A look back at the major publications of 2011 demonstrates that today's authors draw more and more of their inspiration from the social and political circumstances of life in contemporary Poland.
Lecture by Professor Marcin Kula, Artur Domosławski's book promotion - University of Warsaw Library, March 23, 2010; photograph by Marek Dusza
In the history of our country the year 2010 was marked by an unprecedented tragedy - the catastrophe in Smoleńsk. It has influenced many spheres of Polish reality and undoubtedly has given rise to heated debate not only on the shape of politics or experiencing mourning but also about our condition as a nation. Not an economic condition, but rather a spiritual one. In theory, one could assume that the examination of the value system that took place in 2010 would extend significant influence over literature written within the closest future. In practice, however, there is hardly any sign that the Polish writers aim to draw binding conclusions from the national debate. The above does not result from the obvious fact that artists need time to look at dramatic events from a certain distance. It is rather that they are not that interested in journalism transformed into fiction. The last twelve months were dominated by an attitude of, what I would call, a departure from engagement and a realistic reflection of today's times.
Sections: Best of the Best? |Behind the Fame | Somewhere in Poland | Not at Home | Other Stories| Old Times | Crime Polish Style | Hell, Purgatory, Paradise | My Book of the Year
Polish authors have chosen such conventions which partly or completely distort the realistic message: grotesque, absurd, or surrealism. They have offered subjective stories which do not aspire towards a historical synthesis, or a reconstruction of a closer or distant future. I will refrain from judging such a choice in the introduction, however, I wonder whether this escape to one's own story or an old tale is a kind of an inner emigration. If so, the reasons behind such attitude lie elsewhere, and the justification for the exile itself should be modified as none of these publications was a direct response to a current social or political situation.
BEST OF THE BEST?
Let us reach back to 2009 when books awarded with literary prizes, or nominated to such were published. Such distinctions make one of its kind balance of the year: they indicate the authors who set the tone in our literature, and attempt to capture the most important phenomena or, to the contrary, to spot new individualities among the debutant writers. Whereas honouring Jakobe Mansztajn, laureate of the Wrocław Poetry Prize for his book entitled Wiedeński high life / Vienna High Life, in the category of "debut of the year" did not come as an astonishment, distinctions presented to a couple of other writers took the literary audience completely by surprise. It is worth noticing however, that Marcin Kurek (born in 1970), this year's laureate of the Kościelski Prize, published his winning book in 2010 and in view of the specifications concerning age (the prize is awarded to writers under 40 years old) he was awarded at the last possible moment. Interestingly enough, the author of the prize-winning Oleander is constantly present in the literary press as a renowned translator of Spanish and Latin American poetry, as well as a critic and essayist. In Oleander, however, the author presents his own artistic fascinations. Above all, the book is a kind of existential summary written in a moment when the poet's life was in danger. The threat finally turned out to be illusory while the dreadful moments were presented in an original and humorous manner. Taking into account a somewhat absurd excuse for coming to terms with the past, the state of a pre-mortal panic has worked exceptionally well. The particularly extraordinary effect was achieved by combining the reminiscent part-slow motion flashbacks - with fragments picturing the memory at a different tempo. It all provides the desperate lyrical subject with nothing but an incoherent sequence of confused sentences.
While Joanna Jodełka, laureate of the High Calibre Prize for crime fiction novel Polichromia / Polychrome, has not only shown her talent for constructing an intriguing plot set against the socio-cultural background but has also broken the masculine hegemony as a first woman to be honoured with this prize.
Although the remaining laureates have a greater literary output, some choices of the jury committees gave rise to doubts. For sure, that was not the case of two prizes for lifetime achievements: Silesius awarded to Piotr Sommer and "Special Prize" awarded to Małgorzata Szejnert by the committee of the Gdynia Literary Prize. What is more, awards for poetry collection of the year which won the readers' approval went to Justyna Bargielska for the poetry volume entitled Dwa fiaty / Two Fiats (Gdynia) and Piotr Matywiecki for Powietrze i czerń / The Air and Blackness (Silesius). Also, the jury's verdict honouring Andrzej Stasiuk's book Taksim (Gdynia) was received with enthusiasm. To the contrary, the verdict of the Nike Literary Award was met with mixed feelings. This year Tadeusz Słobodzianek was honoured for his play Nasza klasa / Our Class. Questioning the jury's choice, some critics perceived it as either a delayed compensation for not having honoured Jan Tomasz Gross's book Sąsiedzi / Neighbours, or manifesting political correctness by honouring a book of good intentions but less worthy of the prize in comparison to other shortlisted books. I would rather concur with the opinion of "Gazeta Wyborcza" readers who voted for Magdalena Grochowska and her monograph Jerzy Giedroyc. Do Polski ze snu / Jerzy Giedroyc. To Poland of a Dream, previously honoured with an award by "Odra" monthly and History Award by the "Polityka" weekly.
