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Where Fact Is God


Mikołaj Gliński
Wrzenie świata, fot Filip Springer
The inside of the Wrzenie świata bookstore; photo: Filip Springer

Reportage is nothing short of holy in the Polish world of the written word. But for some it is even more than that. Julianna Jonek, editor-in-chief of a new publishing house devoted to reportage, discusses Hanna Krall's upcoming book and explains why the genre has gained so much significance in Polish society.

Hidden in a back alley of Warsaw's most prestigious and expensive street, a small coffee house called Wrzenie świata - literally, Turmoil of the World, may at first glance look like one of many coffee places which abound in this part of town. People chat or read over their lattes or espressos. Upon entering, one might also notice filled bookshelves rising from the floor up to the ceiling. Remarkably, you will not find a single book of fiction, and definitely no poetry. Instead, you will find plenty of non-fiction – in Polish, English, French, and even Bulgarian.

Reportage is nothing short of holy in the Polish world of the written word. More than a few legendary names of the trade have emerged from a single Polish generation, names like Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman. Both in their 40s and among the most accomplished Polish reporters of their generation, they believe in fact. Tochman has been quoted as saying that facts are sacred. For Szczygieł, more moderate in his assertions, being a reporter is not a profession but a state of mind (Read the interview). If reportage is a religion, the Wrzenie świata café is its temple. Fittingly, it is owned by Szczygieł and Tochman, and routinely hosts a score of the faithful who have devoted their lives to showing the world through fact rather than verse.

Polish non-fiction writing, made famous by Kapuściński, among others, is often considered a... Read more about: A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Reportage

 

I met their close collaborator – and fellow believer – Julianna Jonek, who is now in charge of the new publishing house devoted exclusively to non-fiction, so that she could explain how reportage became Poland unusual literary passion.

The new Sect of Non-Fiction

First there was the Instytut Reportażu, starts Julianna Jonek. Everything which cropped up later – including the publishing house, the Polish School of Reportage, the Faktyczny Dom Kultury cultural centre, and the coffee-house Wrzenie świata, where we sit – are just various emanations of the institute.

The institute was established by Szczygieł, Tochman and Paweł Goźliński in 2009, as a non-profit organization with a clear goal of promoting Polish reportage and cultivating what its founders like to call the culture of the fact. In the institute’s founding statement, which is also a kind of manifesto, we can read:

Reportage was invented so that as many people as possible could understand as many other people as possible. So that they could understand The Other.

Despite this rather metaphysical claim, the institute was also a response to the very real changes in the economic situation of reportage in Poland, as the newspapers cut costs and think less about quality in journalism. The founders of the institute had more than one idea how to oppose this trend. They also had a lot of experience.

Szczygman

Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman - the founders of Wrzenie Świata inside the cafe, 2010, photo by Krzysztof Miller / Agencja Gazeta
Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman - the founders of Wrzenie Świata inside the cafe, 2010, photo by Krzysztof Miller / Agencja Gazeta

Szczygieł and Tochman can be considered a link to the Polish school of reportage of old, along with names like Ryszard Kapuściński, Hanna Krall, and Małgorzata Szejnert. They both débuted in the 80s, and soon started working at Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the leading Polish daily newspapers, which has run a reporters’ magazine called simply Magazyn (today Duży Format) for many years. There, in Gazeta's reporter’s department, they had the best possible role models in the trade, with Hanna Krall and Małgorzata Szejnert as their bosses. Within a couple of years they had written some of the best reportages about contemporary, often provincial, Poland.

A couple of years later Tochman will say that what he and his colleagues had written at that time was all there was to be written about Poland – and go on to write reportages from distant and often exotic lands ridden with political conflict: Rwanda, Bosnia, the Philippines and Syria. Since the turn of the century Szczygieł has devoted himself to the Czech Republic, publishing reportages about Poland’s southern neighbours (his 2006 book Gottland has since been translated into 14 languages). In Poland, he has also published several important anthologies of Polish reportage, among them the monumental Anthology of 20th-century Polish Reportage.

The Boiling World

Wrzenie świata, fot. Dawid Sypniewski
A non-fiction bookstore and coffeehouse Wrzenie świata is considered a Mecca of both reporters and readers, photo: David Sypniewski

Julianna Jonek says she met Tochman first. While still at university studying journalism, she had Tochamnn as a professor. She remembers he was the only teacher not to use notes, he would just discuss reportage, and he was passionate about it. She soon joined the team at Instytut Reportażu.

In 2014, together with Szczygieł (and with the help of a body of experts), they prepared the Anthology of Polish Reportage of the 20th century. To do that they went through a couple of thousand pages of Polish non-fiction writing. The result was two big volumes, almost 2000 pages long, and around 3 kilograms. Some of this work was done in Wrzenie świata – this non-fiction bookstore and coffee-house was established in 2010 and became a kind of head-quarters for all the varied activities of the institute, not to mention a Mecca for all non-fiction aficionados. To Julianna Jonek, it’s an office but feels almost like home.

The reporters come here to work, arranging interviews with the protagonists of their stories. Reporters know that they will always meet someone they know here, get hold of a contact they need, or they can also leave something for someone to pick up, says Jonek.

This was also the aim of establishing this place – as a meeting point for the whole milieu, a centre like the one that a newspaper editorial office once used to be.

Once, all this life happened in the editorial office of newspapers, but today they function differently – the whole work market has changed, says Jonek.

Apart from the reporters, there’s also many students and expats, which explains why you hear so many languages here. During the day, Wrzenie may be full of quiet conversation and concentration, with people working on their computers and talking, but in the evening it gets louder, the music is turned up, people meet up for a beer, and that’s when Wrzenie is more like a bar. Some of these late guests may not even know that Wrzenie świata is a quote taken from Ryszard Kapuściński. And if one were to take it literally, everything here is indeed boiling and bustling.

But, as Julianna Jonek emphasizes, the main goal was always running the non-fiction bookstore – selling books and promoting non-fiction literature, the coffee house and bar is just a side venture which, however, helps to finance the bookstore, she adds.

Telling Fact from Fiction

Crowd waiting outside Wrzenie Świata for Hanna Krall's book premiere, May 2005, photo by Jacek Łagowski / Agencja Gazeta
Crowd waiting outside Wrzenie Świata for Hanna Krall's book premiere, May 2005, photo by Jacek Łagowski / Agencja Gazeta

There used to be a lot of events happening at Wrzenie says Jonek. But the place was too small, so now they have all been moved to Faktyczny Dom Kultury, a sister institution established under the umbrella of Instytut Reportażu. Located across the street, Faktyczny Dom Kultury hosts most of the heavily-loaded programme of events, which include lectures, debates, book premières, film showings, and photography slide-shows. They all have one thing in common: the non-fiction factor:

We don't do readings of poetry, unless it's "factual poetry”, novels are OK, but only if they’re strongly rooted in reality, if they included a lot of research and documentation.

Because of the institute’s sense of engagement, FDK is a favourite with many NGOs which like to organize their events there. FDK is also currently running a series of debates addressed to foreigners from outside the EU who live in Poland (Tu mieszkamy).

FDK hosts also perhaps the most spectacular of the institute's projects – the Polish School of Reportage. Founding a school specialized in teaching reportage may seem like a risky business in the context of dropping newspaper sales and lowering quality of journalism worldwide. But the institute has been successful. It is now in its 5th year and has produced well over 100 alumni who have graduated from a year-long course, with seminars and workshops with the top Polish reporters and writers. Many of the students have gone on to become journalists, reporters, and even write their own books. If reportage is indeed a way to understand the Other, the level of understanding in Poland must have improved over recent years.

Proofs of Existence

Dowody na istnienie - books, fot. Dowody na istnienie
The books are seen as proofs of existence in the new publishing house Dowody na istnienie, photo: press materials

The end of last year saw yet another development in the activities of Instytut reportażu. Wrzenie świata became the seat of a new publishing house, naturally specializing in non-fiction.

When the institute was founded in 2009, we knew that sooner or later we would start publishing our own books. We had to gain some experience, but once we realized that the institute has made a name of its own, we knew we were ready – says the editor-in-chief of the new Dowody na istnienie publishing house. (And the name, which tranlates as Proofs of Existence, again is a quote from another classic of Polish non-fiction, Hanna Krall).

Another stimulus came from Jonek and Szczygieł's work on  Antologia reportażu – a huge collection of Polish reportage released in 2014 and spanning the entire 20th century.

While working on the anthology we realized that there’s a lot of great non-fiction literature which has been forgotten, and which is worth giving a second life. That’s when we thought for the first time that our publishing company could deal not only with new books but also republish old ones.

