The Year of the Penguin

Lovers of mixed metaphors revel at every possibility of inventing new interpretations of surreal elements in cult works of fiction or cinematography. The late Polish film director, Andrzej Wajda, had been endlessly mauled by critics to explain the allegorical meanings behind his repeated use of images of a white horse in some of his films, notably in “Ashes and Diamonds”. The public found it inconceivable that under Communist censorship any self-respecting Polish artist could do it not for political but simply for artistic reasons, and constructed near-conspiracy theories. One of them claimed  that the stallion symbolised Josef Pilsudski himself – Poland’s prewar leader and the nemesis of Tukhachevsky’s Red Army expedition against resurgent Poles in 1920. Some historical accounts maintain that the victorious Battle of Warsaw in the summer of 1920 saved not only Poland but the rest of Europe from the curse of Communism.

Soon after Andrey Kurkov wrote his “Death and the Penguin” (1996), literary anatomists and political commentators alike endowed the bird with supernatural meanings rather than powers. The prevalent one was that the penguin symbolised the collective nature of the mentality of the Soviet people who are unable to act on their own but must follow other penguins. As much as I would like to synthesise my own journey of the last 25 years into a metaphor of an iconic mammal such as the horse or the lion, I am afraid I invariably end up being reduced back into Kurkov’s pathetic bird. I have to explain why.

I grew up under Communism in Poland. My only brother went to study physics in the Soviet Union at Moscow’s prestigious MEI thanks to my parents’ fur shop, which was state-owned, but functioned after hours like a proper private enterprise.  I had defied my parents’ wishes and refused to study law even though they had said I would not have to turn up at the entrance exams to get in. Instead, I went to read English which I saw as the only discipline not tainted by the Communist system. My brother joined the Communist Students’ Union in Moscow, while I refused to join its equivalent at home, and pierced my left ear to wear a stud in a bold gesture of political defiance. On his return home, my brother joined the Polish United Workers’ Party, and I went to work for the Catholic University of Lublin – the only private and independent university in the Warsaw Pact countries. I did not even wait for Communism to collapse, but emigrated to live in England in 1989. In other words, and to use yet another bird metaphor for our brotherly disunion, “One flew east, and one flew west, and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”. But hang on a second – how does a penguin fit into Ken Kesey’s cuckoo nest? Mixed metaphors again?

I was so proud of having flown over “the cuckoo’s nest” to London that all my energies went into proving that I was the bird of the same feather as all the British fowl there.  After about 15 years of trying hard – and repeatedly failing – I ended up working in Kurkov’s Ukraine, and later in Central Asia, spreading the gospel of democracy, human rights and the freedom of speech in the former Soviet empire. It was in Khujand in 2009 that my unflinching belief in my Western plumage got shattered, or rather unceremoniously plucked out. I had been invited together with an English member of our film crew as a guest of honour to a traditional Tajik wedding. After several endless toasts, the bride’s family insisted that we, the foreigners, produce one as well – most probably for the sake of amusement at the inability of Westerners to compete with the local panache and verbosity. My poor friend got dragged out into the open and managed to produce a few more-or-less coherent lines to enthusiastic, if somewhat ironic applause, but when my turn came, one of the guests shouted: “Leave him alone, he is the man of the East!”  At the time, I felt deeply insulted and profoundly humiliated. Somebody dared to call me a penguin.

Having flown both to the West and the East, I returned to the country of Wajda’s white horse after more than 20 years spent overseas with unshaken conviction that Poland’s transformation from the cuckoo’s nest into a fully-fledged European democracy was complete and irreversible. I closed my eyes at obvious cases of corruption and nepotism disguised by the plumage of EU bureaucratic legitimacy, gave tolerant nods to prefixed deals construed as transparent tenders, and shut my ears to self-congratulatory bigotry. I managed to ignore xenophobic rants of self-righteous zealots, and the medieval ignorance of Catholic Church-inspired nationalists until my Russian-speaking wife was spat on in the street and cursed by a respectable-looking elderly lady in a medium-sized urban community south of Warsaw. The incident took place roughly at the time of media reports of systematic mistreatment and even instances of torture in detention centres for refugees from Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia, whom Poland had taken in as a gesture of democratic solidarity with nations and peoples suffering from Russian oppression. We did not quite fit in with the local flock: it was time for the two of us, penguins, to turn into migratory birds again.

