put in an appearance just three times: once at the beginning, when he came to pick up his per diems and his meal vouchers for the cafeteria; once on the third day, for Freddy's lecture; and at the final banquet, given by the hosts in an elegant restaurant. If it hadn't been for his snoring and smoking and his habit of eating tinned sprats in oil (an impressive stock of which he had brought with him) off a sheet of newspaper, he would have been quite harmless.

What did he do all day? Visit museums and monuments? Unlikely. Go shopping, sit around in cafés? Likelier, but still doubtful: he was on a tight budget and counted every penny. Perhaps, then, he was carrying out some secret mission for the Polish secret police?

One night Freddy was awakened from his first sleep by peculiar noises coming from the other side of the room - a sort of muffled clanking sound, like something knocking against something. He raised an eyelid and saw a light: the lamp on Dolowy's bedside table. Dolowy himself, crouched in an ungainly pose, was rummaging in his suitcase. Feigning sleep, Freddy continued to observe him through half-closed lids. But he failed to determine what the fellow was doing, and in particular to identify the source of the mysterious clanking sound emanating from the bottom of the suitcase.

The following morning, when Dolowy was in the shower, Freddy crept out and with beating heart risked a peek at his luggage. There, under a pile of dirty linen - socks, handkerchiefs, underwear - were rows and rows of little glass jars with blue lids. Ossietra caviar. On each lid there was a picture of a sturgeon against a background of grains of roe. Dozens of them.

Now the light dawned: Dolowy was dealing on the black market. Back home Soviet caviar was a fraction of the price it cost in the West. The profit on one jar was mind-boggling, even if you sold it for half its usual western price: some ten or fifteen dollars. It was a fantastic business operation - and with almost no risk. No one was much bothered if you took caviar out of Poland: since it was imported from the USSR to begin with, it wasn't subject to duty, at least not in retail quantities. And was anyone in the West going to rifle through your bags to see what you were bringing in? And once in France, there was no lack of eager punters to take it off your hands: elegant restaurants would buy as much as they could and be grateful for it. It was a sweet deal all round.

Freddy later calculated that the total value of the caviar lurking in the depths of Dolowy's bags came to at least three hundred and fifty dollars. In Poland that was enough for the cheapest car: a second-hand "Syrena" or a Fiat 600.

Dr. Dolowy had higher aspirations, however. Or so, at least, one could be led to believe by his unstinting efforts to increase this miraculously obtained capital still further. For the secretary of the Party Organisation, having coolly liquidated his stock of caviar, proceeded, not being one to rest on his laurels, to invest some of his newly acquired funds in several thousand ball-points - not the pens themselves, just the little ball attached to the cartridge. In France, the realm of the Bic, they were of no use to anyone, but in Poland, a country of titanic enterprise and construction on a vast scale, where there was no room to produce such unimportant details, they were priceless. Those concerned with the production of pens - private entrepreneurs whose task it was to fill the various gaps in Poland's light industry - were ready to pay any price for basic parts like this. And so - more profit. Enough, perhaps, for a second-hand Wartburg?

At the final banquet Freddy did all he could to stay as far away as possible from his colleague, and especially to avoid being seated next to him at dinner. His efforts were vain. Dolowy somehow always contrived to manoeuvre himself into a nearby position. When they sat down he slyly insinuated himself into the seat just opposite Freddy, who was on Professor Billot's right. Freddy clenched his teeth and briefly closed his eyes. His enjoyment had been spoiled. Now he wouldn't be able to relax; instead of relishing the délicieuse ambience of the evening, talking freely and animatedly, he would be tense and embarrassed. And things could get worse: the boor might start talking himself, joking and showing off. And what if he drank too much? The very thought made Freddy break out into a cold sweat. He felt weak with shame.

This time, alas, his fears proved well-founded, although Dolowy's performance was quite different from the nightmare he had envisaged. It began with his assuming the role of benevolent protector or devoted impresario, in which role he launched, for Professor Billot's benefit, into an importunate and effusive torrent of elaborate praise. The object of his excesses was Freddy.

- He's the best we have!- he insisted, as if Freddy were some object or competitor for sale. ?He?s our pride and joy. Respected by specialists in the field and adored by his students. It's thanks to him that our department has been enjoying such fame and popularity. Young people from all disciplines flock to us in droves. And that's why French culture, especially seventeenth-century French literature, so dear to all of us here, has found thousands of admirers in our country. It's all his doing; he's absolutely priceless. I, who specialize in Louis Aragon, can't compare with him. No one else in Poland has done so much for France. He's more than just a spokesman for France - he's a veritable ambassador! So you see he must, absolutely must, remain in constant touch with his spiritual homeland. His visits here in France are invaluable, not just for him, but for all those who draw, and wish to go on drawing, from this well, this inexhaustible treasure-house.

- Please, please, -Freddy moaned in Polish, - please stop.

- Quoi? Qu'est-ce qu'il a dit?- asked Professor Billot.

- Il est tres modeste,- Dr. Dolowy hastened to explain, with a protective smile. - He wants me to stop praising him. But you should listen to me, monsieur le professeur: his visits in France will benefit us all. I'm relying on you.

Freddy was saved from further torment by a waiter bearing hors d'oeuvres: blinis with caviar. Dolowy broke off in mid-sentence. - Oh la la! Quelles délices!- he cried. - C'est un festin royal!- And inquired of the waiter what kind of caviar it was.

- The best. Ossietra,- the waiter proudly announced. - And fresh - straight from Russia. We have our own suppliers.

On Dolowy's thick, caviar-smeared lips, open in eagerness to admit another heaped portion, a faint and playful smile lingered and was gone.

Translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska