Journalist, author. Born on the 5th of September, 1966 in Złotoryja. Best-known for his intuitive reportages on the Czech nation and its optimistic approach to life, death and the (non)existence of God.
Mariusz Szczygieł graduated from the Stefan Żeromski School of Economics in Legnica, and later from the Department of Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw. He was taught by author of Zdążyć przed Panem Bogiem/ Shielding the Flame writer and journalist Hanna Krall.
In 1986-1990 Szczygieł was a reporter for the weekly Na przełaj. Then, for six years he wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza. He was the co-presenter of the talk show Na każdy temat/ Any subject on TV Polsat in 1995-2001. From 1997 to 1998 he taught journalism at the Ecole Superieure de Journalism de Lille and for eight years he taught at the University of Warsaw's Department of Journalism and Political Science. In 2002 he resumed reporting for Gazeta Wyborcza and since 2004, he has been the Deputy Editor of the Duży Format/ Large Format supplement.
He received several awards, among others: Warsaw Literary Premiere Award in 2010, the Europe Book Prize in 2009, together with his translator the Prix Amphi from the University of Lille for the best foreign language book released in France in 2008 (Gottland), the European Book Prize for best European book of the year (Gottland) in 2009, the Nike Readers' Award in 2007, the 2004 Melchior Award in the National Competition for photojournalists - for his achievements in non-fiction literature, the Polish Journalists' Association Award in 1993.
As a journalist he abides and teaches strict rules: disemboweling a text, making sure that each new paragraph is a surprise, using vocabulary that allows the reader to leave their usual comfort zone, closing each chapter with a culminating point and not revealing everything at the beginning. He believes, as did Ryszard Kapuściński, that sentences should seduce the reader, especially the opening sentence and that the primary responsibility of the reporter is to understand, not to judge. As Hanna Krall and Małgorzata Szejnert emphasize, in writing, one must not answer the question ‘how shall I write this’, but ‘what do I want to convey’. In Szczygieł's opinion there is no such thing as objective reporting. Everything is processed through the memory of the main character and author. He says that,
It is hard to write beautifully, to avoid over-describing or invention, using strictly the literary forms. You must have the ability to memorise details. The ability to realise their importance, and at times the ability to make such associations from a distance, so that the report is endowed with an artistic, timeless character.
His short text How do you cope with the Germans? aiming to answer questions about fear and death is a dialogue between Milena Jesenska, reporter and Franz Kafka's muse, and a Czech peasant ignorant of the threat of the Third Reich.
- Is there nothing you are afraid of?, asks Jesenska.
- And what is there that I should be afraid of?, he honestly replies, and suddenly retorts: And besides, Madame, we only live once. And if a person dies a little earlier, he's just dead a little longer.
His 1996 debut book, Sunday, which happened on a Wednesday, is a collection of reports, which he published in Gazeta Wyborcza. In them he writes - often humorously – about a time of transformation and of people trying to find their footing in a new reality. Paweł Śpiewak from the Życie Warszawy daily, wrote that, "Szczygieł's characters are nobody's puppets, with incomprehensible events deciding their fate: democracy, market, privatization, demand and supply". In turn, Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz wrote in the Machina monthly, "Szczygieł is like a 'smart tape-recorder', he writes sparingly, removing the shadow of a narrator".
Szczygieł’s other particularity is that he chose to write about the Czech Republic. Having only been able to write about Poland satirically, after years of working in television, he decided to seek a country about which he could write seriously: the Czech Republic. Why? In his response, he enumerates a series of dates:
1911 - the world's first cubist house opens in Prague. It was designed by the Czech architect Josef Gočár. 1918 - the first President of free Czechoslovakia is a philosopher. 1919 - he gets the idea that the young country must host great art and ordered Impressionist paintings to be bought in Paris so that citizens can view them. 1920 - a Czech painter invents the trendiest word of the first half of the twentieth century, and his brother incorporates it into his play, later staged around the globe. That word was robot.