BEHIND THE FAME
Before the reality outgrew fiction, the entire Poland had been excited about a scandal stirred up by Artur Domosławski and his biography of Ryszard Kapuściński - Kapuściński non-fiction. I use the word "scandal" because the portrayal of the most acclaimed Polish non-fiction writer has nothing to do with such hagiography as was undoubtedly expected. The fierce disputes over this book lasted over a month while the biographer's idea to take the gilt of Kapuściński found as many supporters as opponents. Today, when the dispute has already calmed down, it is said that the book has introduced a new approach to biography into Poland. It is assumed that the same rights apply to any authority, in this case also a moral one, and celebrity, who can be screened through to the alleged best interest of the public. After all, the scandal has not inflicted much harm over the reception of Kapuściński's works, however, it has proven that there is a need for a local Andrew Morton (the author of biographies of Princess Diana and Tom Cruise, among others).
In contrast, Agata Tuszyńska has added a completely different dimension to a recently written biography of Wiera Gran. Oskarżona: Wiera Gran / Accused: Wiera Gran and Domosławski's book have one thing in common. In both cases families of the unfavourably presented witnesses to the events made a formal protest. However, the crucial difference lies in the fact that Wiera Gran participated in the process of writing herself. The book tells a tragic story of a pre-war singer whose brilliant career was ruined by accusations of collaboration with the Jewish police. Tuszyńska attempts to investigate whether the accusations were justified, or whether they were a gross slander which forced this beautiful and talented artist to wander the earth, and consequently drove her into a mental disease. By presenting Gran's wrecked life - from the perspective of her defender - Tuszyńska ponders over the sense of judging people who found themselves in highly extreme circumstances and investigates the reasons behind accusations which were never explicitly proven.
The publication of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz's biography has not stirred that many controversies partly because the modus vivendi and opportunism of the protagonist of Pisarz po katastrofie / A Writer After Catastrophe came to light years ago. And yet, its author Marek Radziwon faced accusations of treating some issues quite superficially, whereas they were brought to light in Iwaszkiewicz's Dzienniki / Diaries published a few months earlier. In addition, Iwaszkiewicz's notes do not as much clarify political choices of the author of Sława i chwała / Fame and Glory as clear any doubts as for his sexual orientation. Above all, they are a record of his tragic love for Jerzy Błeszyński.
I have decided to place Janusz Głowacki's Good night, Dżerzi in here because the author states openly that Jerzy Kosiński is one of his novel's main protagonists. Nonetheless, it is a novel in which facts intertwine with fiction, and the true Kosiński with the created persona of "Dżersi" The author, who admits that he did not make friendship or any other bonds with the author of Kroki / Steps, is convinced that it was only Kosiński who knew the truth about Kosiński. Although the plot focuses on the moment of the writer's discrediting, i.e. accusations of persistent plagiarism and preying on the translators who created the final artistic shape of Malowany ptak / The Painted Bird, Głowacki's interests lie elsewhere. Namely, he explores how Kosiński invented himself mostly for the purpose of the American public. The constant charade revealed by Głowacki in his book is not meant to ultimately destroy (or condemn) "Dżersi" but to give the symbolic meaning. By presenting those pathetic and hammy tricks, Głowacki ridicules the American dream and myth of making career in the West or overseas.
