Culture.pl reflects on Polish literature's fixation on the past and the scene's dearth of writerly debuts
Culture.pl reflects on Polish literature's fixation on the past and the scene's dearth of writerly debuts
Much of the fiction and non-fiction published in Poland is set in the past. This tendency can be viewed as a propensity for escapism related to a dislike for what present reality has to offer. However the themes dominant in the world (the economic crisis, global warming) have not directly affected Poland, and its writers have yet to react to recent changes or, perhaps, want to free themselves from the obligation to react and provide commentary. A swift reaction is not necessarily the domaine of literature. Still, it is up to literature to spot and provide insight to what is missing from media coverage. It is the task of literature to monitor the spiritual condition, a term which encompasses the public mood and the attitude towards values of a community that is the subject of a specific literary analysis. If one can refer to the feedback and consider literature as a means for articulating an ethical credo, a simple conclusion can be drawn: tradition is one of our most precious values.
There were only a handful of books set in the present among award winners this year. Even Ignacy Karpowicz’s "Balladyny i romanse" / "Balladynas and Romances", a surreal story about the clash of two worlds, that of gods representing diverse religions and that of contemporary Poles, refers to the text by Adam Mickiewicz. Karpowicz received the Passport prize from the Polityka magazine, and was short-listed for the Nike Literary Prize.
With Karpowicz’s name on the shortlists was that of Justyna Bargielska, author of a brilliant collection of tragicomic short stories, "Obsoletki" / "Obsoletes", about finding fulfilment in motherhood or the lack of it. Her collection eventually received the Gdynia Literary Prize for prose. Interestingly, Bargielska has been awarded for the second time in a row - last year she was named for poetry.
Gaja Grzegorzewska, winner of the High Calibre Prize for crime novels, sets her story in the Mazury region today. "Topielica" / "Drowned Woman", draws upon enormously popular Scandinavian crime fiction, where social and cultural issues are as important as the plot. It’s worth noting that it is the second time in a row the main prize has gone to a woman, in this largely male circle specialising in this genre.
This year, the important Polish literary prize, the Nike, has been awarded to Marian Pilot for his novel "Pióropusz" / "Panache". The win did not arouse the controversy that the choice of playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek had in 2010. It did come as a surprise, since the winner, associated with the so-called "peasant movement", had not presented readers with more than a few collections of short stories over the last twenty years. The jury appreciated the multiplicity of genres found in "Panache", recognising the exceptional linguistic creativity of the author, his ability to produce "a spontaneous and meticulous, frantic and aching, coarse and impressive fireworks of words" as described by Professor Grażyna Borkowska in her ceremonial speech. This novel delves into the past, set in a village in the Wielkopolska region in the 1950s.
For the sake of form, the remaining laureates of the Gdynia Literary Prize should be mentioned here as well: Ewa Lipska (for a collection of poems, "Pogłos" / "Echo"); Stefan Chwin (for the essay book "Samobójstwo jako doświadczenie wyobraźni" / "Suicide as an Experience of Imagination") and the poet Andrzej Sosnowski, awarded with a special distinction. The most prestigious poetry prize, the Wrocław-based Silesius, was received by Bogdan Zadura (in the book of the year category, for his collection entitled "Nocne życie" / "Night Life") and Kira Pietrek (for her debut volume "Język korzyści" / "The Language of Advantage").
I have not forgotten Urszula Kozioł, winner of the Silesius Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement. This remarkable poet from Wroclaw deserves her own place in this literary review, since she celebrated her 80th birthday this year. All her poems were collected in the volume "Fuga" / "The Fugue", one of the year’s major literary events. It was also one of a few anniversary publications not related to Czesław Miłosz, the literary patron of this year.
The grand celebrations of Miłosz’s centenary have outshone any other literary events. No doubt our Nobel laureate deserves such dedicated recognition, yet it appeared that any and every opportunity was taken to attach Miłosz's name to a particular event. The value of Miłosz publications and a festival combining poetry readings and a scientific conference is unquestionable, but it was an exaggeration to recall the poet in every cultural centre or in a competition for the best film 'with Miłosz'. International audiences have had a hefty portion of Miłosz; many have left the table overly sated. The only permanent traces of the celebrations are the monumental book by Andrzej Franaszek, "Miłosz. Biografia" / "Miłosz. Biography" (for which the author received the Kościelski Award), and other publications under the banner of Miłosz Studies endorsed by those who deal with the poet’s works not only when occasion to celebrate arises, including Aleksander Fiut and his "Z Miłosza" / "From Miłosz."