That’s when we discovered many amazing reportages, like those by Wiesław Łuka, says Julianna Jonek, waving to the guy standing next to our table as if corroborating the theory that the place is a magnet for reporters.

Wiesław Łuka, now in his 70s, is the author of the first book published by the newly established publishing house. Łuka’s book, originally published in 1981, was compared to Capote’s In Cold Blood – and, as Jonek says, is as shocking today as it must have been in the 80’s.

After a short conversation with Łuka, Julianna Jonek continues:

This is how we developed our first series (called Faktyczny Dom Kultury), it is our canon of non-fiction literature. These are either books that have been forgotten, or those written by authors that are not so well-known. There are also lesser-known books by famous authors.

This last category contains Hanna Krall’s Na Wschód od Arbatu [East of Arbat]. The 1972 début of the famous reporter must come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Krall’s work, dominated by the Jewish and Holocaust themes, as her first book was about Russia.

And another book which was already published is a reportage by the French reporter Gabriel Meretik, who meticulously documented the first hours after the introduction of Martial Law in Poland.

This may be just the foretaste of what is still to come in the FDK series, the next release being Zbigniew Domarańczyk’s 1979 account of his trip to Cambodia upon it being liberated from the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.

Domarańczyk was the first European to enter Phnom Penh. He had visa number 1, his cameraman got number 2, and soundman was number 3.– explains Julianna Jonek.

The antiquarian strain is but a small part of the activities of the institute’s new venture.

We have gotten on with the Reporters Series in which we publish new non-fiction books, the first also happens to be by one of the students of our School of Reportage (Cudowna by Piotr Nestorowicz). The next one (Świadek by Robert Rient) is scheduled to come out in spring.

And this is just the beginning, since Dowody are also planning other series, like the one devoted to Czech literature and curated by Mariusz Szczygieł (the series is appropriately called Stehlik, which is Czech for szczygieł (goldfinch). This will be the only series to also feature fiction.

Hanna Krall's Drawer

Hanna Krall photographed by Włodzimierz Wasyluk
Hanna Krall photographed by Włodzimierz Wasyluk

However, the most sensational non-fiction treat in the line-up is scheduled to come later this year, with the new book by Hanna Krall. This intimate portrait of the famous reporter will for the first time take a look into Krall’s reporter’s cookbook, but it will also bring up new stories from her private life, previously kept private throughout all these years.

Julianna Jonek reveals that the book will consist of two parts, one being a conversation with Krall by Wojciech Tochman, the other – more of a graphic endeavour – is the responsibility of Mariusz Szczygieł.

We call this part of the book The Drawer, because there the reader will find everything we found in the drawer of Hanna Krall. Of course, I mean Krall’s “reporter’s drawer” – these include photographs, notes, letters, souvenirs, as well as fragments of reportages which were never published before.

These will include parts of her previous books that had been censored, as well as fragments of Krall’s interview with Marek Edelman, which didn't make it into her seminal book about the Warsaw ghetto To Outwit God (Zdążyć przed panem Bogiem).

And this time it is Krall who’s being interviewed. Like Szczygieł, Tochman has known Krall for a quarter of a century. They are friends, and this allows Krall to feel safe in this relationship. She can tell him more than she would have told anyone else – explains Jonek.

Anyone who would have thought that interviewing Hanna Krall would consist of sitting at a coffee table (possibly even in Wrzenie) and engaging in some chit-chat, reminiscing about the distant past, would be very mistaken.

In order to make this interview Tochman and Krall both covered great distances walking around Warsaw and its whereabouts, and some of this work may look like yet another reportage.

Julianna Jonek:

They’ve been walking around Warsaw among the ghosts of bygone days, discovering places that are not there any more. When she told him about her childhood, they went to a forest not far from Otwock, where her orphanage was located. When Tochman wants her to tell him about her work in the editorial office of Polityka magazine, where Krall worked in the 60s, they just go there, but everything is very different, so she reconstructs the space which she remembers.

Once, they went to Praga to visit the apartment where Krall spent her childhood:

Obviously there was someone else living there now. Krall walks in and shows Tochman where her bed used to be, but then all of a sudden, she starts asking the woman who lives there now about her life. It looks like she’s starting documenting I don’t know what. She never stops being a reporter. This profession is stronger than her.
– says Julianna Jonek, and you can see that she truly understands her.

