‘Wretchedness’ by Andrzej Tichý (Review – IBP 2021, Number Five)

After a brief interlude in space, it’s certainly nice to set foot on terra firma once more, and if any of the International Booker Prize longlisters are likely to bring you back to Earth with a thump, today’s selection is the obvious choice.  We’re off for a walk, and later we’ll go and listen to some music, but these mundane activities belie the true nature of the book.  You see, it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that we’re really interested in, and that involves looking back to a time when the protagonist’s life wasn’t quite so conventional.  I hope you’re feeling well – we’re going out with a few friends…

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý
– And Other Stories, translated by Nicola Smalley
(digital review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Cody, a cellist in a classical trio, is stopped in the street one day by a man he identifies as a junkie.  After giving him some money, and stopping for a brief chat, he moves on, ready to meet his friends and head off to an organ recital, but this chance encounter is to play on his mind, setting in motion a whirlwind of thoughts and memories.

The truth is that the homeless man reminds Cody of his own past, and as he and his friends head towards the railway station, chatting about composers and music theory, he’s somewhere else entirely, a world of violence, hard drugs and short lifespans.  We realise that the world of the junkie is one our new friend knows only too well, and we’re about to spend some time trapped inside Cody’s thoughts.  He may have moved on, but as we’re to learn, many of his friends didn’t – the meeting with the homeless man is a chilling encounter with a life that could well have been his.

Wretchedness is a compelling story of life outside the mainstream, an examination of immigrants, drug addicts and petty criminals.  Tichý takes the reader on a journey away from the bright lights of big-city life, into the shadows, and as Cody slips ever deeper into his memories, we’re shown a very different Sweden to the one we think we know.  This is not the country of ABBA and Volvos, but a divided society with severe issues.

A particular focus of the novel is showing its surprisingly multicultural nature, with Cody’s old neighbourhood a melting pot of people who’ve arrived from all over Europe. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone gets along – quite the opposite:

Me and someone, I don’t remember who, maybe Besart, someone else, we were winding up these older guys, taking their ball and shit.  Then one of them, his name was Magnusson or Magnus or something, whatever, then he said fucking blattar to us.  I’d never heard it so I didn’t get it.  but then I asked someone.  And they said: it means foreigner, immigrant, dirty wog, you know, though I hadn’t heard that then either.
And Other Stories, 2020

While we first see how the children of immigrants stick together in the Swedish suburbs, later chapters provide a different slant on the idea of immigration as these youth explore life elsewhere, taking themselves off to Hamburg, London or Glasgow in search of new experiences.

Many of these new experiences involve illicit substances, and it’s probably best to make it clear that drugs feature heavily in Wretchedness, which may be a sticking point for some readers.  While the downsides are mentioned, they aren’t always as explicit as in some books, and they can be slightly glossed over in favour of descriptions of the rush, the frantic nature of the experience or, at other times, the mellow moods the friends experience.  However, there are passages where the drugs have worn off, and we’re shown the downs, and how to get through them.

As Cody reflects on different periods of his life, names are dropped one after the other into the text, making it hard to keep an overview of the big picture, and yet, as much as Tichý makes it sound like a fun community, full of laughs, he always returns to the downsides, the poverty, the neglect, the violence and the early deaths.  One person that repeatedly crops up in Cody’s memories is Soot, an old friend who sadly didn’t make it past his youth, and one reason for this search for highs is an attempt to forget the many lows.  But any idea that the writer is glamorising this way of life is shattered in the moments Cody lashes out against it:

You know, I said.  You know: the sick thing is that I sometimes think there’s no solution for these people and that we should actually exterminate them, for everyone’s sake.  So they can’t cause any more suffering.  Honestly.  For themselves, for others.  So they can’t have any more children.  So we don’t have to see them fucking about with alcopops and pills pushing a pram in the morning when we’re on the way to work or school.

It might just be the drugs talking, but it’s clear on many occasions that he’s just biding his time, wanting to make his escape from a life he knows can only end badly.

