Challenges for Polish Prose in the Nineties
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no-image, Challenges for Polish Prose in the Nineties
Content: Depict the world, oneself and the form | The Mimetic Challenge: seeking the truth, destroying and creating myths | Seeking the Truth about the World | Destruction of the Heroic Emigrant Myth | Destruction of the Polish Patriot Myth | Destruction of the Flawless Democracy Myth | Creation of Myths | Biographical challenge | Challenges of genre | Summary
||Depict the world, oneself and the form | The Mimetic Challenge: Seeking the Truth about the World - Destruction of the Heroic Emigrant Myth - Destruction of the Polish Patriot Myth - Destruction of the Flawless Democracy Myth - Creation of Myths | Biographical challenge | Challenges of genre: The Return of the Story - Parodying the Novel - Non-epic Prose - The Silva, or a Novel without Consequences | Summary
Depict the world, oneself and the form
The historical background of Polish literature at the turn of the century, i.e. in the first half of the nineties, was a period of time not favourable for the novel. On the one hand, because of significant historical events (the birth of Solidarity - the first independent trade union in the whole Soviet bloc, declaration of martial law on 13 December 1981), "making up things" was perceived with suspicion which helped the development of non-fictional literary genres. For that reason prose written in 1980-1986 is dominated by documentary genres, such as notes, reports, interviews, or personal documents such as diaries, memoirs, and the silva (or a narrative "mish-mash"). The novel, however, was in a state of considerable senility. On the other hand, the violence of the system, its open injustice and oppression the society faced during martial law, were a barrier to realism as those factors make it difficult for prose to fulfil a critical role, i.e. judge public life, tell people the truth and disclose embarrassing problems (alcoholism, demoralisation, corruption). The communist authorities did not allow any criticism - the reality they created could not have any weaknesses. Another factor which blocked criticism in novels was also the unwritten moral code, or the duty that literature assumed to oppose the lies of propaganda, support the weaker ones and be a testimony and tool of resistance against iniquities of the system. As a result, the principal role of literature, which is speaking the truth, became dangerously close to speaking the obvious (that socialism was bad, the government was alien and society was good). In addition, the main requirement of a writer's independence, which is continued criticism, took biased forms and simplified criteria of evaluation, on the other hand, ensured recognition for noble, though not necessarily outstanding literature.
The first symptoms of crisis appeared about the year 1986 and were reflected in discouragement with documentary genres, in a return to narrative forms and in the first signs of regenerating social criticism. However, the literature that emerged to the surface of free life after the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, neither had its own genres to propose, nor offered any diagnosis of the completed stage of history or, finally, had any ideas how to grasp the regularities of new life. That is the reason why the prose written in the nineties, as seen from the perspective of the year 2000, turns out to be more traditionalistic than innovative. It rather adapts old genres, than creates new ones, and finally it is reluctant to history from which it escapes into myth and nostalgia. Incapable of proposing new genres and a new language, the prose of that period searched the warehouses of narrative tradition in pursuit of answers to three basic challenges which the changed reality brought: mimetic, biographical and genre challenges. This means expecting the author to depict the world, himself and the form.
The Mimetic Challenge: seeking the truth, destroying and creating myths
To "depict the world" means to grasp what the present defines - what gives it a shape, determines its order and explains the meaning of existence. Such mimetic tasks of Polish prose in the last decade are governed by a conflict between writers' inclination to idealise the past, create myths, and the opposite inclination, i.e. to criticise the past, or destroy myths.
