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Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3

Global Spotlight

 

Piotr Siemion

Finimondo

 

Photo of Piotr Siemion.Piotr Siemion was raised in Wroclaw (Breslau), Poland. Between 1988 and 2000, he lived in New York City and Montreal. Piotr started out as a translator of British and American literature (including W. B. Yeats’ poetry and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). In the U. S., he received a Ph.D. in American Literature from Columbia University (1997) and a J.D. degree from Columbia Unviersity School of Law (1997). When a practicing attorney in New York, he published his first Polish novel, Niskie Laki (Low Meadows) (2000), followed by Finimondo (2004), in each case to outstanding critical acclaim. In 2000, Piotr moved to Warsaw, Poland. Finimondo is a vivid, romping description of neo-capitalist Warsaw circa 2001—notwithstanding the fact that, perhaps trying to get back some of his Ph.D. tuition money, he based the plot on As You Like It. Currently, Piotr is working on Freud, or Consolation, a novelistic vision of the 1968 events in Communist Poland.

In Italian, "Finimondo" means doomsday or disaster. In Piotr Siemion’s second novel, the disaster takes several forms. First, Aurelius Rakowicz, a neo-conservative columnist and a believer in truth, has to face the double loss: of his wife, gone off on a desperate thrills chase, and of his respectability. He’s implicated in a complex sale of two companies to Americans. Belatedly, he realizes that he’s been made to condone some very questionable transactions involving huge bribes and mass production of contraceptives. Another character in trouble is young Tadeo, whose double romance with Rakowicz’s wife and with Sophie, a 27 year old star of financial audit, adds to the tangle. The fast-paced intrigue develops in some sense the story of the clash between old idealists and young capitalism depicted in Siemion’s bestselling debut, Low Meadows. Seen from this perspective, Finimondo, notwithstanding its bittersweet conclusion, is a similar, cruel comedy of 21st century manners, as well as a damning panorama of two very different but equally lost Polish generations. By the same token, Finimondo is as much a realistic portrayal of contemporary Poland as it is a fairy tale, or with its Shakesearean overtones, a mock romantic comedy. Real life portrayals of Parliament deputies, skinheads, suburban mansions and trendy clubs add up to a vision more akin to theatre than a faithful record of reality. As to Siemion’s novel suspiciously happy ending, somehow at odds with its previous surgical diagnosis, one can only speculate. Perhaps the grotesque realities of modern Warsaw cannot be rendered realistically. Siemion’s well-written novel tries a different approach, juxtaposing the narration’s happy artifice with the disaster-ridden, tangled, dark world outside.

—From a press review by Marta Cuber

The following excerpts are unpublished portions of Finimondo showing the seedy underbelly of post-communist Warsaw and the ethical dubiousness and duplicity of emerging capitalist economies.


part one, scene thirteenSophie’s Apartment near Karmelicka Street in Warsaw

Some nights, it’s better to turn your mirror and make it face the wall. A January blizzard is wrapping snowflakes around the lampposts in the street outside. Sophie would rather not get up at all from her armchair, encircled by her things: a pair of black size 36 pumps, knotted black tights, her business jacket, her business skirt, a mauve silk blouse, a magnetic ID card on its twisted silver chain, then half of the contents of her pocketbook including several medication vials, and in some distance her fiendishly expensive vacuum winebottle opener with the cork still lodged in. Sophie likewise continues to stay lodged in the chair, comfortable in her baggy leggings and a fuzzy turtleneck. She keeps flipping channels, although what’s on her cable TV could not concern her less, the snows of yesteryear, or worse. Instead, Sophie has been playing with the remote, entering one command menu after another in an attempt to create onscreen the same kind of cold, black-and-white porridge that she can see outside the window. In the bathroom, heating pipes honk, the radiators jingle, which means they must be overheating, and the paint continues to peel off the walls. The apartment block is fifty years old, put together unbelievably fast by Stalin-era crack detachments of masons, right on the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. Literally on top of the rubble, for each apartment block in this neighborhood stands perched on its own mound of debris. The hillocks are all that remained from the area cordoned off and starved by the Germans. Mounds topped by four-story houses, here on Karmelicka, on Nowolipie. Some nights Sophie thinks she can sense the layers of human ash, the lingering presence of those who starved in cellars or burned alive in their bunkers. When she and Lukas first moved into this rental pad, they held a housewarming party. Then a friend tried her feng shui skills on the apartment, and the pendulum promptly went berserk. Only Luke had the guts to laugh it off. Zombies in the basement, my ass. Just sacks of potatoes and jars of homemade pickles. Now he too has a chance to see what’s really there.

