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The Mighty Angel
by Jerzy Pilch
translated by Bill Johnston
Open Letter Books, April 2009

The Mighty Angel begins with its alcoholic narrator, Jerzy, having returned home from the “alco ward” for the eighteenth and final time. A beautiful July day. He’s at home, listening to a record by the Czech saxophonist Feliks Slovak, and through the window notices a “woman in a yellow dress with spaghetti straps” withdrawing money from an ATM then walking off into the distance. Smitten at once, inspired by Slovak’s saxophone and the “goodly quantity of peach vodka” in the bottle on the table, he leaves his home “prepared to scour the entire city” in search of her.

The narrative continues according to the disjointed logic of dreams and benders, in what critic Maria Janion calls its “wonderful, delirious and baroque style.” Jerzy describes the various other denizens of the alco ward: Don Juan the Rib, Simon Pure Goodness, Christopher Columbus the Explorer, the Queen of Kent, the Hero of Socialist Labor, et al., as well as Doctor Granada, Nurse Viola, and the therapist Moses Alias I Alcohol, and recounts their various adventures. He dips into reminiscences about his Lutheran grandfather, Old Kubica, and the heroically alcoholic family doctor of his childhood, Dr. Swobodziczka, as well as memories of his various ex-girlfriends: Joanna Catastrophe, Barb the Broker, the Seductive Movie Star, and the Utterly Irresponsible Minx. But the object of his devotion throughout the book continues to be the “woman in the yellow dress,” and as much as this book is a funny and provocative rumination on unrepentant alcoholism and its relationship to literature, it is likewise a bittersweet negotiation of love and the capacity (and incapacity) to change.

Pilch masterfully plays with the tradition of the drunkard novel, demonstrating just how close the alcoholic’s self-fashioning is to the writer’s self-narration. In this way, Pilch’s novel constitutes an act of belief in literature.... The book’s wonderful, delirious and baroque style imparts the experience of dependence, exclusion, and loneliness, as well as the overcoming of loneliness through love. – Maria Janion, head of the jury for the 2001 NIKE Literary Award

Jerzy Pilch, in addition to his 20-year career as a columnist for two of Poland’s best known weeklies (Tygodnik Powszechny and Polityka), has published over a dozen books and won Poland’s prestigious NIKE Literary Award in 2001 for The Mighty Angel. He is a master stylist whom no less an authority than Czeslaw Milosz deemed “the hope of young Polish prose,” and this exquisite translation by Bill Johnston more than does justice to his work.