Olga Tokarczuk – The Bean Prophecies
At a certain stage in a person's life when a good deal of success has been achieved and a good deal of money has been made, when responsibility weighs heavy and when people expect that you will know the answer to their problem and be able to guide them appropriately, there comes, one would think, the nagging suspicion that perhaps you just aren't good enough to hold the position that you do. Perhaps it's all a joke, perhaps you have fooled everyone – fooled yourself. Olga Tokarczuk's The Bean Prophecies (trans. Jennifer Croft) is the story of a such a man who, in his quiet moments, feels that his limousine, his salary, his secretary and his underlings are but one step away from discovering the truth: that he doesn't really have it in him. And so, to combat these feelings he visits Zhenya, a strange, almost child-like old man, who either gives him prophecies he can use to do his job, or fools him with gibberish. Or both.
The idea is interesting, and what's better is that Tokarczuk refrains from revealing why this man – called “S.” - visits Zhenya and his family until the end, when she allows us the opportunity to understand the weak side of her character. Prior to this, S. had been portrayed as a strong man in control of himself and aware of his surroundings. And perhaps he really is – but he doesn't feel like that inside.
The Bean Prophecies opens with S. visiting Zhenya's house in Saska Kępa. As is his custom, S. has his driver stop a few streets away and, as is the driver's custom, it's assumed that S. is visiting a mistress. S. usually brings Zhenya and his siblings some treats – vodka, chocolate, cake – and they eat together. Tokarczuk portrays this homely scene as exactly that, and at first we suspect that these wizened siblings (all in their seventies, at least) are distantly related to S., or perhaps even aunts, uncles, or parents. But they are poor and he is not, and thus, perhaps, he is ashamed of their dismal life when compared with his government salary. Indeed, while visiting, S.
...would feel as if some mysterious process of regeneration was occurring within him, as if he were becoming the person he'd been before the war – young, chock full of plans for the future, lighthearted, free of any obligations, a human cork that would always find itself on top, no matter what was happening around him.
And so the story continues. Tokarczuk plays up the relaxation felt by S., and while doing so, she introduces the somewhat buffoonish mysticism of Zhenya:
[Zhenya] predicted ordinary things, trivial things – that S. would lose his house keys, that “someone from the car would duplicate” (Piotrowski's twins were born) or that S. would briefly become a snake (Rita had shouted, “You cold snake!” at him during one of their arguments). And so forth.
But all of this is rather banal. S. himself seems to know this, but, as noted, he comes here partly to feel at home, and partly to learn what he can. Zhenya's trustworthiness comes from a story he told S. in early 1953, that a “great death” was approaching, and that it would benefit S. in some way. He assumed it would be a relative and a subsequent inheritance, but what happened was Stalin died and S. was promoted. From then, he was hooked on Zhenya's stories.
Tokarczuk understands the mind of a man promoted above his station. S. wants desperately to believe that he is capable of fulfilling his role, and thus he justifies, excuses and condones his visits to Zhenya. Yet when Zhenya is correct, he handwaves the information as being too vague to really be truthful, and when Zhenya is wrong, he chides himself for needing this “church-like” or superstitious ritual – and yet still, he always returns.
Tokarczuk's story is, in effect, a take-down of the concept of the powerful man. In The Bean Prophecies S. is shown to view himself as a fraud, convinced that one day everyone will find out that he is ordinary and just like them, and then it will all be over, but until then he is a man who will never outwardly show his fear to anyone. Do all powerful people have such a Sword of Damocles hovering above them? Perhaps. The biographies of great men are littered with odd superstitions and strange rituals, exotic habits and odd proclivities. Were these, then, the actions of men waiting to be discovered as frauds, for the world to discover that their achievements were a sham?
I don't think it's wise to read too much into The Bean Prophecies. Tokarczuk's story of a powerful man's self-doubt is universal in the sense that, other than a few Polish names and a reference to Stalin, the scenery and descriptions are devoid of identity-specific information and could thus apply to anyone, anywhere, but it might be too much of a stretch to say that it applies to all powerful men. And yet, there's a strong quality of sweeping condemnation to it; the story itself seems to encourage extrapolating “S.” and “Zhenya” to “Napoleon” and “a bright star seen at Lodi” or “Winston Churchill” and “cats”. At any rate, The Bean Prophecies provides an interesting, highly critical take on the effects of power on a man's life. S. possesses power but not self-knowledge, and the fact that such a man is content to chase at the tail of Zhenya's strange, vague, deliberately poorly worded prophecies suggests much about him, and about those who would follow him.
The Bean Prophecies by Olga Tokarczuk is a short story from Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 4
Other titles by Tokarczuk under review include:
---The Ugliest Woman in the World
Index of short stories under review from Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 14
Index of short stories under review from Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania
Index of short stories under review from Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 4
Index of short stories under review from Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 1
Index of short stories under review