SOMEWHERE IN POLAND
The protagonists of Krzysztofa Varga's Aleja Niepodległości / Independence Avenue achieve success on a local scale. Whereas one of them, Jakub Fidelis, has made a name for himself in the television industry, the other one, Krystian Apostata, finished his career as an artists before it has even started for good. Both school friends are of the same age as the author who in his book comes to terms with both the bitter burden of the socialist Poland and the twenty years of living in an independent country. While Varga only inlays his work with grotesque elements, Mariusz Sieniewicz follows the poetics of grotesque and nonsense in his entire novel. Seen from the perspective of a crazy ophthalmologist, his Miasto szklanych słoni / The City of Glass Elephants is not, however, located in some "indefinite nowhere" but definitely in Poland. It is evident through clear references made in this "madman's dream". The oniric and lyrical tone is also set byBarbara Piórkowska in an interesting prose debut. Her young protagonist uses dreams, desires and art as an antidote to the gloomy reality of Gdańsk during the socialist times. Certainly, the name of the author of Szklanka na pająki / Spider Catcher is worth remembering. While in her second book Sylwia Chutnik goes even further back to the times of the Warsaw Uprising. The novel is set in the past not to tell a story that is in any way related to the writer's biography but in order to display the Polish catalogue of deadly sins. The author of Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet / A Pocket Atlas of Women, which was sociological in tone, this time follows the convention of absurd and macabre. The title protagonist of her most recent novel Dzidzia / Baby is a physically handicapped girl and a victim of terrible abuse. The suffering of the helpless child goes beyond the literal meaning and becomes a symbol used by the writer to confront national shortcomings and superstitions.
The most recent novel by Wojciech Kuczok is without a doubt set in the Polish mountains. The writer does not, however, tell realistic stories of the Tatra Mountains inhabitants. To the contrary, he offers a contemporary version of "the Tatra legends." The narrator of Spiski / Plots, a young man from the Silesia region, finds the mountains as a perfect holiday destination. On the one hand he is deeply fascinated with the world so different from his own, but on the other hand, he portrays the mountaineers' mentality in a highly satirical tone. The mocking picture is far from the truth. Yet, it is compellingly amusing and charming although from time to time the writer uses cheap tricks e.g. when making fun of the local dialect or repeating old jokes about sexual habits of the mountaineers.
While Kuczok escapes Silesia, Kazimierz Kutz returns there, this time as a prose writer. Piąta strona świata / The Fifth Quarter of the World is quite a successful prose debut of this 80 year old film director. It tells a story of three eccentric friends who love their little homeland - located in the borderland of three cultures - and at the same time depart from it not to break free from their roots but in order to escape the poverty and helplessness.
NOT AT HOME
Wilhelm Dichter had kept his readers waiting for long eleven years before he published another chapter of his own story. Let me remind that he has portrayed his life until the secondary school years and now continues it in Lekcja angielskiego / The English Lesson. The writer talks about his marriage, emigration forced by the 1968 events and adaptation to the new world. Without doubt, the most interesting part of the book features the story of how the narrator, a high class ballistics specialist, launches his professional career, grows rich, and at long last lives without the constant fear and breaks the spell of his Jewish origins. The symbolic moment of a complete naturalisation takes place when the protagonist finally adopts the English language and sees America as his promised land.
Chmurdalia, the latest novel by Joanna Bator, is a continuation of Piaskowa Góra / Sand Hill, a well-received novel published a year ago. This time, Dominika Chmura sets on her dream travel abroad. The novel is not a record of her journey, not only hers anyway, but consists of biographies written in a Chinese box structure. Life stories are told by subplot characters known from the first part of the series, as well as new friends of Dominika. Bator rejected any limits regarding space or time in order to show a border-free world and a transformation of the character which seemed ossified - Jadzia Chmura, who changes from an intimidated housewife hardly poking her head out of her small town into a self-aware European. She moves around the globe as freely as the protagonist of the second book by Michał Zygmunt - Lata walk ulicznych / Street Fighting Years. Marek Polak is first introduced to us as a Pole born in Wrocław but with time his origins can be told only by his last name. In his novel of quite a chaotic narration, Zygmunt analyses the phenomenon of a contemporary individualism which can be called a subtle version of egoism, expressed also in an intense dislike for forming permanent bonds. It is difficult to understand however, why the author created his protagonist as a violent "Polish psycho". The fact that the Pole is a "masculine" type of a homosexual does not seem to explain the author's decision.
Grażyna Plebanek's novel has become a bestseller in spite of (or rather because of) the fact that it is highly provocative in terms of contemporary Polish mores. Its protagonists can be by far called citizens of the world. They move from Warsaw to Brussels where Megi is an office worker and her husband, Jonathan, teaches creative writing courses. Their abilities to adapt to the new reality are expressed mostly in their understanding of gender roles and division of housework duties. They perceive their otherness in the moment of confrontation with the "old" Europeans which takes place as a result of the husband's love affair.