The only picture of Luke Sophie still keeps is the one on the seaside, the snapshot she herself made on the Baltic beach. Luke was standing up, with not a stitch on, holding against his belly a short surf board bearing the words EAT ME. He was big on those things: surf boards in the summer, snowboards later on. Their trips alternated between the Baltic and the Alps. Luke had even mounted a dedicated roofrack onto his antique Saab. Now the car has passed on to Kay, Luke’s younger bro.

She sets aside the remote and reluctantly picks up some spreadsheets from the carpet. Her homework from Nyerson. Tomorrow she’s going to be under a lot of pressure. Worse still, the required revisions go deep and stink to high heaven of creative accounting. Or plain fraud, to be exact. Of course, among financial auditors there is no such thing as "plain fraud." There are no absolutes, no perfect financial objectivity. There’s only a host of disparate interpretations, feeble attempts to elicit some definite shape from beyond the mess of figure items. A Rorschach test. Very much like a whale… Although the numbers cannot be bent into just any construct, hinting though they all do at something, they leave interpretive gaps wide enough to drive a truck through. Sophie has gained some wisdom during her three sweatshop years at Global Audit Solution, after all, and she knows that all randomness aside, whatever astrologer-like command the financial director may wield over his company data, the markets will not be fooled. You can lay thick the bullshit, prettify the results and paint the lawns fresh green: the markets will know anyway. Usually, though, the markets prefer not to know. They like to cherish their illusions. Like a drowning man, the markets clutch at every puny bit of financial info that suggests that things are not beyond repair. That things are going to be just fine, while this, well, this oddity here is just a momentary glitch in an otherwise sound, long-term investment. Nyerson himself once said in Sophie’s presence that just as the wages of sin is death, the price of illusions has the form of an overvalued corporation. He then launched into a technical foray to do with synthetic derivatives, which to his mind were a cure-all for all financial uncertainty, at which point Sophie decided to tune out. If Nyerson chose to rhapsodize on the subject of hedging the portfolio with exotic financial instruments a mere eight months after the world markets went bust—a process still accelerating with each month—he must have been either a starry-eyed amateur or a cold-hearted manipulator. Or maybe he was another cretaceous dinosaur, oblivious to the fact that this planet was just rammed by an asteroid as big as the county town of Sochaczew.

Sophie takes a sip of her kitten-labelled Chilean wine, gets up from the chair and draws the curtains. She’s had enough of the snow swirling about the street lamp. Anything but the snow. Let it sleet, let there be mud and slush underfoot, let the fog, drizzle and the polar darkness of January rule over Warsaw. But hold the snow. She grabs the remote and surfs the channels, but a dozen clicks later, she switches off the TV. If she kept a cat, she would kick it right now. No such luck, though. She remembers her friend Maga’s monstrous Persian cat, the way the creature was going ga-ga after a dozen or more hours in the empty apartment, clawing at anyone who dared to enter and slicing newspapers into a tangle of narrow strips like an industrial-strength document shredder.

