Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Wesolowski--chapter 1

“OK,” I told her. “We might as well face it. Some people are novelists; some people are not. Does it make me a bad person, that I have five or six attempts at a novel—all of which ended with me yawning so hard, I got contractions in my lower jaw? Anyway, what is this mystique of the novel, anyway? Nobody disses Sappho for writing just those fragments, after all….”

“Nonsense,” Lady told me. “They’re only fragments because that’s all we have: the wine or the olive oil or the brine of the olives—anyway, something or other—wore the rest away.”

Lady, owner of the Poet’s Passage café in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a house painter, impresario, and poet. So she knows about these things. 

“Well, the point remains,” I told her. “Some people write novels, others short stories, and others—well, whatever it is they write. So this will be like that book about the orchid….”


“You know—the whole point of the book was to find the orchid that didn’t exist (though maybe it did), and to fail to write the book (though in fact he or she did, and it sold a gazillion copies, was translated into languages not yet invented, and allowed the author to win major prizes merely by looking in the directions of New York, Paris, and Moscow.)”

“There is,” said Lady, “something about not being able to write a novel that’s warping your character, Marc. You say you’re fine with it, but are you?”

“It’s galling,” I told her. “How can a cellist not write a novel? It’s absolutely the same thing: you get up in the morning, put the cello in front of you, and dog away. Three hours later, you’ve done your scales, arpeggios, etudes, and the Bach suite for the day. Lunch, and off to your part-time. So now, it’s a computer instead of a cello, but the rest is essentially the same. So why should it be so different? Not to mention difficult?”

“Well, you basically have your story, don’t you?”

In fact, I did, and it was a story that had been told, and never told. OK—the man had obsessed me, to the point where nobody around me had wanted to hear any more about it, much less read about it. A Polish papal nuncio, living in the Dominican Republic, had had the habit of drinking beer on the malecón in Santo Domingo. Well—I could relate. After a day of sweltering heat, who wouldn’t want a cold beer while enjoying the sea breezes off the ocean? And then there were….

…well, they were boys who were and boys who were not. Nor, perhaps, were they entirely boys, however firmly their ages suggested that they were. They were victims and victimizers, angels and demons, innocents and the most deeply dyed of cynics.

They were bugarones, though if you had told them that, you’d have been lucky to get a fist instead of a knife in your face. They absolutely were not whores. Instead, they were there as the nuncio was there, and really, there for better reasons.

The nuncio, after all, was pushing 70. He had been born in Poland in the years just after World War II, and grew up in the poverty and chaos of the post-war generation. The country lay in ruins, the people still in shock from the upheavals of the war, there was little certainty except for the Catholic Church.

And there he was lucky—not every priest, at age 24, is ordained by the likes of a Karol Wojtyla. Remember him? If so, you’ll think of the figure standing in the balcony of the palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square. He is old, frail, no longer the athlete who skied in the mountains of Poland, or was goalkeeper in the impromptu games of football. Yes, he would become John Paul II, and he would be loved for some very bad reasons, and hated for others. None of that matters now: but it mattered then.

And so Wesolowski—the Polish nuncio drinking his beer in Santo Domingo—had had a stroke of luck. The man who ordained him was canny, good-looking, politically astute, and knew how to play the game. Yes, he had been conscripted by the Nazis, but that hardly mattered: every young man in Poland had been conscripted by the Nazis. More important, John Paul II hated the Communists, and why shouldn’t he?

And so, the future pope scrambled up the ranks: he played one member of the Curia against another. And in the way of ambitious men everywhere, the nuncio hitched his star to another, far brighter. As the future pope made his way up the ladder, the nuncio never lost contact. And so, even as he served as parish priest in Krakow in southern Poland, he contrived to meet, whenever possible, with John Paul.

Still, his rise was never as meteoric as it should have been. After all, the conclave of cardinals had elevated in 1978: Wesolowski was first made nuncio to Bolivia in late 1999.

The Catholic Church, to those outside but especially to those within, provides endless fascination. And there were those who wondered: why had an old friend of the pope not been promoted earlier, and more steadily? The church moves slowly, putting its men in positions of increasing power and influence. But Wesolowski had catapulted from parish priest to papal nuncio literally overnight.

True, it was hardly a major post: nobody can claim that Bolivia has the importance of France or Germany. Still, the diplomatic service of the Holy See had any number of priests—some young, others older and more seasoned—who had a far greater claim to promotion. These men had shuffled through the position papers, settled the minor ruffled feathers, rescued their superiors when they had had a bit more champagne than was good for them. They had paid their dues, and were quite ready to slip into the next, and higher, position. So who was this upstart, Jozef Wesolowski?

And why, after three years as apostolic nuncio in Bolivia did Wesolowski receive another post—or rather, posts. For in 2002, he became, through the year, first nuncio to Kazakhstan, then Tadjikistan, then Kyrgyzistan, and finally Uzbekistan. Certainly they were not the choicest plums on the diplomatic tree. That would come a decade or so later, when Wesolowski was appointed nuncio for Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. At last, Wesolowski was freed of the vast, landlocked Central Asian states—rich in oil, but with sparse populations and few believers. He had traded the wintry, wind-swept plains for the lush tropics. And where only one in five people in Kazakhstan had been some sort of Christian, nine in ten Dominicans were ardent, or at least steadfast, Catholics. And in Puerto Rico, the situation was much the same.

“So why did we have to share a nuncio with the Dominican Republic?” asked Lady, drifting by and reading this over my shoulder.

“Why else,” I told her, “the political status of Puerto Rico. Since we’re not independent, we don’t get our own nuncio. So we have to slide in under Dominican Republic. Gotta share!”

“Well, that doesn’t make sense,” said Lady. “After all, we get our own Olympic team, don’t we?”

“We certainly do,” I said, thinking of all the sports at which we excel: basketball, baseball and especially boxing being preeminent. And then, of course, there are other sports, for which the phrase is, “well, not so much….” Of which everyone’s favorite is…


Yes, for inexplicable reasons, Puerto Rico has a bobsledding team, but has it distinguished itself? Of course, for coming in last, last, and second last in various winter Olympics.

“Anyway, are you still obsessing about that Polish guy? I mean, how long has it been, now, since the guy died?”

In fact, it had been exactly a year that Wesolowski, defrocked and under house arrest in the Vatican, had died. The Vatican had breathed a sigh of relief, the world had moved on, all had been forgotten, but for me?

“I just hate to see the bastards get away with it,” I told Lady.

Which is why, for me, he sits still there on the malecón in Santo Domingo, relishing the ocean breezes, breathing the salt air, hearing the merengue as it lilts through the evening to welcome the night.


A boy, surely no more than fourteen or fifteen, walks with unpracticed bravado down the malecón: he fools no one, he’s the new kid in town. Wesolowski, the papal nuncio, smiles.

The night has just gotten interesting….