Stories told by Ewa Schilling in Codzienność / Every Day Life follow realistic convention. However, they are mostly stories of the others, or to be precise, of women in love with women. The writer focuses on their emotional dilemmas and reveals the consequences of listening to one's body and heart, or - to the contrary - of rejecting one's own true desires. The author located the lesbian microcosm somewhere on the side, outside the world crowded by the heterosexual majority. It is not a decision resulting from the fear of coming out but an artistic choice of the writer. And it is a good one because Codzienność / Every Day Life is read not as a manifesto of otherness but as a collection of well-written and touching stories about love, loneliness, and difficult goodbyes that also mark the beginnings of a new life.
So far renown for her poetry, Justyna Bargielska also concentrates on a very intimate, and let's say hardly photogenic, subject. In her Obsoletki / Obsoletes, the writer displays what Andrzej Bursa once called "a hell of childbirths and miscarriages". These ponderings over motherhood, premature deaths and times of mourning are often irresistibly amusing. In order to bring us closer to this taboo subject, the writer uses measures which soothe and amuse us, namely the absurd and grotesque. Whereas the protagonists of Sylwia Siedlecka's debut collection of short stories Szczeniaki / Kids are handicapped persons, marginalised by society, those physically or mentally abused. By showing their tragedies, the author escapes literality and uses the poetics of surrealism. Her book proves that such convention serves well in portraying individual stories, which are otherwise impossible to depict by means of realistic measures without falling into an overwhelming pathos or suffering.
Surrealism, absurd and grotesque also appear in Agnieszka Taborska's Wieloryb, czyli przypadek obiektywny / Whale, or Objective Coincidence in which she persistently traces amusing coincidences, feedbacks, hilarious misunderstandings etc. In order to fish them out, one needs to be alert, receptive and have an outstanding sense of humour.
Elżbieta Cherezińska, who specializes in writing historical novels, has published as many as two books this year. While Ja jestem Halderad / I Am Halderad is a second volume of the series Północna Droga / The North Passage devoted to the Vikings, Gra w kości / Dice presents one of the crucial chapters in our history, namely the reign of King Bolesław Chrobry and the Congress of Gniezno. Although the author reconstructs a very distant age, she meticulously recreates the world and mentality of the people of the Middle Ages. Such carefully presented past seems closer to contemporary times. In both novels the writer describes the moment of introducing Christianity to Europe and subsequent tendencies to unite the Old Continent. As a result, Cherezińska has built a bridge between the first and second millennium and restored this apparently forgotten genre to Polish literature. It brings the past back to life in style.
Małgorzata Niezabitowska brings back once popular genre of "a nobleman's tale." Składana wanna / A Folding Bathtub is a fascinating story about her ancestors on maternal and paternal side, which goes back to the times of King Stanisław August Poniatowski and reaches the early 20th century. I purposefully call this narration style a tale because the author focuses on the intimate story which was considerably influenced by major historical events. Accompanied by her family members, Niezabitowska sets on the Polish journey towards independence. Also Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz in Samuel Zborowski presents an original version of a biography of the 16th century Cossack Hetman who is commemorated by Juliusz Słowacki in one of his dramas and who has been for a long time considered to be the leading "martyr of freedom".
In contrast, Janusz Anderman goes back only several dozen years in his Fotografie ostatnie / The Last Photographs. In these brief and masterfully composed scenes, the writer records the reality of the socialist Poland by highlighting its absurdity and dreadfulness, as well as by writing with tenderness about those people who were able to maintain their own inner freedom in those terrible times.
CRIME POLISH STYLE
Until recently it has appeared that crime fiction written in a retro style would become the Polish specialty because these were Marek Krajewski's crime novels set in the pre-war Wrocław that led to the crime story boom in Poland. Although Krajewski himself has remained faithful to the "old setting," merely changing Breslau for Lviv (where the plot of his most recent novel Erynie / Erinyes is set), this year the majority of authors set their novels in the present times. They do not follow the Scandinavian style yet - tough it is precisely crime fiction from the North that sets the tone for this genre and it has won great popularity also in our country - but it is just a matter of time since some attempts at such stylistics have already been made.
