WE ARE ALL, to one degree or another, both products and prisoners of our backgrounds. Through an exploration of modern-day human trafficking, A. M. Bakalar’s unflinching yet ultimately compassionate second novel, Children of Our Age, confronts the physical and emotional carnage that results from an inability to relinquish the chains of the past.
Bakalar precedes the novel with an excerpt from Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Children of Our Age,” from which the book draws its title:
Whether you like it or not
Your genes have a political past
Your skin, a political cast
Your eyes, a political slant.
In the early 1980s, when martial law was declared in Poland, Szymborska, known for her increasingly overt criticisms of the government, was forced into hiding for almost a decade, printing her works in various underground publications under a pseudonym. This rebellious, risk-taking stance is something of a tradition for Polish writers.
Bakalar’s first novel, Madame Mephisto (2012), told from the perspective of a female Polish drug lord operating in London, is also quite critical of Polish culture and politics. In interviews, the author has discussed the hate messages she received from her countrymen after Madame Mephisto was published. She was attacked for displaying a complete lack of patriotism in her fiction; that the novel is no less critical of Britain is a point often lost on Bakalar’s fellow Poles.
One can only imagine, then, what the increasingly authoritarian Polish government under the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, and its supporters, would make of Bakalar’s latest novel. Human trafficking in general has become the subject of much media interest of late, but it is a very recent, ugly permutation of the phenomenon — Polish expats trafficking other Poles into the United Kingdom for benefits fraud — that forms the narrative fulcrum about which Bakalar’s cast of characters revolves.
The book opens with a shocking incident perpetrated by brothers and thugs-at-arms Damian and Igor, who work as enforcers for criminal mastermind Karol. Soon after, we meet Karol’s wife, the hard-nosed entrepreneur Milena, as well as pious Angelika, her bumbling husband Mateusz, and their increasingly distant daughter, Karolina, and a host of lesser players within a tightly knit community of Polish expats. Thus the stage is set, and the story rockets along in classic thriller style as we watch the seemingly disparate lives of Bakalar’s immigrants connect and, in some cases, self-destruct with the terrifying inexorability of ships caught in the maw of a giant whirlpool.
Bakalar does not shy away from describing the horrors endured by the trafficked Poles, whether it’s Karol’s cool, clinical voice detailing how he tricks them into relinquishing their passports, bank cards, and, eventually, their dignity, or the heartbreaking physical descriptions of the men forced to work from sunup to sundown gathering mollusks for paychecks that never materialize, their “hands like leather, swollen with fractured nails and grimed dirt, the coarse skin broken in places, raw with pain; painfully damaged by the mixture of biting seawater, gale and sharp shells.” The world the author depicts is a singular example of human brutality. Separated from their families and the only home they know, unfamiliar with local customs, unable to speak the local language and made into slaves by their unscrupulous supposed benefactor, the immigrants are strangers in a land that is not only foreign to them, but also relentlessly hostile.
One of the key elements of the novel’s structure is Bakalar’s choice regarding point of view. The easy — and perhaps lazier — option would have been to tell the story strictly from the victim’s standpoint, thus garnering instant sympathy from the reader. Instead, the author gives us a firsthand look into the minds of the perpetrators of evil, a decision that proves as mesmerizing as it is uncomfortable. One of the strengths of the writing is that even the most repugnant members of Bakalar’s cast become somewhat sympathetic; their histories and innermost desires are so well laid out that we feel a sense of kinship with them, simply because we understand their motivations. None of them were born evil. Years of pattern-building, of being defined by their relationships to one another, shaped who they are. We are forced to recognize that they are as trapped in their roles by other people’s assessments of their worth and temperaments as they are by their own.
This is particularly evident in the co-dependent relationship between Damian and his younger brother, the dangerously unstable Igor. Their shared history fosters a strong bond, but that connection hampers as much as it protects them. They cannot transform until they escape each other’s gazes. And indeed, it is only through a chance meeting and subsequent unlikely friendship with someone who has no preconceived ideas about Igor that he manages to break free from Damian and make the choice to “recover what was left of himself, lose the fury that had been devouring his mind from within.”
Adapt or die is a recurrent theme in the narrative. Only the players who manage to divest themselves of established notions about their relationships are able to escape and claim some kind of happiness. Those who cannot are doomed. On a broader level, this reflects the age-old struggle of the immigrant. Survival depends on the ability to change, to fit the mores and lifestyle of the adopted country.
This struggle for survival can prove quite desperate. Throughout the novel, Bakalar uses her characters to make shrewd psychological observations about the inventive ways in which people manipulate others to establish dominance and elevate their own status. There are no selfless angels here; everyone has something to hide, and everyone is able to justify inhumane behavior. A prime example of this is Karol, who desires “power, unlimited control — some extraordinary version of himself.” Toward that end, he has become the greatest of con men, so attuned to human sensibilities that he always has the right lie at hand when he needs it, and so convinced of his own superiority that he feels no guilt whatsoever as he condemns his fellow countrymen to desperate lives of poverty and forced labor.
Their faith in him only confirms his disdain: “If people were stupid enough to believe his lies, Karol believed they deserved to suffer the consequences.” This concept of just deserts — as the manically cheerful Angelika states, “Good things come to good people” — reverberates throughout the story. All the characters cling to their notions of themselves as good, honest, hardworking people. It’s their protection, an amulet meant to shield them from the dark forces in life. As the narrative progresses and their worlds come apart, they are caught completely off guard by the apparent unfairness of their predicaments, unable to make sense of why disaster has disrupted their lives.
And yet, amid all the splashy double-dealing and self-involved machinations, a quieter thread emerges, an examination of how people, particularly those who are marginalized or who behave in ways that put them beyond the protections of normal society, express love. Bakalar’s damaged and often damaging characters still find ways to affirm their affection for one another, though at first this might not be immediately obvious. For one, it’s the gift of silence; for another, it’s the gift of listening; for still another, the gift of remembering, even when that act brings personal pain. Material presents and commodities are exchanged as well, but it’s the small, unadorned offerings of the soul that have the greatest impact on relationships and the story’s outcome.
From time to time, the pace of the novel suffers a few lulls, brief moments where it can’t quite decide whether it’s a thriller or a rumination on human nature. But this is a minor quibble. Children of Our Age is an ambitious work of great scope and power. While the book’s arresting subject matter makes it very much a story of today, the narrative transcends its era. The book is a searing exploration of the ways in which people value and degrade one another, and of how moments of impulse and whim, rather than carefully reasoned action, can change the course of our lives.