It is still early in the night, not even eleven o’clock. Sophie wants to go flatline, so she picks up a glossy magazine from her coffee table. A perverted gesture, that, because if asked, she would be the first one to denounce the minxes from the mags’ color photos: emaciated, enameled babes with their invariably multiple orgasms and their great, mentally satisfying and materially rewarding careers. What really gets her mad is not as much the trumpeting of success as the way the silly cows who read the magazine think it’s gospel. Not cows, sheep! Lapping up the fairy tales about long-legged models with Ph.D.’s in physics who just completed a wildly successful concert tour, penned their bestselling oh-so-scandalous memoirs and now are decorating their fashionable suburban mansions and give birth to thin-boned, big-eyed baby boys destined to become virtuoso violinists. Arghh! But so what—Sophie loves reading this crap. On a night like this, she does want to feel like a brainless sheep. Call me Dolly. Clone me if this is your pleasure, and I’ll just lie down, chew and bleat. Just don’t stick any cold metal instruments into me. Play some sweet easy music instead, chill me out, and feed me stories of celebrities. Sophie is leafing through the glossy. It’s Cosmo, of all things. Why pretend to be sophisticated, when Cosmo has such stuff for you? Here we go: How to make your man a better lover. Subtly, effectively, and without raising his suspicion. Ten secrets of oral sex… Sophie smirks as if to say, what do you know, my man no longer can have any suspicion. Nor can he become a better lover, not any more. He is a case of arrested development. Since last winter. When he happened to die.

Another feature article. A familiar sounding, naïve musing on what life’s like in the giant Warsaw corporate anthills. The devious tyranny of big organizations. The job market is a rapacious place. I never shy away from challenging projects. The term "dysphoria" stands for restlessness and inability to control emotions. You become jumpy and touchy. Your sex drive shrinks dramatically as well. If you feel like you’re losing out combating your stress, it could mean that you’re about to hit the wall, Sophie reads out loud, wondering idly whether one’s sex drive can possibly "shrink." There has to be a better phrase….

"I never shy away from challenging… One, two, one, two, testing!," Sophie enunciates as if she were auditioning and, to smooth things out, she pours herself more of the red kitten wine. Then she cocks her head and listens because there are knocks outside the kitchen window. The sound of tiny talons knocking against the tin window sill. A night bird, or? Sophie leans toward the curtain and peeks out. Sure enough, something instantly takes off from her window, with the sound of wings rapidly beating the air. Then, silence again.

On TV, Sophie stumbles upon CNN, the latest from the pitch-black California. A total blackout in many parts of the state; no power, no heat, no light either. Reports indicate that the root cause of the blackouts is an electricity conglomerate, the largest power producer on the West Coast. When questioned by journalists, their board chairman vehemently denies the allegations that his corporation…. Sophie flips the channel. Since this morning she’s been hopping mad with rage, with no relief in sight. First, Nyerson and his lunacies about fixing the financial statements; then a general meeting of her department combined with general ass-licking. On top of all that, the continuing misery outside. When it rains, it pours. No—it pisses on you. January in the big city is simply not acceptable. Even the kitten wine won’t cure that feeling. The bottle is almost empty anyway, and Sophie feels ready to hit the sack. Wasn’t this the point? Or maybe she ought to pull herself together and tidy up the apartment, a one-bedroom, large kitchen place in a block of projects next to John Paul II Avenue, just north of the city center. Luke was the one who originally rented this apartment, the first digs they shared, a big surprise. She did not have the heart to tell Luke that she did not really want a neighborhood where there is a glow over the lawns at night. Phosphorus, because of all the bones in the ground. The Warsaw ghetto area. And because she kept silent, she’s lived here to this very day. Now she doesn’t care, anyway. Let them glow.