However, the above does not concern two novels which draw upon our uniqueness and are therefore exceptionally intriguing. I mean Ręczna robota / Handmade by Ryszard Ćwirlej and a debut by Tadeusz Cegielski Morderstwo w Alei Róż / Murder on the Rose Avenue which are set in the times of the People's Republic of Poland. While the plot of the first book is set in Poznań in the 1980s, the second one takes place in the 1950s in Warsaw. Consequently, they could be categorized as the retro crime fiction, however it seems more justifiable to call them the militia novels. It is worth mentioning that the work of the militia officers and secret security services is of course shown the way it most probably looked like, not the way it was presented in the justly forgotten novels from that epoch. By making such choice of setting for their novels, the authors remind us that crime fiction has had a long, even if not too glorious, tradition in Poland.
Other worth mentioning books published in 2010 are: Officium secretum. Pies pański / Officium secretum. The Master's Dog a contemporary work by Marcin Wroński, so far known for a series of novels set in the pre-war Lublin; Nie ma takiego miasta / There is No Such Town - a third book by Tomasz Konatkowski, who this time sends his protagonist over to London and has him observe the dark sides of emigration; as well as the third book written by Gaja Grzegorzewska, who like the other two authors gives up the permanent setting of her novels, i.e. Kraków, and moves to the Mazury region (Topielica / Drowned Woman). Whereas Nikt nie widział, nikt nie słyszał / Neither Hide Nor Hair the latest novel by Małgorzata Warda about mysterious disappearances of girls loosely inspired by Natascha Kampusch's story, can be situated in the borderland between the crime novel and drama.
HELL, PRUGATORY, PARADISE
Even though by the end of his book Zrób sobie raj / Make Your Own Paradise Mariusz Szczygieł explains that he has not written down everything he knows about his protagonists because he "does not like books made of rubber", the reviewers have complained anyway that the writer left out this or that significant episode. It seems to me, however, that the author, a declared Czechophile, has not said the last word with his second collection of reportage from the Czech Republic. What he wanted to show in this book, was demonstrated suggestively enough. At this stage the author aims to depict the every day reality of almost entirely secular society which does not as much mock God as maintains a healthy distance towards any sacredness and displays self-irony that is worth imitating.
Marta Szarejko, the author of Nie ma o czym mówić / Nothing to Talk About transgresses the genre borders of reportage to a greater extent than Szczygieł. In her book she depicts the marginalized inhabitants of Warsaw: street madmen and homeless living at railway stations or shelters. They introduce themselves with their own words which are painful but worth listening to. The way Szarejko selects their monologues, or their fragments, and puts them in a specific sequence shows not only the speakers' suffering but also their human side.
There is no doubt that we should remember and talk about the genocide in Rwanda. Nobody could probably talk about it like Wojciech Tochman. In Dzisiaj narysujemy śmierć / Today We Are Going to Draw Death one cannot, or better does not want to, find gaps because anything that remains unsaid is on the one hand meaningful, but on the other hand it allows the reader to take a deep breath and rest, even for a second, from what is hardly imaginable also after the reading.
It is difficult to find one measure for such different books. Without doubt, they serve as a justification to call such type of journalism a "literary reportage" and as a proof of the uniqueness and strong position of the Polish school of reportage. It appears that reportage is among our best "export goods".
MY BOOK OF THE YEAR
While writing this text I moved Ignacy Karpowicz's Balladyny i romanse / Balladynas and Romances from one ad hoc created group of books to another. Finally, I decided to make a separate place for this novel by taking advantage of the fact that this review is of a subjective character and does not aim to include everything that has influenced the image of Polish literature in 2010, won the others' acclaim and what, as a result, will count in the competition for 2011 literary prizes. So far, Karpowicz has won the nomination for the Polityka Passport Award. I also recommended him for this award and supported my choice with the following justification:
"'Balladyny i romanse' meet my expectations of the 21st century novel by uniting the avant-garde form and multidirectional afterthought about the condition of a contemporary human being. In addition, there is the stunningly rendered language, exquisite composition, and tragicomic tone which do not hinder the reading. To the contrary: the book reads at one gulp and leaves you thinking about it for months. A masterpiece!"
Looking back at the past year from the standpoint of a literary critic, the only one I can take on, after all, I perceive it as a very good one.
author: Marta Mizuro, December 2010