His interest in the Czech nation has another dimension, a more personal one. The reporter discovered that in writing about the Czech Republic - those "Orwellian-Kafka types" - he is in fact writing about himself. He explains that as an only son, his childhood was devoid of competition and that today he therefore avoids confrontation. Such, according to him, are the Czechs. Their strategy of survival in no way resembles that of Poles.
His best-known work is Gottland, published in 2006. It is a collection of reportages on the Czechs and how they were caught up in the times they lived in. Czechoslovakia and the Czech lands - Gottland - is a country of horror, sadness, and the grotesque. Szczygieł deftly sidesteps stereotype to create a portrait of a nation through its people. The colourful biographies of Eduard Kirchberger (later Karel Fabián), actress Lída Baarova singer Marta Kubišová, sculptor Otokar Švec and manufacturer Tomáš Bata make up the bulk of this intriguing collection. It has been translated into ten languages. The French daily Le Figaro called it "not a book, but a gem."
Film Director Agnieszka Holland said about Gottland:
A wonderful book. The horribly depressing panorama of Czech lives in the 20th Century. (Which includes the new century, too, which is no less depressing.) What has always attracted me about Czech history is its constant, dynamic, tragic and simultaneously humorous ambiguity. Mariusz Szczygieł comes out of the tradition of Polish reportage and applies his own method to that ambiguity. The effect is incredibly powerful, original, and suprising. I found the majority of these portraits to be extremely evocative. It has been a long time since I've undertaken such an intense journey back to the experiences, questions, and preoccupations of my youth. But reading this book also made me profoundly sad. I hope there will be a sequel to these reportage-essay-stories (even their genre isn't fully defined), that a kind of catharsis may be possible, that it may yet be possible to slip the trap of Central European history.
The book did not see a sequel, but a filmic re-interpretation. In 2014, a group of young Czech filmmakers: Lukáš Kokeš, Rozálie Kohoutová, Viera Čákanyová, Petr Hátle and Klará Tasovská, created a series of short films based on Szczygieł's reportages. The film was a Polish-Czech-Slovakian production.
In 2009 he published the anthology 20 lat nowej Polski w reportażach według Mariusza Szczygła (20 Years of Reporting on a New Poland According to Mariusz Szczygieł). It is a colourful compilation of various reports: Wściekły pies/ Mad dog by Wojciech Tochman about a gay priest with HIV, Pluton/ Platoon by Jacek Hugo-Bader about the ZOMO riot police which shot strikers in mines, or Byłem uczniem ojca dyrektora/ I was a student of the Father Director by Wojciech Bojanowski about a school led by Father Rydzyk. Father Rydzyk, known as the Father Director, founded the Catholic Radio Maryja radio station and a number of publications that spread his religious and political rhetoric across the country. His political connections and activities have inspired a great deal of criticism from those who support the division of Church and State.
A year later, Szczygiel released Kaprysik (Caprice) - a collection of six reports, in which the heroines are women. He claims that he heard the greatest truth about human nature from a woman - his friend, actress Zofia Czerwińska, 'The best place to pitch a tent is always a little further'. One of the most interesting texts is Reality, the story of Janina Turek from Kraków who in her diaries, of which she filled over 700, noted every event of her life: what she ate for lunch, what she watched on TV, how much she donated in church.
In 2010, Szczygieł published Zrób sobie raj/ Make your own paradise. Once again he focuses on the Czechs, concentrating on all the things that the author finds fascinating about Czech culture, “In the culture of joy and of sadness, where laughter is shown as a mask of a tragic helplessness”. "What is life without God?" seems to be a leading theme in the book. The result is a work that merges a personal diary with an essay and a reportage. The book was given the Warsaw Literary Premiere Award in December 2010.
In 2014, Czarne Publishing House released an Anthology of Polish Reportage, entitled "100/XX. Anthology of Polish Reporting of the 20th century" edited by Mariusz Szczygieł.
To be a reporter is not a profession, it’s a state of mind and a lifestance, Mariusz Szczygieł claims in an interview for the Polish Press Agency.
Author: Bartosz Marzec, November 2010. Translated and edited by Roberto Galea and Agnieszka Le Nart, December 2010. Edited by Marta Jazowska, April 2012.