The 90th birthday of Tadeusz Różewicz was commemorated in a more modest manner at an explicit request of the poet. Celebrated even more modestly, and with humorous distance, was the 50th birthday of Marcin Świetlicki, who received two volumes of collected works, "Wiersze" / "Poems" and "Powieści" / "Novels", as his gift. Without reference to round anniversaries, two writers have been honoured this year in recognition for their lifetime achievements: Wiesław Myśliwski (The Golden Sceptre, or the Culture Foundation Award) and Janusz Głowacki (The Literary Award of the Capital City of Warsaw, and the Czesław Miłosz Prize for his contribution to the development of understanding between Poland and the U.S.).
Naturally, biographies published last year have to be completely immersed in the past. Their value lies in our looking at their protagonists from a different angle than their contemporaries. In her biography of Zofia Nałkowska ("Nałkowska, albo życie pisane" / "Nałkowska, or a Written Life"), Hanna Kirchner adopts such a new perspective and encourages a re-interpretation of not so much the fate but the work itself. This excellent example of biographical work combines an emphatic look at the writer’s biography, in particular her love life (depicted tactfully), and a detailed and thorough analysis of her writings, which, as the author of the biography claims, have never been properly appreciated.
The latter does not apply to works by another Polish writer, Władysław Broniewski, portrayed by Mariusz Urbanek in a biography the title of which, "Broniewski. Miłość, wódka, polityka" / "Broniewski. Love, Vodka, Politics", indicates three stages of existential entanglement. The book aims to depict and understand the chameleon-like (or perhaps schizophrenic) attitude of this great patriot who became disconnected from the freedom he once fought for.
Joanna Olczak-Ronikier set another aim with her biography of Janusz Korczak, "Korczak. Próba biografii" / "Korczak. An Attempt at a Biography". Korczak has been mostly remembered as the author of pedagogical journals and books for children, as well as the caregiver of Warsaw ghetto orphans, with whom he perished in the Treblinka death camp. There has long been a need to show Korczak not only as a heroic martyr but as a man of flesh and bone.
Biography has also become the springboard for Jacek Dehnel’s novel "Saturn". Relating the story of Francisco Goya, the author does not, however, strictly follow the facts, but gives voice to two fictitious descendants of the painter. The writer uses them in order to solve puzzles in the painter’s life, such as the question of authorship of the famous "black paintings" and his bisexual tendencies. This is one of the daring, intriguing books published last year.
There is only one name on the cover of the book entitled "W pośpiechu" / "In a Hurry", that of Tadeusz Konwicki. Unfortunately, it is not a new piece by the writer who proclaimed his retirement years ago, then disappeared from public life. The person who succeeded in bringing Konwicki back to light was a young journalist, Przemysław Kaniecki. He convinced the author of "Wniebowstąpienie" / "Ascension" to participate in a series of conversations that turned into an extended interview. Even though these are not the first printed dialogues with the writer (there are conversations with Stanisław Bereś "Pół wieku czyśćca" / "Half a Century of Purgatory", and a series of conversations conducted by Elżbieta Sawicka), they are highly interesting for several reasons. First, the writer, who is of advanced age and speaks openly about awaiting death, will probably not be wiling to take part in a similar project. Second, the confrontation of the interlocutors, separated by age gap and different life experiences, is unique in itself. Third, the book provides a record of the atmosphere during the recordings, resulting in the sense a documentary. And the fascinating content of the conversations inspires readers to value the rare gift that is Konwicki's contribution to literature.
Sławomir Mrożek has also kept his place in the literary forum, thanks to the publication of his private journals. Last year the first volume of his "Diary" was released, while his correspondence has been published over the last few years. The sixth volume of correspondence is of outstanding value as it includes letters exchanged with Stanisław Lem. The correspondence between these two remarkable writers is a sharp exchange between intellectual giants and a one-of-a-kind testimony of the days of the People’s Republic of Poland. The letters document terrors of the epoch to the extent that this was permitted by censors, and the senders managed to convey it in ironic euphemisms. Though not all of the letters discuss matters of fundamental importance, the styles of describing everyday problems confirms the excellence of both writers. Undoubtedly this is last year’s greatest literary event.
Narrators in their own worlds
On publishing "Biała Maria" / "White Maria", Hanna Krall stated that it was her final book, a summing up of everything she has written so far. The farewell tone can, in fact, be sensed in this story consisting of flashbacks and of protagonists that have already appeared elsewhere, among them a girl miraculously saved from death. Although she does not narrate the story in the first person, her biography brings to mind that of the author herself. Perhaps the book actually is a goodbye, but there is nobody who would like to take the writer at her word.