Sophie gets up and stumbles toward the bathroom. Iron heating pipes are vibrating like organ reeds. A valve is hissing. Under the washing machine a wet towel lies, swollen with water. The leak is almost under control. Again and again, Sophie cannot spare a moment to call in the repairman. When you come back home well past eight o’clock every night, a leaking washer can gape at you helplessly for weeks on end. Sophie plugs up the sink and fills it with lukewarm water. Then she adds a few drops of white detergent. Like some robotic sperm, she thinks, and reaches into the plastic laundry basket for her last week’s underwear and pantyhose. She can tackle a small load by hand, after all. Wringing water out of another pair of panties, Sophie glances into the mirror and, with a shudder, promptly lowers her eyes toward the sudsy water. It’s close to midnight.

Her final glass of wine in hand, Sophie collapses back into the armchair, a cheap Ikea job. She has a few sips of wine left and is not hungry at all, what with the monster kebab she ate in the afternoon. What she could not finish was gobbled up by that asshole kid who accosted her in the firm’s lobby. He had the balls to claim that the two of them work for the same company. Right, he’s working in the main fax room. Asshole. Was he really? There was something about him, he had a way with words, for sure. Otherwise, she would have told him to take a flying fuck instead of buying him junk food. Where did he say he was from? Started with an L. Lublinek? Who the hell cares? He was just another street orphan, a newcomer from out in the sticks. Personable and all, but, so what? There are so many of those kids, and they all trail behind their small-town aura, like odor. Well, maybe that’s not fair. But too bad: in the country’s capital there’s action, action. It’s a live place, and you’ve got to be with it, go to clubs, snort coke, chill out on pink sofas and stay very very cool. For the newbies all this is too new and too complex. Although, that kid… What’s his face, Tadeo? With this kind of name in the passport, he could hardly hope to become a cool dj…

Still, there was something about him, something like… a challenge? A kind of audacity that, once upon a time, Sophie considered a prerequisite to anything big. Because it is the presence of a challenge that triggers all that weird chemistry inside, the chemistry Sophie has not felt for almost a year now. Her male peers are uniformly sad specimen, downtrodden and lost in a world populated by aggressive hags. No wonder they bite back blindly and try to fuck every moving target they see. Plus, they lack confidence. The kid Sophie shared the kebab with displayed the customary parochial cockiness, but there was something else about him as well. Confidence. Where did he get that from?

It is late. A soft harmless porn flick is showing on the French channel. Sophie watches the screen contortions for a bit, surfs other channels, then switches off. White flash shrinks into a dot, full darkness envelops the room. Water drips loudly from the laundry in the bathroom. Sophie recalls in her mind the slim thighs parting like precise scissors, the smooth muscular torsos of the French starlets she’s just seen behind the screen, one push of the button away. As always, she was watching foreign TV with the sound off; she can’t stand the voiceover in Polish. Now she’s watching with the vision off as well. Merely by touch. She slips her hand into her tracksuit pants, gently first, then harder. And harder. The futility of it. What was she hoping for? That finally, at long last, she was going to feel something? A thrill, an awakening? A mere shudder of senses. Another silly illusion, stupidity! What an idiot she was. Dumber even than the airheads in her glossy magazines. Those women at least know how to appear, to pretend, whereas she… colder than a corpse, as cold as…

The room is dark. Invisible, Sophie curls up in the armchair, her hand squeezed in between her thighs. She moves the hand, waggling the fingers, scrolling through tried-and-true mental images, snippets of blue action, but much as she tries she can feel nothing. Nothing at all.

 

part two, scene fourCafeteria in the basement of the Older Wing, House of Parliament on Wiejska Street in Warsaw.

