100/XX. Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportage, edited by Mariusz Szczygieł
Perhaps the most important literary event of 2014? Finally, fans of Polish reportage have their long-awaited "Bible", a two-volume work which shows that writing and reading between the lines is a Polish speciality.
Whichever way you look at it, Mariusz Szczygieł (helped by Julianna Jonek) has put together an impressive work. The book he edited comprises two volumes, 1800 pages, 100 reportages and an equal amount of introductory mini-essays. It presents a number of significant events from the 20th century: the Polish school children's strike from September 1901, an account by Janusz Korczak of his impressions of the poorest districts of Tsarist Warsaw, reports by Jacek Hugo-Bader, Lidia Ostałowska, Wojciech Tochman and Wojciech Jagielski from the late 90s. The anthology is a cross-section of this literary-journalistic genre and presents reportages by well-known and celebrated authors (Wańkowicz, Pruszyński, Antoni Słonimski, Zofia Nałkowska, Ryszard Kapuściński, Lovell, Kąkolewski, Hanna Krall and Małgorzata Szejnert), emerging authors, and writers who we would have never suspected of writing reportages (Rodziewiczówna, Konopnicka, Parandowski and Michał Ogórek).
A two in one deal?
The reportage genre defies all regulations and codifications. Nevertheless, it can qualify as more "literary" or "journalistic", it can concern the future or the present, tell of seemingly insignificant and everyday affairs, or those that influence the course of history. It can be written in the form of a letter (like Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna's letter about the assasination of President Narutowicz found in the "Antologia") or a diary (such as the one by Maria Dąbrowska), it can be politically engaged (the examples of Wanda Wasilewska, Józef Mackiewicz) or classify as travel writing (Ferdynand Goetel traveling around India or Wacław Sieroszewski who traversed Siberia and Manchuria), or even both (Antoni Słonimski and Stanisław Cat-Mackiewicz writing about the Soviet Union). This doesn't mean that the genre allows for everything. First of all, it's non-fiction - an account of real life based on facts. Its second characteristic, intricately linked with the first, is its role of relating facts. In the introduction Szczygieł underlines,
In the book, we consider as reportage those texts written for the purpose of 'reporting', transmitting information about people and events to readers […] and intended for printing in a book or the press. In the type of reportage that we insist upon, there is a characteristic kind of intention: reaching the reader.
There is something else that bonds together all, or at least the majority, of reportages in the "Antologia" - an attempt to reach the readers indirectly, by avoiding taking political issues at face value (a necessity during the People's Republic of Poland, and the Second Republic) . According to Szczygieł, writing "in between the lines" became a Polish speciality that developed through the course of history and guaranteed a high literary level of reportage.
Because in Poland […] you had to read everything between the lines, the Polish reportage was about what it was about, but it was additionally about something else. Reporters had to learn how to write in order to outsmart the censor, be genuine towards the reader and be able to look themselves in the mirror […] The reporter harnessed his skill to write literary texts. The reader looked for a hidden agenda in the text, sometimes finding more than one. That's how literature sneaked into newspapers.
To illustrate his point, Szczygieł quotes from a text by Barbara N. Łopieńska called "Łapa w łapę" ("Paw in paw"). Although the text purports to be about training tigers at the circus, in reality, the setting serves as a metaphor to describe a society influenced by ideology where people are the tigers and the [communist] Party is the trainer,
They haven't yet rebelled all at once. And according to Mrs Halina [the trainer], they would be worse off in liberty. Are they even aware of the fact that they are in a cage?
The reportages in the anthology are accompanied by introductory notes containing information about the author, their other publications and the context of in which the reportage was written. Putting words of praise aside, the "Antologia" does have its weak point. In the introduction, Szczygieł admits to having mainly based the selection of texts on his own taste. He went for lesser-known works which aren't as readily available. Such was the case with his Kapuściński selection. Instead of presenting an extract of the acclaimed "Cesarz" ("Emperor ") or "Szachinszach" ("Shah of Shahs"), he included "To też jest prawda o Nowej Hucie" ("This Is Also A Truth About Nowa Huta") (from 1955), a crucial text in the famous writer's literary output.
It's easy to agree with Szczygieł's method. But what strikes the reader is that the text is far from representing Kapuściński's "mature" style. Wouldn't a text that reads better and isn't so heavily burdened by social realism awaken the interest of more than just those who are passionate about researching Kapuściński's literary output? Furthermore, Szczygieł doesn't stick to his method. He closes the book with a text by Wojciech Jagielski - "Wieża z kamienia" ("Stone tower") which is a widely available reportage by a well-known reporter, and what is more, it's not one of his best works.
But Szczygieł himself admits that the book doesn't live up to his own expectations, that forced by selecting only 100 texts, he left out many important authors of Polish reportage (he regrets not having been able to include works by Teresa Torańska, Anna Bikont, Włodzimierz Kalicki, Mirosław Ikonowicz and hundreds of others).
Mariusz Szczygieł accomplished a colossal work. The result is an impressive book which will serve aficionados of literary facts for many years, even decades. The anthology's appearance proves that the contemporary reader has an appetite for reportage, a genre difficult to find on the web but very representative of Polish culture.
Journalist, author, Mariusz Szczygieł is best known for his intuitive reportages on the Czech nation and its optimistic approach to life, death and the (non)existence of God.
"100/XX. Antologia polskiego reportażu XX wieku" / "1Anthology of Polish 20th century Reportage"
choice of texts, structure and introductions: Mariusz Szczygieł
first edition, volumes I-II
Czarne Publishing House, Wołowiec 2014
number of pages: 1832
Author: Jakub Nikodem, translator: Mai Jones 20/03/2014