Author of two novels – Pensjonat (2010) and Ptasie ulice (2013) – a Joyce scholar, and editor-in-chief of the journal Midrasz. Considered a chief author of the third generation after the Holocaust
Before Piotr Paziński found acclaim as the author of Pensjonat (Boarding House) (the Passport Award from Polityka magazine in 2009, winner of the European Literary Prize in 2012), he was a journalist, editor of Midrasz, a journal devoted to Jewish culture, and a specialist on James Joyce. His doctorate Labyrinth and Tree: Studies of James Joyce’s Ulysses (2005) was devoted to that novel, as was his Dublin with Ulysses, a guide book he published in 2008.
Pensjonat (Boarding House) (not yet translated into English) was an unexpected debut. The short novel deftly combines personal memories – rich recollections from summers spent in Sródborowianka, a Jewish boarding house in Otwock, south of Warsaw – with powerful historical allegories of the Jewish fate, exemplified by the elderly residents of the boarding house. It is a living past – steeped in endless disputes about Jewish history and identity.
The unquestionable merit of Pensjonat lies in giving a voice to these people – the last representatives of a departing world – retaining all the idiosyncrasies of their particular variety of Polish language influenced by Yiddish. In an interview, Paziński said of its distinctiveness:
I listened to it in childhood. This is not the Polish spoken with a Jewish accent mimed in pre-war cabaret. It is literary Polish tinged with the influence of Yiddish, which can be heard in the syntax, vocabulary, and characteristic misuse of pronouns. […] I tried to capture the melody of the language, the variety in it, which is disappearing before our eyes. There are still people who speak like this, but in Poland they are ever decreasing. This style of the Polish language is more often heard in the United States and Israel.
In his first novel, Paziński describes a world populated by spirits – the living exist in the shadow of tragedy and trauma. Those who were killed are almost tangibly present. This exploration of themes of departure and passing is not exclusively "Jewish" – descriptions of the boy surrounded by old age and death carry universal significance. Paziński's characters have been described as "the last in a generational chain, grasping at its end." The novel was quickly praised, with critics deeming Paziński the first literary voice in Poland’s third generation after the Holocaust.
In his second novel, Paziński continues to delve into the Jewish and autobiographical themes introduced in Boarding House. However, where he had preserved the linguistic and literary patterns of the last survivors of the Holocaust in that book, in Bird Streets Paziński embraces a more symbolic, almost mythical, absence of Jews in the real space of Warsaw.
The title of the book Bird Streets invokes the once teeming with life streets of Warsaw's Jewish district, known for their characteristic bird-names, like Gęsia or Pawia. These streets, along with their Jewish inhabitants, vanished during the Holocaust - which saw much of the Jewsih district razed in the aftermath of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Those "bird streets" in the heart of contemporary Warsaw are some of the only traces of the area's past.
Paziński’s stories, employing powerful poetic parables, attempt to touch on this absence metaphorically. Figures become ghosts and spirits, inhabiting the city 70 years after the Holocaust.
Jan Gondowicz captures major themes of Paziński's stories:
Wandering the labyrinthine Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, the history of a charlatan address book, searching for the lost stories of a northern district, and a night in an apartment full of memories of the dead – here are four illicit and problematic branches of time, as previously discovered by Bruno Schulz. "We will try to take such a branch of history, a side branch, a dead end, and shove this illicit history into it."
This quotation from Schulz's short story Genialna epoka (in Sanatorium pod klepsydrą) underscores that not only does Bird Streets evoke a Schulzian atmosphere, it also makes quite literal references to the author's work. The usage of typically Schulzian vocabulary with "coincidences" [Polish koincydencje] or "enchanted rings of time", from which "once again we did not manage to escape" suggest themes taken straight from Schulz.
"Another moment or two and he would cease to exist – but the more he plunged into nothingness, the more he endured with us, the more he clung to the smallest particles of the Warsaw air", Paziński’s narrator says of another character – a certain Feldwurm (who was apparently a real person). If not for the "Warsaw air", this sentence could easily have been written by Schulz about his father.
One such Schulzian motif found in Bird Streets is "the Book". In Schulz the Book stands for a primordial source of mystical sense and illumination, rooted in the protagonist's earliest childhood memories and Biblical tradition.
The Book in Paziński's works has a couple of variants, but the prototype, which can be traced back to Boarding House, is a biographical dictionary of Jews, created by Mr. Abram on index cards and in the margins of newspapers (apparently only the entries for the letter A have been completed: Abramowicz, Appelfeld, Aszkenazy…).
One of the variants of the Book found in Bird Streets comes in the form of the legendary novel of a certain Feldwurm (a real person) from the story Manuscript of Izaak Felwurm. This fabled novel is reputed to have been an attempt to represent all Varsovians, taking the form of a "scribbled phonebook".
Phonebooks also appear in another story in this volume, Staruszek [Old Man]. In this case the directory in question is the last existing copy of the final edition of the pre-war Warsaw phonebook. It is both literally and metaphorically a book of the dead. The phonebook registers the population of the city just before the war, which resulted in the disappearance of 70 percent of its inhabitants. In the story, the book is the key to finding a real person - though it’s possible that it only leads to the dead.
The Book is perhaps the most symbolic and characteristic motif in Bird Streets. It shows how this literature, with its symbolic and metaphorical potential, functions as a sort of allegorical text – drawing on tradition and open to infinite interpretations. The longest and arguably most parabolic story in the book, Kondukt [Procession], is devoted to this final issue and its relation to contemporary Judaism.
These stylistic features and metaphysical moments that evoke Schulz certainly speak to Paziński’s literary influences (one might also note a less tangible but perhaps equally important Kafkaesque atmosphere). However, coupled with his stylistic anachronisms and somewhat antiquated attitude towards language, one begins to get a curious sense of a writer (and perhaps a reader) whose "here and now" is a little bit removed. In an interview with Lampa, Paziński said:
[…] A lot of Polish novels that I flip through in bookstores, especially writers of my generation and younger, seem to have been written too fast, too simply, in not very sophisticated language. Such is popular Polish. It irritates me. I sit and needle – in two years I wrote four stories, and then suddenly I turn around and someone has hammered out a novel: one, two, three, four….
This anachronism poses an important question: for whom are these stories written? Because they’re perhaps not for today’s readers – but if not for them, for whom? The elderly? Those who survived? Perhaps for the dead? Or their spirits?
Considering all this, it seems that perhaps the figure most helpful in defining Paziński’s work is the Dybbuk - in Jewish lore, a malevolent dislocated soul from the dead that possesses the spirit of the living. Could such a dybbuk (Schulz, Kafka, Feldwurm?) have guided Paziński’s hand as he wrote the final chapters of this great book of (post)memory? This might well explain the style of his prose. Perhaps the biggest question is whether, in the case of Paziński, we understand the dybbuk literally or metaphorically.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński
Translation: Alena Aniskiewicz 04.07.2013