Wiesław KOT: Kornel Makuszyński – writer with the sun in his coat of arms

Kornel Makuszyński – writer with the sun in his coat of arms

He persuaded his readers that there were no bad people, only unhappy ones: 'Smile at your neighbour, and your neighbour will take his heart out of his chest and offer it to you in the palm of his hand.’ And he added, 'A smile makes all things equal’. 70 years ago, on 31 July 1953, the creator of Koziołek Matołek (Matołek the Billy-Goat) – Kornel Makuszyński – died.

.Kornel was the seventh child in the family of a modest municipal official from the Krosno region. The family lived in poverty, especially since his father had orphaned the twelve-year-old boy. For Christmas, his mother promised to buy him a pair of socks. He never got them. And he had a restless nature. He was expelled from grammar school in Stryj for writing a mean poem about a catechist who forbade him to slide across a frozen pond. He was expelled from the gymnasium in Przemysl when he tried to duel a classmate with revolvers over a certain class beauty. After studying Polish and Romance languages in Lviv, he worked as a journalist, literary manager of theatres, and, in time, as a writer. Copies of his novel 'Bezgrzeszne lata’ (The Sinless Years, 1925) circulated from hand to hand until it was completely out of print and technically dead. The same was true of his novels 'Awantura o Basię’ (Argument about Basia) and 'Szatan z siódmej klasy’ (Satan from the Seventh Grade), published shortly before the Second World War. Prizes and honours poured in: the French President awarded him the Chevalier Cross of the Legion of Honour, the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature, and honorary membership in the Highlanders’ Association. His stays in Zakopane became more frequent and longer. There he divided his time between writing, feasting, and playing cards. And he was also involved in public affairs. 'I was crying out for lights, for schools and hospitals, for pavements, and for something as trivial as keeping cows out of the streets,’ he recalled. He described Zakopane as 'Giewont on the left, Gubalowka on the right, and rain in the middle’. The city loved him. 'He strolled in splendour through Krupowki, bowing with the skill of a chamberlain combined with the craftsmanship of a protector of his own court,’ recalled a friend.

However, one of the most important ideas of his life was not born in Zakopane but in a sanatorium in Otwock, near Warsaw, where the writer was trying to cure his diabetes. It was there that the illustrator Marian Walentynowicz appeared with the proposal that Kornel should write a comic strip story for children and that he should illustrate it. It was decided that the hero would be a goat. While the artists were discussing the plot, they noticed a very sad bather at the table next to them. They asked him the reason for his sadness, and he replied that he was sad because he came from a town no one had ever heard of, Pacanów. 'We will do our best, sir, to make sure that everyone hears about Pacanów,’ they promised. After only six days of intense work, the first book of '120 Adventures of Matołek the Billy Goat’ was ready. It was published for Christmas 1932, and children went crazy for it. It told the story of how 'all the wise Polish goats’ decided to send a goat called Matołek to check whether the goats in the town of Pacanow had their hooves shod. And if it was worth it. But instead of going to Pacanow, Matołek gets involved in endless quarrels all over the world. He is put on a drunken elephant, then on a hedgehog, and he is even shot at the moon. 'Billy Goat thinks: For you, this game is not healthy. You’d better go and find your Pacanow, Billy Goat’, Billy Goat concludes after each new adventure.

Kornel Makuszyński with Jan Kiepura 1933.

.Makuszyński spent the last six years of his life after the Second World War in Zakopane, in poverty and oblivion. His books were not reprinted, and old copies were removed from libraries. He was accused of 'negating the theme of class struggle’ in his pre-war novels, while his Przygody Koziołka Matołka (The Adventures of Matołek the Billy Goat) smuggled 'the ideas of the American imperialist comic strip’ onto Polish soil.

And yet, Kornel Makuszyński’s prose was given a second life, as it turned out to be very cinematic. Not only the comic strip about Koziołek Matołek (a TV series produced in 1969–71) was adapted for the screen, but also numerous novels, including O dwóch takich, co ukradli księżyc (About Two Men Who Stole the Moon) (1962, with the twins Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński as Jacek and Placek) and Szatan z siódmej klasy (Satan of the Seventh Class) (even twice, in 1960 and 2006).

This first 'Satan’ from 1960, directed by Maria Kaniewska, is still recalled by many television channels. The viewer has the impression of having stumbled upon a flower that had dried up in a school diary. This film is simply cheerful. It contains everything that attracts young people, whatever the era: memories of 'our dear old home’, including professors who seem stern but are in fact 'good for the wear’, an old palace, an investigation by an amateur detective, a gang of robbers, a scout camp by the lake, a daring police chase, and, above all, first teenage love.

Here is a small digression. Pola Raksa made her debut in this film and immediately captivated the audience with her charm and sensitivity. She gave up her Polish studies to study acting in Lodz. 'Szatan z siódmej klasy’ was an unexpected success, and the actress had a lot of offers to choose from. She thought long and hard about accepting the role of Marusia in 'Czterej pancerni’. She was afraid that the Polish audience would hate her. She was afraid that the Polish audience would hate her, because how could she? After all, this 'Russian’ girl was stealing the boyfriend of a Polish girl, Lidka! But her girlish charm made the Poles love the Soviet nurse. 'Anyone would have given his life for her Pola Raksa face…’ – would be sung years later by the rock band Perfekt.

And more – a song runs through the film several times and makes its atmosphere even more carefree:

Już za parę dni, za dni parę,
Weźmiesz plecak swój i gitarę.
Pożegnania kilka słów:
„Pitagoras, bądźże zdrów”.
Do widzenia wam canto, cantare!

Lato, lato, lato czeka,
Razem z latem czeka rzeka.
Razem z rzeką czeka las,
A tam ciągle nie ma nas.

(In just a few days for a few days
You will take your backpack and guitar
Farewell to a few words
Pythagoras, be healthy
Goodbye to you canto, cantare

Summer, summer, summer awaits
Along with summer waiting for the river
Together with the river waiting for the forest
And there still are not there)

The music to the words of Ludwik Jerzy Kern, a rhyming poet from the weekly magazine Przekroj, was composed by Witold Krzemieński. He was a professor of conducting and a composer of many works of classical music. However, his works have fallen into oblivion, but the song 'Lato czeka’ (Summer awaits), written from scratch, is still played on the radio. In any case, the professor bought a villa near Poznan with the royalties from his compositions.

.When Kornel Makuszyński died in Zakopane (31 July 1953) – he had been made an honorary citizen of the town before the war – the authorities refused to attend the funeral, saying that there was a lot of work to be done during the 'harvest campaign’. Instead, the Highlanders turned out in force. They carried the coffin on a cart lined with fresh silk. The procession set off from the church on Krupówki Street to the historic cemetery at Peksowy Brzyzek. The Obrochts’ band played. The writer was buried next to the poet Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer and the storyteller Jan Krzeptowski-Sabała. His grandson bade farewell to the 'Honourable Gazda’, saying: 'He deserved to be in this world with dignity. He made people’s lives more pleasant with his dialect and his pen…’

Wiesław Kot

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 18/08/2023