Wearing a suit and a tie Aurelius felt like a secret agent in disguise. For him and other opposition veterans, the proper way to dress was a bulky Norwegian sweater and a pair of blue jeans. The latter would come from hard currency stores or, in his case, from Western gift parcels. Business suits came much, much later and were not to everyone’s advantage. In the Parliament building corridor, Arek had just passed three moustachioed Peasant Party bigwigs, each in a garish double-breasted thing. They look more upholstered than dressed up. Maybe it was true that it is only the second generation of new-made men that can wear suits with impunity. Third generation, tuxedoes. History makes some exceptions even here, of course: Aurelius’s father, Kornelius Rakowicz, a civil engineer by profession, was a suit-wearer because he had to. Aurelius did not see beyond sweaters. To his mind, back then, anybody in a suit was likely a plainclothes police agent (for indeed, the enemy came in two flavors: one uniformed in green or blue, the other grey-suited). You had to watch out especially for the latter kind because they tended to be deadly. Like that time during yet another "explanatory chat" when a suit-wearing gentlemen suggested that he’d better quit ignoring his political realities, or else.

"Or else, what," the impatient Arek inquired.

"Or else your mother will find you one morning outside in a garbage bin," was the reply.

Much has changed since then, but not Aurelius’s distrust of business attire. He owned just two suits: his wedding outfit his dad-in-law generously bought him, now much too tight, and another one that he wore just for some meetings. Recently dry-cleaned, and so quite acceptable for the visit at the Parliament. On the lapel, Aurelius wore an official ID they gave him at the entrance. His press ID was no longer good. Never mind, his cousin was inviting anyway.

His cell phone jingled the first few bars of The Ride of the Valkyries.

"Ari?" he heard, "Give me just three more minutes, okay? I’ll be down with you in a flash. Get yourself some coffee. For me as well. Oh, and get me a sandwich, will you? No, not a sandwich. A croissant."

"I had nothing today, no time," added Aurelius’s cousin when he arrived. "I’m full of Leader, though." They sat in a quiet nook of the cafeteria, close to a refrigerated display case full of herring and salads.

"What do you mean, you’re full of Leader?"

"Well, Arek, if you worked here instead of me, you too would be sick of it. Leader’s a brand of carbonated water, the only kind you can get all over the Parliament building. Any grocery store you go, they carry twenty different brands, Evian, Pellegrino, the works. Here, it’s Leader and nothing else."

"But why?"

"Why, why? A childish question, Arek. Everybody knows why. But, you know what?" His cousin Rick’s eyes finally met him. It was plain that, until now, Rick was not paying attention. "While we’re on the subject, bud. Let’s do talk some business, all right?"

"Sure," Aurelius hurried through his reply. "I fixed everything in New York just the way you wanted. I mean, I told them what you told me. They had some issues, but I told them to discuss those with you when they finally arrive in Warsaw, so…"

"They’ve only just arrived," Rick interrupted, and added: "At two in the afternoon we’re scheduled to begin negotiations. No, not here, God forbid! Are you nuts? We selected a nice secluded place near the Kabaty Forest. A training center. It will be tough for you to get there, is the only problem. There’s one muddy road, off Piaseczno. Still…"

"For me? I’m supposed to be there as well?"

"Of course," said Rick. "You are our deal broker. A person of trust."

"But, but… I know next to nothing about selling a corporation," Arek pointed out. Until now, he firmly believed that his flash trip to New York and a half-hour conversation he had at the Waldorf-Astoria were more than sufficient as his contribution to the movement. Besides, he detested the way politics and business intertwined. He’d exposed the resulting pathologies many times in print and public lectures. "Rick, what do I know about bookkeeping or contracts? I don’t even know how much a loaf of bread is at the store."

"Little wifey doing all the shopping, huh?"

"Rick! Why don’t you go, instead of me. You’re the wheeler-dealer."

Rick finished his pastry, flipped some crumbs off his blond moustache and briskly changed the subject: "Hey, Arek! Have a cold one with me, how about it? A small beer. Come on, we’re all grown-ups in here!"

