Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Leave No Trace

In writing reportage about the Polish People's Republic, Cezary Łazarewicz has written a universal book about the pathology of power. That this is a universal story, we can experience today as we watch the news about a boy killed a year ago at a police station.


Abuse of power, the officers' brutality, a conspiracy of silence, the attempt to sweep cases under the rug, and the punishment that never was–Leave No Trace, which describes the case of Grzegorz Przemyk, is about all of this. The same elements of pathology show up in the context of Igor Stachowiak's death at the police station. He was a twenty-five-year-old who in 2016 was arrested in Wroclaw's Market Square because he matched the description of a criminal who had escaped the police earlier. Though Przemyk's and Stachowiak's cases happened in different times and in different places, even in different dimensions, the mechanisms controlling them are the same.

In his excellent reportage Łazarewicz has focused on a thorough analysis of these mechanisms. The account of Przemyk's death and of what happened afterwards was a manifestation of the pathology of the PPR's power. Lazarewicz, to show these pathologies, concentrated on a thorough description of the events.

Leave No Trace is the result of meticulous investigative journalism that lays bare the subsequent phases of the so-the Grzegorz Przemyk case. Almost like in positivistic novels, the book begins with a detailed  description of the day Przemyk was beaten. The strong beginning is only a prelude to a double story, provoking anger and frustration in the reader.

Why double? Łazarewicz divides the book into two main themes that go back and forth but which are two distinctly separate stories. The first is the story of Przemyk's mother, Barbara Sadowska, a poet, anti-communist activist, and a victim of the communist system. The second thread clearly tells how the system first tidied up and later tried to cover up the high school student's death. And it was precisely this storyline that was so exceptionally and thoroughly examined and described by Łazarewicz.

What was most interesting was that Łazarewicz managed to discern in the sick system the human factor and it's huge impact (it really is an art when one's work relies primarily on documents), that the decisions made were hugely influenced by fear, shame, and the pettiness of the people who made those decisions during the various phases of the Przemyk case as it developed.

Read today in the context of Igor Stachowiak, Leave No Trace is not a hopeful read because it shows that it's not the system or form of government that's the greatest threat to society. Worse: it's the people.

[My translation from Polish of Rafał Hetman's review of Leave No Trace, which was awarded the Nike 2017 Literary Award.]

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