In his novel with the subversive title "Książka" / "A Book", Mikołaj Łoziński draws a portrait of a wide range of characters from his closest circles and describes events inspired by his family’s history. Touching upon the extermination of Jews and events of March 1968, the story line attempts to refresh autobiographical writing with the help of form. The author reveals nuances of the writing process, and the way in which his family members want to influence it to present themselves in a favourable light.
The author of "Teoria ruchów Vorbla" / "The Theory of the Vorbl’s Moves", Tomasz Białkowski, does not tell a story of his own family but of three generations living in Olsztyn, where his other books are set. Thus, in this relatively short family saga, the spirit of place is of great importance. What the protagonists pass on to the next generations is not a specific set of values but a genetic tendency for eccentricity. Their weird behaviours account for the most eccentric and imaginative but at the same time psychologically credible book of last year.
In her book "Konik, szabelka" / "A Horse, a Sabre", Anna Nasiłowska presents an even more liberated approach to autobiographical themes. The writer deconstructs the myth of "a colourful uhlan", a Polish light cavalryman, by using her grandfather’s recollections and supplementing them with fictitious episodes utterly different from oral traditions idealizing soldiers. In any case, Nasiłkowska’s book seems to suggest that the past is not decisive in shaping our exceptionality. Interestingly enough, following the retrospective trend, the book also stands in a clear opposition to it.
Kaja Malanowska does not hide her true self behind the stories of others. To the contrary, in her new book "Imigracja" / "Immigration" she speaks in her own voice and derives ideas from her own life. It is true for the first part of the book, whereas the other part of the volume contains fictitious short stories told by a neurotic and sensitive narrator.
Another writer who does not conceal his identity is Michał Witkowski, who in "Drwal" / "Woodcutter" brings to life the character of Michaśka, this time not as a young writer cataloguing Polish homosexuality, but a more mature 'celebrity' who has grown jaded. In the novel, set in the resorts of the Polish seacoast but in the off-season, the narrator aims to write a crime story. The amount of Witkowski’s self-irony, sense of humour and bravado could benefit at least ten other writers. Furthermore, it is worth noticing that it is one of just a few interesting premieres, in which the journey to the past happens only episodically and such return has no major impact on the life of the main protagonist.
Other worlds of the past
Stefan Chwin’s "Panna Ferblin" / "Miss Ferblin" is set in Gdańsk, while the technique of staffage employed by the author suggests that the story takes place sometime before the war. The reality, however, is not as important as the travesty of Christ’s Passion. Stefan Chwin transforms Christ into a Teacher, who charged with organising an assassination follows the footsteps of his prototype, only to be saved at the very last moment by the title protagonist. Except for the ending, the plot is, well, predictable, but the war lingers, which is soon to change the fate of the protagonists, gives meaning to this peculiar descent on earth in a different place and time.
The Christian Passion can also be found in another volume of Elżbieta Cherezińska’s series "Północna Droga" / "The Northern Passage", in particular "Pasja według Einara" / "Einar’s Passion", a fictitious Scandinavian who converted to Christianity and became one of the first priests to baptise the North. What is worth mentioning alongside the passionate plot and original protagonist is the care with which the author reconstructs the world from thousands of years ago, focusing on the environment and spirit of the times, rather than particular individuals.
This is exactly the case of Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s "Bornholm. Bornholm" exploring the issue of "eternal masculinity", and with such an aim confronting two protagonists: one living somewhere in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and the other one in present times. Both of them desperately look for love and fail to find it in their closed ones. The record of their emotional struggle is the greatest advantage of this book.
And finally, Arkadiusz Pacholski’s "Niemra" / "A German Woman", a stormy story of a heroic girl, who becomes a volksdeutsche in order to help the Polish underground during the Second World War. The change of identity gives her more freedom to act and document the Nazi crimes in Kalisz. In this extensive, polyphonic novel, the author had enough space to describe the wartime reality and confront various attitudes or viewpoints. Perhaps instead of the epic flourish the writer could have offered a more profound insight to the drama of the protagonist, but it is still an accomplished work.
Małgorzata Szejnert sets out on a more distant journey both in terms of time and space. In "Dom żółwia" / "Home of the Turtle", the writer explores the history of Zanzibar getting the readers familiar with the stories of its former inhabitants: colonizers, abolitionists and rulers. Retrieving their stories from the walls of ruined buildings, the writer naturally passes on to the issue of reconstruction, which is paradoxically advocated by remote descendants of those who once arrived at the territory to conquer and exploit it.