Willy-nilly, Aurelius nodded and went on sipping the sour-tasting Zywiec while listening to his older cousin’s big tales. They were born two years apart, yet at a certain age a mere two years can make all the difference. When Arek was still too young to realize his thing had other functions than merely to pee with, Rick was already tooling around the yard on his gas-powered scooter. When he was only half-way through college, Rick was already the largest video-cassette wholesaler in central Poland. Soon after, Rick quit the business and became a politician. Luck had it that he very soon won his parliamentary seat, became active in several committees, was even nominated vice chairman of one. Then for a spell he managed the post-communist secret service, as a political appointee. As a politician, he dabbled in police matters while the police reciprocated by dabbling in politics. Then Rick was back in Parliament, where he made some very interesting connections without being too much in the spotlight. Very much like Rick: as a kid, he preferred to hide in the background, where he could enjoy his many toys unmolested by others. Aurelius could swear that the scooter was not his cousin’s final word, although he was not very knowledgeable about those things. Rick got himself something big, for sure. He also became a bigger, fuller man. The blond moustache agreed with him, anchoring firmly the rest of Rick’s broad face.

"Miss Mirka, another two, pretty please!," the cousin called out to the bartender and explained to Aurelius that they had to wait for another Parliamentary deputy, Mister Vykrotek.

"You will just tell him again what you just told me, about your New York meetings and so on. Then we’ll tell you what to do next."

"But, wait a second." Aurelius was not sure he heard right. "This Vykrotek? The commie bastard? Our populist guru?"

"Depends what you mean by that," Rick answered in a conciliatory voice. "Relax, cousin. Say what you want about Shakespeare being an old bore, the guy wrote at least one good sentence to remember. Wait, how did it go? Misery makes strange bedfellows. Or words to that effect."

"But, but… Vykrotek?"

"Ari, please. Don’t get carried away with Vykrotek this, Vykrotek that. The guy has a very checkered past, that’s plain. But you wouldn’t believe the connections he has! Remember, I’m merely the number two man on that committee, right?"

"But, Rick…"

"Okay, I know. I know. Anyway, here he is. Hello again. What took you so long?"

"I’m sorry, I’m all apologies. Too much of that god damned Leader. Either my kidneys must be going, or… Hello! Glad to make the acquaintance. I’m Karl Vykrotek."

"Rakowicz."

"Our righteous man in the Sodom himself?"

"Well… so it happens," Aurelius muttered back. He felt ready to yell at his cousin. It was the supreme irony of it: his chatting—worse, beer drinking!—with the Guru of Neocommie Bourgeoise. Vykrotek’s nickname came straight out of a press column penned by Ari himself just four months before. To make matters worse, on hearing that Ari had just come back from the States, the short, balding Vykrotek became almost ecstatic:

"So I see, our patriot, you’ve been around, huh? Tell us, Mr. Rakowicz, is Carnegie Hall still there? The World Trade Center? Did you manage to grab a piece of the Big Apple?"

"I grabbed nothing. Not my game. You can search my pockets."

"Pity. A missed opportunity, is all I say. You’re a fan of St. Francis, by any chance?"

"Please, don’t push my buttons." Aurelius tried hard to consider it all a joke but in the end he could not restrain himself: "I know you. Next thing you’ll start accusing me of peddling my own country’s assets to foreigners."

"You don’t know me at all," Vykrotek countered without any anger. Smiling, he added: "Pray, when did I ever say any such thing?"

"Maybe not you, personally. It could have been one of your colleagues. From the main lectern in this very building."

"Empty pockets? Not to worry…" Vykrotek made a slight pause. Rick was swigging beer and listening to their awkward conversation. "Because that’s what really worries you, right?"

"I’m just not one of those content idiots."

"Of course not. But, be that as it may, why waste the opportunity once you get to go over there? I’ve seen others go for it. After two weeks in Washington, D.C., they would already speak Polish to me with a Yankee drawl. I remember what you wrote, Mr. Rakowicz. How Poland is a backward little village, and long live Fifth Avenue! You were accusing God of having created you a Pole."

