Killing the Sec­ond Dog

Marek Hlasko; Tomasz Mirkow­icz, trans.
  • Review
By – March 4, 2014

Marek Hlasko was the wun­derkind of the Pol­ish Spring of 1956 — a young writer (born in 1934), with­out much for­mal edu­ca­tion who emerged to give voice to the dark­er side of the post-war Pol­ish expe­ri­ence in the brief thaw fol­low­ing Khrushchev’s denun­ci­a­tion of Stal­in. Hailed for his grit­ty work and just as quick­ly shunned by the lit­er­ary appa­ratchiks, Hlasko, hav­ing been sent to Paris in 1957 to boost Poland’s lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion abroad, became an exile for the rest of his brief life; he died of a drug over­dose in Ger­many in 1969. Among his oth­er places of sojourn in his exile years, Hlasko spent a year or two in Israel, which he cred­its with sav­ing his life. Killing the Sec­ond Dog (Drugie zabi­cie psa in Pol­ish; pub­lished in 1965) is one of sev­er­al fic­tions Hlasko wrote with an Israeli set­ting. This edi­tion, from a new small press spe­cial­iz­ing in trans­la­tions of for­eign lit­er­a­ture, is a reprint of a 1990 trans­la­tion. New Ves­sel Press is to be com­mend­ed for bring­ing Hlasko back to the atten­tion of Eng­lish speak­ing readers.

Killing the Sec­ond Dog is a grim and absur­dist tale of two con men who make a liv­ing (bare­ly) by swin­dling mid­dle-aged, rich Amer­i­can women vaca­tion­ing in Israel. The nar­ra­tor is a going-to-seed hunk who lures the women on and even­tu­al­ly asks them for mon­ey to pay off cred­i­tors. His part­ner, the brains” behind the oper­a­tion, is a down-at-heels the­ater direc­tor. The two engage in terse dia­logues about the nature of act­ing and the effects of lan­guage, giv­ing the brief sto­ry a kind of philo­soph­i­cal heft. The raff­ish areas of ear­ly-1960s Tel Aviv, pop­u­lat­ed by a grotesque crew of drifters, hunch­backs, drunks, and drug addicts, pro­vide a suit­ably noir setting.

Like the exis­ten­tial heroes of Sartre and Camus, or the Beat char­ac­ters of Jack Kerouac’s fic­tion, Hlasko’s char­ac­ters drift almost ran­dom­ly in a mean­ing­less world. Jacob, the nar­ra­tor, seems inca­pable of human con­nec­tion until his feel­ings for his lat­est prey almost seem to trip him up. In a moment of self-rev­e­la­tion, he yearns to strip away his mask to reveal a soul tor­ment­ed by the hor­rif­ic images of his child­hood in war-rav­aged Poland. But he pulls back from this moment of con­nec­tion (and the con­nec­tion he makes with his victim’s young son — a some­what unbe­liev­ably drawn foul-mouthed child), and brings the sor­did plot to its planned shock­ing con­clu­sion (involv­ing the tit­u­lar dog).

On its own, Killing the Sec­ond Dog may not be in the same league as Camus’s The Stranger, to which it has some super­fi­cial par­al­lels. But it speaks to the exis­ten­tial drift of a gen­er­a­tion lac­er­at­ed by the twin hor­rors of total war and total­i­tar­i­an domination.

Relat­ed content:

  • Short Sto­ries read­ing list
  • Trans­la­tions and Trans­la­tors read­ing list
  • Five Ger­manys I Have Known by Fritz Stern
  • Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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