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Wit Szostak

Wit Szostak, photo: Mateusz Skwarczek / Agencja Gazeta
Wit Szostak, photo: Mateusz Skwarczek / Agencja Gazeta

Wit Szostak was born in 1976. He lives and works in Kraków. He is a doctor of philosophy and a graduate of the Pontifical Academy of Theology. He is also a musician – he plays folk instruments and documents traditional melodies. Szostak breaches the boundaries of literary genres. Wit Szostak is his pen name.

After his famed Wichry Smoczogór (Whirlwinds of the Dragon Mountains), he wrote the Kraków trilogy – a peculiar mix of fantasy, magical realism and alternate history. Many of his short stories were published. His debut appeared in 1999 in Nowa Fantastyka (a Polish monthly devoted to fantasy and science fiction). He was repeatedly nominated for the Janusz A. Zajdel Award, and received it in 2008 for his short story Miasto Grobów. Uwertura (The City of Graves: Overture). His novel Chochoły (Straw Covers) was awarded the Jerzy Żuławski Literary Award.

"Philosophical fairy tale" is a term that keeps reappearing in the reviews of his Wichry Smoczogór. The book’s plot takes place in an idealized land of the Gorals (Polish highlanders), based on various fairy tales and other stories. Considering the author’s non-literary occupations, it comes as no surprise that many of those stories were music-themed.

Ględźby Ropucha (Ramblings of the Toad) reproduces the Polish modernist (the so-called Young Polish) fairy tale style, apparent in such works as Bolesław Leśmian’s Klechdy Sezamowe (Sesame Tales). They are refined in style and metaphorical, and somewhat resemble the writings of Jorge Luis Borges (Księga/The Book). The collection is permeated with philosophical problems, relating to religion, miracles, or the fictional nature of literature. They do not lack a sense of humour, however – the author is generous with ironic and melancholy comments, while the official currency used by the book’s characters is called… szostaki.

In order to guide English-speakers towards the Polish authors best suited for their specific tastes... Read more about: A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Literature

 

Szostak returned to folk themes, although this time without blending in the science fiction, in his novel Oberki do końca świata (Obereks Till the End of the World). It is narrated by a representative of a dying profession – a village fiddler called Jakub Wicher. The plot is spread over the years between the Second World War and the 1990s, and recounts the passing of a certain society. This book falls under the category of so-called peasant prose, which is a rather intriguing tendency for such a young artist. The form of the novel is also surprising, as it comprises excerpts of actual oberek melodies. As the author says, “the music turns into prose in front of the reader."

The Kraków trilogy is a whole different story. Chochoły is about a family living in one of the city’s tenement houses. The potential of the sci-fi style allowed the author to make the city a fully-fledged protagonist in the story. Dumanowski is an alternative historical book about a providential man, freedom fighter and the leader of the Republic of Kraków which, thanks to him, survived until 1918. He is immensely influential: the poets devote endless pages to him, the partitionists fear him, while Poles look up to him with hope. The ending of the story is all the more amusing in the context of Dumanowski’s ethos – Poland regains its independence, just as it actually happened, as if Dumanowski’s deeds made absolutely no difference. The story may be interpreted as a bitter renouncement of Romantic myths, especially since the main character is based entirely on them. Fuga (The Fugue), the third part, is made out of incoherent, mutually exclusive memories of the old Bartłomiej Chochoł, which combine various events from the two previous segments.

Szostak’s next book, Sto dni bez słońca (One Hundred Sunless Days), is an amusing parody of the academic environment, and of the science fiction and fantasy literature. The main protagonist and narrator, Lesław Srebroń (who, in his diary, writes about himself: 'I won't hide women always fancied me. I think it's because they like handsome, tall and harmoniously built men' or 'These notes are one of many proofs that I was born a scholar, inquiring and persistent in my search of truth') goes on a scholarship to a tiny university on a little, rainy island in the Finnegan archipelago. Srebroń doesn't have that many duties, so he decides to devote his time to working on his thesis about 'the greatest Polish science fiction writer', Filip Włócznik (therefore the book also becomes a satire about the genre written also by Szostak himself). He also meets a delightfully weird milieu of academics, usually interested in peculiar, hermetic things (one Croatian professor writes, for example, about the motif of grapevine in contemporary Balkan prose). Dariusz Nowacki wrote: 

Szostak's restoring gesture consists in sticking to the realistic convention, while the way in which he speaks about contemporary humanities and academic customs moves his story into the realm of the fantastic. If someone believes in oldschool academia, he's fantasizing. A part of this fantasy is also appealing for repairing the world; Srebroń starts to work on a plan of saving Western civilization... ("Gazeta Wyborcza", 25.03.2014). 

Szostak was nominated for Polityka's Passport for A Hundred Sunless Days. His latest novel, Wróżenie z wnętrzności (Visceramancy, 2015) is a story about men stepping away from life, escaping life. It's a cogitation on escapism and different kinds of emigration, under the form of a novel about twin brothers and their father. 

Wróżenie z wnętrzności is a stylistic gem. Szostak created a language not with the goal of communication - if so, only communication of the narrator with himself - but he was still able to tell an intriguing, cohesive story. And this can be considered a true written masterpiece - wrote Robert Ostaszewski (www.instytutksiazki.pl

Wit Szostak's writing is extremely varied - both when it comes to its themes, and when it comes to form. The author himself said in one of his interviews: 

I don't like categorizing literature I read, nor do I like being submitted to such a process.

It's not hard to notice, he does everything he can to evade being put in boxes. 

 

Bibliography:

  • Wichry Smoczogór (Whirlwinds of the Dragon Mountains), RUNA, Warsaw 2003
  • Poszarpane granie (Jagged Ridges), RUNA, Warsaw 2004
  • Ględźby Ropucha (Ramblings of the Toad), RUNA, Warsaw 2005 (collection of short stories)
  • Oberki do końca świata (Obereks Till the End of the World), PIW, Warsaw 2007
  • Chochoły (Straw Covers), Lampa i Iskra Boża, Warsaw 2010
  • Dumanowski, Lampa i Iskra Boża, Warsaw 2011
  • Fuga (The Fugue), Lampa i Iskra Boża, Warsaw 2012
  • Sto dni bez słońca (One Hundred Sunless Days), Powergraph, Warsaw 2014
  • Wróżenie z wnętrzności (Visceramancy), Powergraph, Warsaw 2014

 

Author: Paweł Kozioł, December 2014, transl. Ania Micińska January 2015, updated by NMR, August 2016. 

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2015/01/08

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