"I did nothing of the sort!" Rakowicz saw red. Rick, however, patted him on the clenched hand and reminded the two of them in a whisker: "Gentlemen, jokes aside, let’s get down to real business. Ari, which were the terms that our friends had such problems with? Why, yes, stop giving me this look, cousin. You can speak freely in Mr. Vykrotek’s presence. Because, without his and his party’s good and valuable services, the deal will get bogged down within five minutes. Just the same way as their crowd needs our good and valuable services, of course."

Ari recapped briefly, again, several minor objections he got from Jason. Luckily for him, the open issues were few and he could commit them to memory. When they talked at the hotel, Jason reminded him several times that nothing whatsoever should remain on paper.

"We can live with all this. Groovy!" was Mr. Vykrotek’s happy comment. The phrase was an ancient one, antedating the 1980s. Aurelius recalled that, back then, the petite parliamentarian was a communist youth member in extremely good standing. As such, he must have been a frequent voyager on the "friendship trains" carrying select young people from Poland for vacations in the Soviet Union. On the way back, young entrepreneurs would stuff their suitcases full of Russian gold and samovars, to be resold back home. Ari thought the term "friendship train" just as suspect as the newly coined "InterCity." In either case, it was cultural imperialism at work: the former was Communist-era newspeak, the latter an anglophone monstrosity born in times of globalization. Groovy, indeed!

"Later, you know, the going will get harder. We’ll be fine, though. There’s no such word as ‘impossible.’ We’ve just got to set things going in accordance with the plan.

"In any case, the Committee does not have a big issue with the project. We’ve reached some kind of consensus," Mr. Vykrotek agreed. "I had to do some facepushing, certainly, but there it is. I managed to pacify those Peasant Party yahoos," he added proudly. Aurelius was aghast at the degree of bonhomie between his cousin and the neocommie. There’s the somber façade, there’s the comfortable lobby beneath it. Oh, well. Ari could not stomach the precision with which these two odd fellows were making their Shakespearean bed.

"Deputy PM has just called me. It seems that we won’t need to change the Funds Act after all. As for the valuation of the target, we still need to tweak it. With finesse, of course, because, in this matter, valuation will be key. Otherwise there will be again mass public outrage about selling out Poland’s family silver for peanuts. Some silver, this socialist-era junk! .

"But what is its true value?" Ari wanted to know.

"True valuation is going to be lowered for some and exaggerated for others. Just as the doctor ordered. Don’t make a long face, Ari, we’re not talking about anything illegal. The fact is that any valuation, let’s say the price of a corporation, a house, or a piece of information…"

"A woman…" Mr. Vykrotek suggested.

"Even the price of a woman, okay," Rick agreed with a mischievous grin. "Anyways, the value is not some kind of abstraction but the actual amount that the market is willing to pay for this something. Plain folks tend to see value historically. Since they put so much effort into building this, blood and tears and all, the house they hackled together in the end must be worth something, right? That’s what they think."

"Are you trying to tell me they’re wrong?"

"Cool down, Ari, I’m telling you! You’re mixing things up. Sure thing, the little shed they built has some value, but only the sentimental one! The market is pricing such sheds using a whole different set of criteria. I’m not going to bother you, a writer, with hard terminology. Alright, the market applies accumulated financial data, or discounted future cash flows, or expected revenues, or current macroscale market trends analysis, or the perception of the beta factor for the region at issue. And so on!"

Vykrotek did not try to interrupt their conversation. Instead, he kept stirring his teaspoon in the sugarpot. The Parliament bars were still a barred zone for little bags of artificial sweetener. At the same time, gone were the Soviet-era notorious sugar cubes.

"That’s valuation in the broad perspective, and when you narrow it down, you know what happens? The banks have already warned that if the target fails to find a strategic investor soon, they may suspend lending. As they well may. And what do you know, immediately a serious respectable investor appeared on the doorstep. An American one at that. Multinational, to be exact. Global, as they all are these days. So global, in fact, that it can afford a bit of shopping in Poland."

"Is it because we’re so cheap? Is it?"

