Not Waiting For a Masterpiece (Anymore): Polish Literature After 1989
Polish literature after 1989 has shown itself to be free from ideological or political goals. But has that made it more universal? Here is a brief reminder of some important events that occurred in Polish literature in the last quarter of the century.
Poetry from Szymborska to Kopyto
Polish poets and their poetry have long been held in high esteem by the nation. But does that remain unchanged as the great pass away and new poetry, despite its variety, seems not to be interested in making contact with the reader?
With the death of Wisława Szymborska in 2012, Poland lost one of its best known and most translated poets from the turn of the century. Her career illustrated some of the most significant changes experienced by Polish generations. From her grasp, the poetic scepter is undoubtedly transferred to Adam Zagajewski, who for some years, has been listed among the candidates to earn a Nobel Prize. Zagajewski is a representative of classicism, whose poems are bright, apollonian, and operate on the same fields as his predecessors.
Tadeusz Różewicz should be included in that generation, even though he digressed from their forms of literature. Różewicz is a respected and popular minimalist master of words, "Matka odchodzi" ("Mother Passes Away") being one of his most well-known works. He is often described as a nihilist, whose uncompromising works struggle with the trauma of the holocaust, war and the dehumanization of 20th century culture. Equally important in that generation for their intimate personal poetry are Julia Hartwig and Krystyna Miłobędzka.
The 90s saw the “BruLion” generation set the trends for Polish poetry and when the group disintegrated the landscape was made to look somewhat chaotic but never-the-less interesting. Three poets in particular should be mentioned for their influence on younger authors: Bohdan Zadura who is credited with the loosening of poetic diction, Piotr Sommer who successfully transplanted American poetry patterns (like the styles of the fruitful Frank O'Hara) to Poland, and Andrzej Sosnowski who was the most avant-garde and hermetic poet while also paradoxically being the most influential and spectacular. Also worth mentioning are Marcin Świetlicki and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki who, although not involved themselves in a school or having followers, remain remarkably consistent in their work. The latter is probably the greatest prodigy in Polish poetry in recent years despite the public's late discovery of him. In 2009, his "Piosenka o zależnościach i uzależnieniach" ("Song of Dependence and Addiction") received the Nike and Gdynia awards, placing him in the public spotlight. In addition, while their poetry is difficult and unpopular, Ryszard Krynicki and Ewa Lipska remain masters of the intimate style and deserve a mention.
Some of the most important young poets are undoubtedly Tomasz Różycki, Tadeusz Dąbrowski, Adam Wiedemann, Joanna Mueller, Marta Podgórnik, and Roman Honet. Meanwhile, amongst the very youngest we should also mention Konrad Góra, Szczepan Kopyto, and Grzegorz Kwiatkowski.
We should add to this list a Polish publishing marvel, the Biuro Literackie publishing house from Wrocław. This 10 year old institution specializes in poetry books and successfully promotes poetry in the country.
Polish Prose: Not a Country for a Masterpiece
Traditionally Polish prose has faced a problem which was first articulated by Czesław Miłosz. This is the notion that because Polish literature never created a realistic tradition it could never produce masterpieces as successful as Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The idea has remained valid in the past quarter of the century and so forth no authors have had any illusions about the creation of such a work. With this understanding in mind we may examine other valuable positions.
The decade following the transformation was dominated by the theme of “little fatherlands” supported by a style of traditional narration. Paweł Huelle who wrote "Weiser Dawidek" in 1987 and Stefan Chwin who wrote "Hanemann" in 1995 were authors that both subscribed to this format, and were connected with Gdańsk. Another author belonging to this group is Wiesław Myśliwski who wrote "Widnokrąg" in 1997. With a similar focus on the subject of locality and middle-European fatherlands one could place Andrzej Stasiuk and Olga Tokarczuk. Tokarczuk's Polish version of magical realism is widely recognized and both she and Stasiuk produce works that remain free from the historically-ideological contexts. But perhaps the most important literature event of the decade following the transformation was the novel by Jerzy Pilch "Pod mocnym aniołem" ("Under the Strong Angel"). Published in the year 2000, it is the story of an alcoholic who experiences the redemptive power of love. The novel gained enormous popularity and 13 years later was made into a screenplay. A movie was then filmed titled "Anioł" which is directed by Wojtek Smarzowski and is expected to be released to the cinemas at the beginning of 2014.