- Seeking the Truth about the World
Polish writers who, like writers in other former Soviet-bloc countries, opposed the idea of forgetting the wrongdoings of the past and drawing a thick line between the past and present, understood their writing mission as safeguarding the nation's past and recalling both the glorious and painful history. The prose they wrote tries to seek the truth to avoid obliteration of problems that, if forgotten, would impoverish or falsify the present. Although only in a few works, difficult Polish problems were addressed by writers in the nineties: the inhumanly complicated Polish-Jewish history Hanna Krall Sublokatorka / The Subtenant, Henryk Grynberg Drohobycz, Drohobycz, Wilhelm Dichter Koń Pana Boga / God's Horse, Szkoła bezbożników / Godless School, Roman Gren Krajobraz z dzieckiem / Landscape with a Child, Andrzej Szczypiorski Gra z ogniem / Playing with Fire, Marek Bieńczyk Tworki, the story of Polish prisoners in the Gulag archipelago Andrzej Kalinin I Bóg o nas zapomniał / Even God Has Forgotten Us, Piotr Bednarski Błękitne śniegi / Blue Snow, the heroism, opportunism and dishonesty of society in totalitarian times Janusz Krasiński Na stracenie / Going to Execution, Twarzą do ściany / Facing the Wall, Niemoc / Faintness. In general we may say that Poles, who like people in western Europe are now developing mild amnesia, caused, for example, by compliance with the ideology of "novelties", do not need only prose which remembers the distant past, but also one which presents mechanisms of history. Such a literary reflection on history makes us aware that history, contrary to what Fukuyama said, has neither come to an end, nor happens by itself. Quite the opposite: history is still changed - by us as we determine its course through our unconscious borrowing of models from various sources. This is depicted splendidly in novels entitled Sny i kamienie / Dreams and Stones and W czerwieni / In Red by Magdalena Tulli. In the latter book its author presents the apparently distant, but in fact identical to ours, world which carries out fundamental truths of real history: in this world the commonest human attitudes to life (e.g., efforts to get a woman, property, influences) are transformed into everybody's history (birth of social classes, outbreaks of wars, flow of money). At the same time it turns out these attitudes are only an imitation of some base artistic genres (such as novels about high life, romance, operetta). In other words, our present is like the library we carry in our heads.
- Destruction of the Heroic Emigrant Myth
Polish prose of the nineties - critical, vindictive, rebellious and acutely honest, also judges various myths. In the seventies and eighties, myths (e.g. of the Pole-patriot, honesty, heroism...) were an integral part of Polish national awareness. They helped people to oppose the totalitarian system and beautified reality, however, wandering away from it. Prose in its search of truth about the world, undertook the task to demythologise reality. Chronologically, the earliest were texts whose authors turned against idealistic images of Polish emigrants' lives.
In earlier Polish literature there are many outstanding works critical about Poles who emigrated to other countries. Trans-Atlantyk / The Trans -Atlantic Ship by Witold Gombrowicz, Jezioro Bodeńskie by Stanisław Dygat, Turyści z bocianich gniazd / Tourists from Stork-Nests by Czesław Straszewicz, Szkice piórkiem / Drawing-Pen Sketches by Andrzej Bobkowski, Londyniszcze by Stanisław Cat Mackiewicz and Moniza Clavier by Sławomir Mrożek are all works which used unrealistic or true facts about emigration to show the condensed Polishness, created to show off, playing the role of armour protecting from foreign influence , but also those Polish characteristics that make it difficult for a Pole to be a human being. Prose which challenged this kind of Polishness, assumed the form of brutal grotesque, stripping more and more masks our compatriots put on in order to become more important, to stop bothering about finding a meaning in their own lives, or finally to have instant explanations of their actions.
Writers of the nineties only partially continued the critical heritage of their predecessors because their attack was focused primarily not on the Polishness model, but on a set of naive ideas about emigrant life. Those ideas, closer to dreams than the truth, are always embedded in the awareness of nations that did not succeed in history. The poor, humiliated and in bondage, know there is a richer world somewhere else, a world friendly to people and free. Therefore they pass on stories of far-off happy lands, where it is easy to earn money, where the state cares about every citizen and where freedom is accompanied by justice. The harder it was to live in the socialist Poland (and certainly also in Bulgaria, Romania, the Soviet Union... ), the brighter colours characterised pictures of life in western Europe, the USA, Canada, or Australia.