"Not that I’m trying to interfere in your family debates," Mr. Vykrotek spoke serenely, "but pray, tell me, Mr. Rakowicz, what is your meaning of ‘cheap’?"

Aurelius knew the answer.

"‘Cheap’ means below the real value."

"Which one is that? The book value or the fair market value?" Rick wanted to know.

"Or the sentimental value? Which one is ‘real’?" Mr. Vykrotek added.

 

When Ari was gone, Rick had some explaining to do.

"Why on earth did you make him the go-between? No offense to you or your family, my friend, but this Rakowicz is a journalist, an artist, right?"

"And a cousin of mine. He is a little hot-headed, that’s true…"

"Couldn’t agree more. And you know what’s at stake: oodles and oodles of the good stuff. Are you not afraid at all that our little helper may screw it all up, or get us into some big mess?"

"There’s always some risk. The big-mess coefficient," Rick nodded and fell silent because new arrivals were milling around their table.

"And what are you going to do about this coefficient?"

"Relax, Charlie, relax. You’re thinking like the old school. Your group seems a tad out of touch, no finesse. Remember that time when you treated the whole nation to martial law? Force as the only solution. No, don’t interrupt me. So you went and imposed martial law all over the country, and what happened just a few years later? You were kicked out of the government. Why? Because you lacked finesse!"

"Or maybe we made an informed decision to go. A calculation."

"Speaking of which, I, too, like to calculate. Especially when I’m facing a transaction that is going to be very public and will provoke a lot of opposition. This is why I or my people prefer to stay in the background. As you should as well. Let us leave the limelight to someone better than us. Someone like Mr. Rakowicz. He’s one of us, of course. Better still, he’s clean. Honest. Straightforward. And trustworthy."

"Yeah, I heard that he’s clean. How come?"

"White and clean as the lilies. Everybody else is up to his balls in muck, but not Mr. Rakowicz. Now you understand why?"

"My respect. Although the idea is not entirely new. At my party we also have some righteous persons at our disposal."

"Same principle, though. How to inspire trust and confidence."

Mr. Vykrotek could not help a smirk.

"No wonder, Rick. No wonder your side of the House needs to inspire confidence so badly. Don’t tell me it’s our fault that your government’s on top of every investor’s shitlist. Your track record is disastrous. First you’ve fucked up the banks’ privatization, you’ve messed up things with that insurance company, and that telecom debacle was the masterpiece of alienating every global player. Now, what? Promises, promises, the investor can’t wait to get into bed with you, but no, not so fast. First you need to manipulate the price some more, stir up the trade unions to demand lifetime employment for the next three generation… And then, in the middle of it all, it turns out that the whole show’s cancelled. This hound won’t hunt, after all, thank you for your time, gentlemen. Reminds me of that dirty Russian song we used to sing on the train…"

Rick did not have the patience for dirty Russian songs. Action, action!

"Let’s not sling all this mud, even though you should know better than me who was behind that bank’s fuck-up," he interrupted. "I say, never mind. Precisely because of all this, Mr. Rakowicz is the best possible token of our good intentions. The public, every joe-schmoe, they all believe in him. He’s honest, he’s a straight shooter. Of course, in economic matters he doesn’t know shit, but that’s beside the point. They know that he’s very close to this cabinet, right? And if he, of all people, was given this mission, it logically follows that nothing funny will happen with this deal. Because if we were preparing some surprise, Rakowicz would be the first one to scream out."

"Well, when it’s all over, he won’t be a happy camper. Too bad. Okay, I got to run, there’s a cabinet committee session starting in five minutes. Can I ask you to talk some more to your guys? We don’t want problems to crop up at the very last moment."

"I’ll take care of it, not to worry. A deal’s a deal," the small big man assured Rick. Alone at the table, he called after Rick:

"And don’t knock my friendship trains, young friend. You have no idea what fun you missed."

 

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