In 2002 a great novel arrived in an unexpected form. Titled "Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną" ("The Polish-Russian War under the White-Red Flag"). Written by Dorota Masłowska, it was published when she was just 19 years old. The appearance of this book was the greatest event in Polish literature after 1989. Marcin Świetlicki was quoted in saying that “it was worth it to live for forty years just to finally read something this interesting.” Advertised as the first Polish ‘chav’ novel, the book surprised many with its inventive language and humor. Attracting readers and critics alike it quickly became a bestseller. Masłowska's career continued to confirm her extraordinary talent and good ear for language, not only fulfilling expectations but also constantly surprising the public. After her 2002 publication she released "Paw Królowej" ("Queens Peacock"), which is a book written in hip-hop slang. It received the Nike award in 2006. Masłowska then transitioned into drama creating two works worth mentioning: "Dwoje biednych Rumunów mówiących po polsku" ("Two Poor Romanians Speaking Polish") in 2006, and "Między nami dobrze jest" ("It's All Good Between Us") in 2008. Most recently, she has returned to novels with her 2012 release "Kochanie, zabiłam nasze koty" ("Honey, I Killed our Cats").
By shifting the boundaries of language correctness and by setting the artistic standard at a completely different level, Masłowska's debut book set an important ceasura in Polish literature. “The Polish-Russian War” paved the way for many interesting debuts, allowing new voices to be heard which in turn broadened the field of literary interest. There are five highly notable works from this period. Wojciech Kuczok's shocking story of a boy brought up in a pathological family was written in 2003 and titled "Gnój" ("The Miscreant").
"Lubiewo" ("Lovetown") was written by Michał Witkowski in 2004 and is a novel of adventure from the life of queers. Jacek Dehnel wrote "Lala" in 2006 on a story of a grand mother told by her grandson accompanied by 20th century history. "Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet" ("The Pocket Atlas of Women") was written in 2008 by Sylwia Chutnik and is a story about women excluded from the prosperity of the big city. And last is "Radio Armageddon" by Jakub Żulczyk from the year 2008. It is his attempt to describe the young generation that has been underrepresented in literature.
Kapuściński, Krall, Tochman and Others in Non-Fiction
Perhaps the lack of a realism genre in Polish fiction can be explained by the high sophistication and position of reportage literature. In recent years this type of literature has proven itself to be an exportable good but its tradition reaches back to works published in the late 70's by the iconic Ryszard Kapuściński. His most notable works are that of "Cesarz" ("The Emperor") (1978), "Szachinszach" ("Shah of Shahs") (1982), "Imperium" ("The Empire") (1993), "Heban" ("Ebony") (1998), and "Podróże z Herodotem" ("The Travels with Herodotus") (2004). Kapuściński's status in the country was championed by his biography "Kapuściński non-fiction" which was published a few years after his death and written by Artur Domosławski. The book caused a scandal and provoked questions about how far reporters could go with confabulation and what were a public personality’s rights to privacy. In comparison to Polish standards, the book sold in gigantic proportions numbering up to a hundred and thirty thousand copies.
Kapuściński might be considered the regional patron of foreign correspondents. Among those he influenced we should mention at least seven authors. For their works about Africa; Wojciech Tochman who wrote "Dziś narysujemy śmierć" ("Today We Draw Death") and Wojciech Jagielski for his "Nocni wędrowcy" ("The Night Walkers"). Jacek Hugo-Bader whose focus on Russia created the novel "Biała gorączka" ("White Fever"). Mariusz Szczygieł’s book about the Czech Republic "Gottland." Witold Szabłowski’s “Zabójca z miasta moreli” ("The Killer from Apricot City") about Turkey. With an interest in Asia and South America we have Andrzej Muszyński’s "Południe" ("South") and most recently Marcin Wasielewski’s novels about the Faroe and Pitcairn Islands "81:1" and "Jutro przypłynie królowa" ("The Queen Comes Tomorrow"). The abovementioned authors are often mentioned in translation.
While foreign readers remain less interested in reports about Poland, these books remain popular in Poland itself. Hanna Krall may be considered a star of the reportage genre being the author of "Zdążyć przed Panem Bogiem" ("To Make it Before God") and "Tam już nie ma żadnej rzeki" ("There is no River There Anymore"). Among the greatest reportage books describing Polish modern realities we mention "Bóg zapłać" ("God Repay") by Wojciech Tochman, "Bolało jeszcze bardziej" ("It Hurt Even More") by Lidia Ostałowska, "Serce narodu, koło przystanku" ("Heart of the Nation, Next to the Bus Stop") by Włodzimierz Nowak, and "Niedziela, która zdarzyła się w środę" ("The Sunday that Happened on Wednesday") by Mariusz Szczygieł. All these titles are collections of reports collected over years and are considered a treasure trove of knowledge about contemporary Poland.
On a final note, it would be a mistake not to mention the book which, not being a report itself, caused the biggest national debate since the turn of the century. In "Sąsiedzi" ("The Neighbours") written in 2000 by historian Jan Tomasz Gross, the details of a Polish homicide of Jewish citizens in Jedwabne is revealed. In the aftermath of this debate, Anna Bikont wrote "My z Jedwabnego" ("We from Jedwabne")which became the basis for the play "Nasza klasa" ("Our Class") by Tadeusz Słobodzianek.
Mikołaj Gliński, 11.07.2013