If this book was an American movie it would be labeled ‘based on true events’. A dark tale about the life of three teenagers in Bydgoszcz in the early 1990s. Just as Poland emerges from communism, so do those boys who emerge from being children gradually into the world of adults. Orbitowski captures them at the cusp of change, right at this moment where everything still seems possible, but on the other hand, some things are decided. A chilling story set against the backdrop of a city and its inhabitants hit by a transformation that they do not understand cannot cope with.
Let me provide a rough translation of the title: A Different Soul. The book is a part of a series where authors create works of fiction based on old criminal cases. It’s an interesting setup because rather than being limited by the facts each author has the freedom to wrap them in their imagination. The facts become the springboard to launch us into a new perspective.
In this case, the original criminal case were two murders that shook Bydgoszcz in the 1990s. The murderer was eventually caught, but there seemed to be no reason whatsoever for the killings. Orbitowski presents us this story through the lives of three teenage boys. One of them, the son of an alcoholic father, is our narrator. The second boy is his friend from school, and the third a son of successful family friends, a daring figure he is impressed by.
To give you some background on the boy’s environment, Bydgoszcz is a middle-sized city in Poland…ha! As I write it I checked again, it’s currently the 8th largest city in Poland, but with around 350K inhabitants, so I leave the judgement to you. For me, there is something about it that makes one say it is a middle-sized city. And this vibe is something that Orbitowski captures perfectly. In the 1990s the city, like the whole country was going through a transformation from communism into the free market. And it wasn’t going too well, some were lucky and came out on top, but many fell through the cracks. Losing security, hope, and trust. And this is the side of Bydgoszcz that we see here, where market forces grind people who have absolutely no understanding of their existence.
It seems that the future of the boys will be predetermined by their origins and environment. But as always there is a certain element of tenacity and free will, as well as a pure chance. This mix of factors will decide which one of them will become a murderer, which one will continue on his parent’s trajectory of misery, and which one will become successful in the new reality.
It is a very depressing book, a good read, but not one to make you feel better. It made me feel dirty when I finished it. I read it during the summer vacation in Poland and the cognitive dissonance was jarring. Every time I raised my head from above the page the sun felt blinding because the realities of the book are so dark in contrast. But it was interesting to dive into the times that I barely remember, being around 10 years old at the time. On the flip side, if I was less lucky and was born in Bydgoszcz and not a larger city, who knows how my fate would go. It was close, just a few random circumstances and everything changes.