Blinded by the Lights (2020)

Polish title: Ślepnąc od świateł (2014)
By: Jakub Zulczyk
Translated by: Marek Kazmierski
Published by: Legend Press
Originally published by: Świat Książki

Kuba is a cocaine dealer in the dark, electric streets of Warsaw, believing he is smart enough to stay in control, unlike the top lawyers, doctors, TV personalities who are his client base.However, after calling in the debt of a failing nightclub owner, breaking his own rules on other people’s property and being caught in the consequences of his clients’ actions, all control starts to slip from his grasp.Now suffering under the glare of the spotlight and dragged into the dark underbelly of the drug world, Kuba must find a way through the middle of the whirlwind of violence and betrayal sweeping him away.

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

The narrator

Zulczyk successfully creates atmosphere, drama and suspense, and a convincing narrative voice, though the narrator’s (Kuba’s) pretensions can become grating. Elements of Camus’s Étranger, a disengaged character drawn into actions he loses control of, and cannot understand.
Kuba’s inability to sleep; even when things are going well he needs pills to help him come down. He eats well at the start, and then barely eats anything over the following days.
After witnessing his father hitting his mother, he has a horror of men beating women, to the extent he potentially endangers himself by reacting to an event he witnesses; but by the end he is sufficiently brutalised to do so himself.
His relationship with Beata makes him vulnerable, and contributes to his loss of control and resultant entanglement, when he becomes trapped, unable to change anything.
He doesn’t sell drugs purely for the money; through doing so he gains a sense of order and control, a degree of detachment given he doesn’t taken them himself. He aspires to be invisible.
His detachment is a front; he is sometimes a witness, often a perpetrator, occasionally a protective figure.
Kuba has a notion that Warsaw is a place of filth; he dreams of it being washed clean.
The importance, ultimately, of his family to him, despite his dismissiveness of them early in the book. At the end of the book he declines to go to Argentina, after threats are made against them.
He passes judgement on a materialistic society, and its privileged, entitled elite, but he is part of it. Perhaps, with his disdain for this world, he is a natural Law and Justice (PiS) supporter.

Other characters

Why is Dario so interested in Kuba? Where does his power derive from? Most of the other characters are plot elements rather than objects of interest in their own right. Few develop much beyond their nicknames.

Warsaw

Warsaw is another character in the book; a trope of the genre.
Is Warsaw really that bad? In reality it’s a pretty safe place to walk at night. It’s part of the thriller convention, that all cities – indeed all locations, including (fictional) Midsomer and (real) Shetland – must have a benign and orderly surface and a nasty hidden underbelly; parallel societies. The strength of The King of Warsaw was to indicate the connections running between the two.
The Russian club is near Grazyna’s house – a building that remains semi-derelict due to questions of ownership, but somehow it functions.

Other elements

Much swearing; a generational thing, acceptable, even fashionable in certain Polish circles.
Humorous elements, like the ‘jam jars’ those from the provinces who spend the working week in Warsaw, living in a small flat and eating homegrown countryside produce, before returning home at the weekend.
Police corruption seems fairly random here, not structurally integrated into the system.

Translator

The translator, Marek Kazmierski, has translated more poetry than prose, but has done a good job here.
Nicknames are translated, more helpfully than not, e.g. ‘Stryj’ becomes ‘Uncle’; more annoyingly street names are also translated, e.g. Nowy Świat becomes New World Avenue; here perhaps translation is only needed if the meaning makes a difference to the story (this example doesn’t).

Comparisons

There is much violence and GBH, as in The King of Warsaw, but the relation of criminality to legitimate power is less thoroughly explored in this book, less sophisticated than Twardoch’s novel.
The dream elements, and his hopeless love for Beata, are both reminiscent of The Doll.
It’s reminiscent too of a Paul Auster book, In the Country of Last Things.
The new Ian Rankin novel also takes place over several days, but is comparatively benign and simply plotted.

Overview

Something of a ‘state of the nation’ novel.
A hard-core thriller with intellectual pretensions.
A warning not to play with the underworld for the sake of money, as it’s impossible to withdraw.
It’s a good thriller, but no more.

2 comments on “Blinded by the Lights”

  1. Thank you for that excellent breakdown of ZB discussion. I wonder what Pan Zulczyk would think of the group’s conclusions.
    I agree that the minor characters have little or no depth and the same goes for the portrayal of Warsaw, which doesn’t do justice to this complex city. I too found the translation of street names annoying though it gave us a bit of a laugh (lacking in this grim book) when we tried to translate them back and realised that eg Basket is Koszykowa.
    As it happened a Glasgow godfather bought the house next door to ours in Provanmill, Glasgow, so I went back to reading about Arthur Thomson and Paul Ferris. There was more honour among thieves there but remorseless brutality too. The police and the authority figures in reform schools and prisons come across as equally brutal and ruthless, while at least one lawyer was famous (notorious) for getting the sentence reduced or annulled.
    Poetry will be a good antidote to crime and “strong” language.

  2. Just to add to the notes that the Ian Rankin novel mentioned is A SONG FOR THE DARK TIMES published in 2020 by ORION. It is the 24th in the John Rebus series who has become well known as a crime fiction character to readers in Poland.

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