Where are the new writers?
It would be an exaggeration to claim that the past year will pass into the history as having the fewest debuts. Yet in comparison with other years, there have been surprisingly few of them. It is difficult to believe that young writers haven’t knocked at the doors of publishing houses and that there have been so few worthy of presenting works to a wider audience. Anyhow, none of the debutants have electrified the media to the extent that they could finally announce the birth of 'a new Masłowska' whom everyone is waiting for.
Still, the names of three authors who shouldn’t be ashamed of their literary debuts are worth mentioning. Two of them are writers of short stories: Filip Surowiak presenting a well-constructed collection of short stories, "Wiązka" / "A Bunch", linked by a character of one narrator, a picturesque tramp, and Wojciech Albiński (an accidental coincidence of names not too fortunate for the young writer) who depicts the world of contemporary people in their thirties in his prose miniatures, collected in a book entitled "Przekąski – Zakąski" / "Snacks –Appetizers". And the protagonists of Natalia Bobrowska’s novel "Nikt nie jest samotną wyspą, ale wszyscy bardzo się staramy" / "No Man Is a Lonely Island, But We Have All Been Trying Hard" are younger by a decade, and even more confused.
In speaking of Magdalena Parys, one may call hers a mature debut since she turned forty this year. Her "Tunel" / "Tunnel" is an impressively crafted novel combining a thriller-like plot and a collective portrayal of Germans born during or right after the war. Putting herself in a foreign position has worked extremely well for the writer who lives in Berlin, and that is why I would point to Parys as the new 'hot' name worth remembering.
POLISH SKELETONS PARTLY FROM THE CLOSET
With regard to crime novel, the year 2011 will be mostly remembered for the fact that Zygmunt Miłoszewski, the author of the sensational, acclaimed "Uwikłanie" / "Entanglement", came back to the literary stage after a four-year absence. "Ziarno prawdy" / "A Grain of Truth" is another volume of the series on public prosecutor Teodor Szacki, who this time investigates serial killing that took place in the town of Sandomierz. The remembrance of the former inhabitants of Sandomierz, the Jews, makes an important context for the plot. By all means, I consider the continuation of the series to be much more than successful.
Two recent laureates of the High Calibre Award, Joanna Jodełka and Mariusz Czubaj, have also published new books this year. This time Jodełka has offered a psychological thriller, "Grzechotka" / "A Rattle", which aside from an attention-grabbing crime puzzle (the mysterious disappearance of a child) offers a colourful palette of protagonists. Czubaj continues to tell his multi-volume story about a police profiler, Rudolf Heinz, who this time solves two highly complicated cases. Both writers have proved that their awards were well-deserved.
Anna Fryczkowska has made her debut as a crime-fiction writer with her "Kobieta bez twarzy" / "A Faceless Woman", whose original protagonist, a female teacher, conducts her own investigation into deaths of several women. The story is set in a small, closed, rural community, a method hardly ever used by Polish writers.
While reviewing crime novels published last year, one cannot forget about the retro trend, still highly popular in Poland, and the more and more successful competitors of Marek Krajewski (who publishes a new novel every year, the latest being "Liczby Charona" / "The Numbers of Charon"). There is Ryszard Ćwirlej, the only Polish writer who reinterprets the former militia novel presenting the officers working in the 1980s from a completely new angle. Still, I am under the impression that the writer needn’t have provided "Mocne uderzenie" / "A Powerful Stroke" - whose greatest advantage is that it is set during the Jarocin rock music festival. The musical atmosphere is rendered brilliantly by Ćwirlej, with a cartoonish ending, alas.
I have saved for the finale an astonishing novel by Marcin Wroński, "A na imię jej będzie Aniela" / "And She Shall Be Named Aniela", the third volume of a series set in Lublin about a police officer, Zygmunt Maciejewski, who this time conducts an investigation in the times of war. Although the subject of a crime squad working in the times of mass killings was explored before (by Krajewski in "Festung Breslau"), it has not been shown from the perspective of a Polish investigator. Wroński’s work is an excellent example of the fact that popular literature can reach further than the highbrow stuff. In order to experience it on one’s own, it is worth challenging the common stereotypes, or reducing the distance between 'low' and 'high'.
Author of the original Polish text, Marta Mizuro. English version translated by Katarzyna Różańska and edited by Agnieszka Le Nart