The Mighty Angel (2009)

By: Jerzy Pilch
Translated by: Bill Johnston
Published by: Open Letter

The Mighty Angel is about the alcoholic misadventures of a writer named Jerzy. Many times he’s woken up in rehab and after treatment at the hands of the stern therapist he has been released, a sober and, more or less, healthy. On the way home he picks up the supplies that are necessary to help him face his reality. While in rehab, Jerzy collects the stories of his fellow alcoholics to tell the story of the alcoholic and to discover the motivations and drives that underlie the alcoholic’s behaviour. A simultaneously tragic, comic, and touching novel. The Mighty Angel displays Pilch’s caustic humor, ferocious intelligence and unparalleled mastery of storytelling. Jerzy Pilch is one of Poland’s most important contemporary writers and journalists. In addition to his long-running satirical newspaper column, Pilch has published several novels and has been nominated for Poland’s prestigious NIKE Literary Award four times; he finally won the Award in 2001 for The Mighty Angel. His novels have been translated into numerous languages.

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Ken enjoyed reading this, but found it hard to remember the sequence of events, and particulars, other than the longer narrative about Old Kubica and his horse, though that felt apart from the rest of the text in its narrative-ness. The narrator enjoys writing, but doubts his writing skills; others find it so convincing (the emotional journals he writes on the ward) that they incorporate it into their own memories.

Jenny had read this when it appeared, and again now. She disliked the narrator’s arrogance, and the author’s use of Polish tropes. She thought Amy Liptrot and Bernard McLaverty had written better about alcoholism.

Magda found it laugh-out-loud funny, with tragic elements. She found it a convincing insight into the mind of an alcoholic, who despite a disordered life remained attractive to women and a successful journalist.

Zenon found himself annoyed when reading it, and liked in better in retrospect. Pilch sacramentalises and intellectualises drinking; perhaps the latter underpins its appeal to prize juries? He felt the ending didn’t fit. It reminded him of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and he wondered about the relationship between alcoholism and mental illness; also when the earlier punitive system (in relation to drunks) ended.

Ewa enjoyed the story of the narrator’s grandfather and his horse, but otherwise couldn’t remember much of it. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the fact that ‘his pen is so light’.

Alicia declared herself a ‘Pilch addict’ in the early 2000s, but she came to find his work repetitive. She loves his erudite style, humour and playfulness, and this strange story you can’t follow. She thought the book was a glorification of drinking through language.

Tom found it a slippery read. When he came to the end, he wondered of he had missed something along the way, and struggled to recall what had gone before. For all its stylish exuberance, where does it go? Full of delusions and self-deceptions, it has no narrative drive. Is the love story mere wish fulfillment? The book was too tricksy and difficult for him to want to reread, or to recommend.

Krystyna’s experience of drunks in Poland was that they were not intellectual. It was striking that the other characters on the ward were all benign, with no hints of violence.

Grażyna found it witty and insightful, and enjoyed Pilch’s use of Polish idioms. She found it an accurate depiction of Communist times, and she enjoyed the humour of the narrator blaming the end of Communism for his lack of success with women, when these are completely different realities. She noted a distinction between heavy drinkers and alcoholics.

Mark was bored by it, and put off by the narrator’s literary pretensions. He was struck by the narrator’s lack of any money problems, and his ‘phenomenal reaction’ to each episode, from which no narrative can be built.