A couple of Edinburgh Festivals ago I took a chance on a one-man show called The Tailor of Inverness which turned out to be the best piece of theatre I saw at that year’s Fringe. That one man was actor Matthew Zajac, and the show was incredibly personal, emotional and involving. But this is not the place to review theatre. Zajac has turned the story of The Tailor of Inverness into a book, and I was fascinated to see if his story could move me on the page as it had on the stage.
The book is intensely personal, yet it is one which will speak to every reader to a greater or lesser degree. The titular tailor is Zajac’s father, Mateusz, who came from Poland to reside in Inverness where he cut his cloth accordingly, becoming well integrated as part of the local community, perhaps unsurprisingly focusing on the here and now rather than the past. The play, and now this book, are a result of Matthew’s curiosity about his father’s life before he settled in the Scottish Highlands, and what he uncovered touches on some of the most horrific and tragic times of the twentieth-century.
It’s a terrible cliché to call a person’s tale a ‘journey’, but in this case it is wholly apt. In fact what unfolds is a series of journeys and discoveries as Matthew has to find out not only things which his father wanted to forget, but which much of what was Eastern Europe wants to forget as well. Workcamps, anti-semitism, underage soldiers, Nazism, Stalinism, and all the horrors which were undertaken in the name of those ideologies, are touched upon as Matthew continues to pull on the string that was his father’s secret life, increasingly unsure that he wants to follow where it is taking him.
What the book makes clear is that this is Matthew’s story as much as it is his father’s. The latter’s life is put in context by the former’s upbringing, which included biennial holidays to Poland to visit Uncle Adam. His father’s voice is heard in various chapters, which have been transcribed from tape recordings, and here I feel that seeing the play has given me a distinct advantage as I can hear the voice in my head as I read. Where the book definitely triumphs over the play is that you can follow the travails back and forth across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa much easier than could ever be done in a theatre, where all the travel does become a bit of a blur.
The Tailor of Inverness is a tale about a specific family, in the most unusual way, but it is when talking about family that the story comes to life and real emotion is to be found and empathy felt. Our family secrets and lies may not be as extraordinary as Mateusz Zajac’s prove to be, but they might, it’s just that few of us have the inclination to find out, and this book may only convince us that it is better to let such sleeping dogs lie. I won’t say here if Matthew Zajac feels this undertaking was worth it or not, but there is much emotional and familial turmoil along the way. What is clear is that his father’s past became an obsession which gave this actor not only the role of his life, but an unexpected and incredible insight into the man who raised him. It is a life’s work, which you have a feeling is not yet at an end.
*A longer version of this review appeared elsewhere, but it’s a secret…