As fascinating as it is to pull the book apart in search of themes, though, Wretchedness is all about the language.  Each section begins with Cody thinking of the flowers blooming near where he practises, before bursting into life with a dizzying stream-of-consciousness assault on the senses:

…and we walked on, we walked on along the canal alongside one another, and I heard the composer’s voice as I was thinking about Robi’s brother, who’d also been inside for something or other, and the corner flag and the cloud of gravel, and my mouth got dry and I breathed and looked up at a tower block in front of us, saw someone moving about up there on the roof, and thought about Copenhagen, where we were headed, to a concert at Vor Frue Kirke, in the cathedral – where Moosmann was going to play In Nomine Lucis, among other things – and I thought about Sanne in Copenhagen, and I heard the composer’s voice but couldn’t listen, because I was hearing Robi’s voice at the same time and seeing Robi’s back receding, getting smaller and smaller, but his voice was just as persistent and rich inside my head.

At times, there are pages without so much as a full stop, a compelling flood of language sucking the reader in.  There’s also a mix of registers as the Cody of now discusses music with his friends, before his thoughts drag him back to the rather more raucous conversations on the streets.  Cody’s monologues can be breathless, and confusing in places, and the reader needs to simply dive in and trust that it’ll all make sense – it’s a credit to Tichý (and Smalley, of course!) that it usually does.

Wretchedness is a story of a different kind of life, told by someone who has been there and come through it.  However, it would be wrong to say Cody’s come out of the experience unscathed.  One of the recurring themes of the book is his sense of survivor’s guilt, especially in the frequent mentions of Soot, a friend who wasn’t so lucky, but as the story nears its end, there are hints that there’s something we’re not being told.  In fact, despite his music and his new life, we start to wonder whether he really moved on after all…

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Well, Wretchedness is easily my favourite of the five longlisters I’ve read so far, and I can’t see it being overtaken by six of the remaining eight titles.  I’m a sucker for books that attempt to use language to draw the reader in and wrongfoot them, and Tichý’s mesmerising novel does this superbly.  This is one occasion where the official judges’ decision to seek out unique styles has born dividends, so I’m crossing my figures for all concerned 🙂

Will it make the shortlist?
It’s hard to say, but I think it has a very good chance.  It’ll probably depend on whether there are any other books on the longlist with similar themes or voices as I suspect that its unique nature is part of what will help it progress.  As it’s certainly more substantial than most I’ve read so far, we may well be seeing more wretchedness at the shortlist stage – which is a *good* thing!

It’s time to bid Cody farewell and head off on the next leg of our journey, and (alas) we’re heading off to a war zone, which is perhaps not wholly unexpected for a prize longlister.  This is no ordinary war story, though, and while the setting is familiar, the protagonist isn’t.  We’re off to No Man’s Land to see what happens when someone is taken far from home and asked to fight for another country.  He’s happy enough to lend a hand, but, as we’ll see, he wants one or two (or seven) in return…


7 thoughts on “‘Wretchedness’ by Andrzej Tichý (Review – IBP 2021, Number Five)

  1. Sadly, Wretchedness is my least favourite of the ten I’ve read so far, perhaps for the reason you like it – I’m not that interested in novels which put language / form before everything else. Or perhaps it’s the fact that a cello playing former junkie seems unlikely (I suspect cello playing is Tichy’s substitute for writing, but the former actually requires hard work). The brief section in Scotland only reminded me how much better Trainspotting was!


    1. Grant – I think there’s a difference here between language and form. I prefer the former, whereas the judges this year prefer the latter (i.e. ‘The Employees’ is very much a novel of form over language or content).


  2. I’ve just commented at Grant’s. I’m of your mind on this one – I was impressed by it and it’s stayed with me since. The cello thing doesn’t hugely bother me – I come from a not dissimilar background (I think you said you do too) and frankly whatever takes you out of it takes hard work. I’ll be interested to see what he does next.

    Re Sweden, the Martin Beck novels from the 1970s show a dark underbelly and are hugely critical of much of its social contract. Like all countries, the image of it abroad is deeply partial. There’s a long tradition in Sweden of strong social criticism in fiction.


    1. Max – I recently finished rereading it, and I wasn’t quite as impressed second time around. My impression of the ending as a bit gimmicky was strengthened, and there were places in the middle where it dragged a little. Still, lots to like, and full marks for ambition 😉


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