Is Non-fiction really literature?

Julianna Jonek, photo: Filip Springer
Julianna Jonek, photo: Filip Springer

Although Poland has a long and intense tradition of non-fiction literature, Julianna Jonek points that in the nation non-fiction it is still not recognized as literature: It’s like a separate genre, somewhere in between real literature and journalism, she says. And  you can see that in Polish bookstores.

In fact, in many Polish bookstores one often doesn’t know where to find reportage – is it on the shelf with prose? In the travel section? Sometimes you can even find it among the tourist guide-books. You would sometimes find a separate shelf labelled non-fiction or reportage. You don’t have this problem abroad.

Everywhere else, non-fiction is basically literature. When a reporter publishes a book, he is a writer. In Poland, reporters really don’t know who they are, whether they are journalists or writers. What they’re doing is obviously not journalism, but according to ‘real’ writers it is still not literature. I think it is absolutely literature and they ARE writers, and that’s how they are presented in the world - but not in Poland...

Julianna Jonek suggests that this specific position of Polish reportage between ‘real’ literature and journalism is deeply rooted in Polish history and literature:

I think the problem is a pious Polish approach to writers and literature in general. People expect the writer to be some kind of Norwid or Gombrowicz. It is rooted in the partitions of Poland – in the time when a writer or poet was the chosen one, someone who was expected to preserve the Polish culture and language, and who would lead the nation to independence. “Writer” in Polish is a big word, quite out of keeping with someone who writes articles in a newspaper. Who’s this guy compared to, say, Mickiewicz?

And yet Jonek also finds the roots of Polish literary reportage in this period:

In the realistic prose of positivism, one can find fragments that are pure reportage. There are entire passages in Bolesław PrusThe Doll [the masterpiece of Polish 19th-century realism] that read like reportage. The same goes for realistic short stories, she expounds.

According to Jonek, this tradition was crucial for Polish reportage, especially since these works were written under the specific conditions of censorship:

Later on, because of the censorship in the PPR, reporters made use of the literary devices that were developed by the 19th-century writers, who also lived in a censored world: Aesopian language, constantly winking at the readers, making them read between the lines, explain Jonek.

Jonek suggests that if not for the censorship, Polish reportage would have been much different. It is full of tropes and figures – and this is especially striking when compared to the reportages of foreign authors.

Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor was read in Poland as a reportage about First Secretary Edward Gierek. And as a matter of fact, it’s not a tale about Ethiopia, it is a story about power and its mechanisms.

The same goes for Wiesław Łuka’s Nie oświadczam się, which is the first book published by Dowody.

This is about a horrid crime that took place in 1976 in Połaniec and the ensuing trial, but this is a well-known story, and you don't have to read a book to know them, you can find it on Wikipedia. Reading the book, however, is not about learning these facts. It’s about seeing evil at work, how it can overwhelm us and shut our mouths.   

And she concludes:

A good reportage, the way we see it at the institute, is a story about particular people who have names and lived in very specific time… But read 100 years later, it still tells us something about mankind and the world.

When I ask her what it is about non-fiction that makes it so important to her, she takes a moment to reflect, and says:

What I find the most fascinating is that in the case of many of these stories, if they were made up by a writer, I wouldn’t care about them. I would probably say that they’re just laughable, because the plot seems so improbable and unreliable. Why read a book which is so idiotically unrealistic? The problem is, those ARE real stories. And this is exactly what is fascinating, that these stories actually happened.

When I ask about her bosses, Szczygieł and Tochman, if she doesn’t feel like part of some religious Sect of the Holy Fact, she laughs, and points that they’re actually more like her employees now.

We want to promote non-fiction because it’s our passion and work, and, yes, we want as many people as possible to share our passion, so I guess there really is some kind of ‘mission’ here.  

And then she adds:

This is not really work, it’s more of a passion and obsession. Work goes hand-in-hand with leisure here. Actually, you cannot separate the two, because is reading non-fiction after-work leisure or work?

When we finish our conversation, Julianna mentions that she just came back from a vacation with Mariusz Szczygieł where they met Wojciech Tochman.

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, February 2015

Polish non-fiction writing, made famous by Kapuściński, among others, is often considered a... Read more about: A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Reportage

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Language & Literature