The English have an old saying that people of similar character tend to stick together – again using a bird metaphor: “Birds of a feather flock together”. I was full of hope that my second British homecoming will be met by the same familiar flock I remembered from my earlier years in the UK. But clearly, we are living in the age of climate change. I had lived on and off in Britain for more than a quarter of a century, but I had never had a sense it was a land of indigenous penguin populations. Not the right climate, one should think. The enforcement of anti-racist legislation over several decades of aggressive government non-discriminatory and equal opportunities policies worked well to the point of pushing racism and xenophobia well underground and channeling them into insidious and hidden forms such as bullying at school or harassment at work. Generally, it seemed to work well to protect the black and Asian communities from the most obvious and blatant forms of discrimination, but had an ugly side-effect: it exposed other white non-Anglo Saxon minorities – mainly more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, to compensatory forms of racism. It was not based on skin colour, and much less on ethnicity, but on values. On the one hand, those people are white in the eyes of the British, but on the other, they are pitch black: in other words, we are all perfect penguins.

bfirst_hnhThe Brexit referendum had an almost instant chilling effect on the British climate, which seems to have reverted to the safety of its colonial l’air du temps: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”. Even though Great Britain is separated from Europe by a narrow strip of sea water, in terms of values it turned out to be an ocean. For more attentive observers of British popular sentiment of the last few years, with the rise of UKIP and such phenomena as Britain First, the outcome of the Brexit vote was predictable. While the Poles or Hungarians could be accused of developing only a thin European skin since joining the EU more than a decade ago – the skin that easily comes off at first abrasion or friction, the British became proud of shedding their EU epidermis of their own free will.

But we need to think seriously, and not in mixed metaphors, about what this moulting process spear-herded by the Penguin in leather trousers reveals and tells us what the future holds in stock for us. Which is the white side, and which is the black one. What is more dangerous for the human race as a whole: the helplessness of millions of Kurkov’s penguins languishing in the post-Soviet unreformed space, or the emergence of a single victorious rogue Penguin on the other side of the Atlantic, not unlike the character played by Danny Devito in Batman Returns, who is shortly due to take over in Gotham City? The Penguin, whose winning strategy was based on accusing his competitor of being also essentially a rogue penguin, but of inferior quality. She lost, even though more Kurkov’s penguins had voted for her overall. Gotham City in the Batman movie was saved in the end from the rogue Penguin just in time for Christmas, but in our case, unlike in the film, what happens, if the Superhero fails to materialise and save us this Christmas?

IMG_5357 (2).JPGI decided to put the Penguin in the title of my piece after reading reports of the mysterious drowning of seven Humboldt penguins in a zoo in Calgary, Alberta earlier this month. Initial investigation suggested that these natural swimmers and divers must have been in the state of panic or intense stress not to come up to the surface in time but drown instead. We can only speculate whether they had found out who had won the election across the border, and committed group suicide out of a sense of shame that one rogue Penguin may have ruined their reputation for generations to come. Or perhaps they had realised with shock that America and Britain were also populated by tens of millions of indigenous penguins of the Andrey Kurkov species, who had for decades been made to believe that they were eagles and albatrosses. Remembering back the Tajik wedding now, I feel proud to have been called the man of the East. I am still a perfect penguin, but I suspect that all these past years, I may have worn my coat back to front, thinking that the white was black, and the black was white. This is my little own Epiphany this year and it miraculously takes place before Christmas, not after. Happy New Year!

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