Even in the eighties the wave of Polish emigrants rose, strengthened by such myths, but also urged by the growing poverty and political oppression in the country ruled by communists. Myths embodied dreams and mystified the real world which is why the literature of the nineties decided to destroy those myths about happy, rich and dignified emigration. The anti-heroic epic of life in exile, composed of more than ten books, and in many parts similar to Miodrag Bulatovic's famous novel called The Four-Fingered People, or Werner Herzog's film Stroszek, told a story of people who had experienced the bitter truth about emigration. These works portrayed economic emigrants debased by the worst type of labour who renounced their great principles for little money Edward Redliński, Dolorado, Szczuropolacy / Rat-Poles, political trimmers playing roles of martyrs Jacek Kaczmarski Autoportret z kanalią / Self-Portrait With a Scoundrel, new citizens of new countries, greedy, demoralised, spiritually devastated, who "spit love" at their former compatriots (Krzysztof Maria Załuski Tryptyk bodeński, Szpital Polonia, and finally the lost young people who left their country for no reason and live depressing lives in foreign countries without a goal. Janusz Rudnicki Można żyć / You Can Live, Piotr Siemion Niskie łąki / Low Meadows. Those works reveal the most unflattering portrait of Poles presented to date in our literature, a depressing picture that anticipated the emergence of a supra-generation mentality the essence of which is defined by crumbled morality, festive identity and a craving for quick money.
- Destruction of the Polish Patriot Myth
A separate subject category of texts written in the nineties includes works that showed the reality of residents in a country which became once again democratic after fifty years. The presentation of the present had to be preceded by a judgement of anti-communist opposition whose members, after the political victory in 1989, sometimes used their glorious past to assume high positions in the cabinet and draw material profits and some, to give a milder example, described their past works in idealistic memoirs. Janusz Anderman's novel Choroba więzienna / Prison Disease clearly opposed such heroic books. The novel presents a story of a former "intern" (the word was used to call people interned in confinement camps during martial law introduced by the communist government in 1981) who is not able to find a place for himself in the democratic Poland. The nature of his "disease" is that he extensively idealises the past. The symptoms of this condition are: thinking that a prison past gives a person special rights (according to the rule that the winner takes it all) and a conviction that a patriotic past will transform itself automatically into a reasonable programme for present life. The most dangerous syndrome of prison disease was, however, an escape from the present freedom - from the requirement to manage the practical aspects of freedom - into the past, or the time when freedom was an object of dreams.
The most noteworthy example of judging the myths of Polish national awareness in the eighties was provided in a novel by Jerzy Pilch entitled Spis cudzołożnic / A List of Adulteresses in which the author showed the Polish tragic grotesque of "post-martial law" - life torn between sublime patriotic duties and down-to-earth everyday life, between the pathos of history's drama and trivial normality. Poles in those days (a time of unbearable "suspension" after termination of martial law) lived under pressure exerted by two contradictory forces which gripped their lives like a pair of pincers. On the one hand, it was the force of the Polish patriotic tradition which ordered Poles to fight for freedom, conspire, oppose violence and always declare for freedom. On the other hand, there was pressure from ordinary, everyday life which, contrary to the pathos of history, forces you to queue up to buy toilet tissue, which demands a glass of vodka and forbids you to risk too much, leaving brave deeds for heroes who died a long time ago. As a result, as Pilch demonstrated in his novel, an average intellectual in the mid-1980s was ashamed of his everyday life and at the same time had no courage (or opportunity) to prove his heroism. He did not want to fight but also could not lead a normal life. Garrulousness turned out to be a compromise solution for the main protagonist of Pilch's novel - the uncontrollable talkativeness which replaced the need for heroism and simultaneously gave the common (and also adulterous) thoughts and works the necessary portion of superiority. Pilch's prater told an incessant story in one style, passing without difficulties form memories of the Polish nation's martyrdom to memories of his erotic conquests when he was a student, from descriptions of places where he fought the totalitarian system to pictures of his own alcoholic longings. Owing to the irony in the novel and the ability to combine conflicting styles, Pilch joined the group of such writers as Gombrowicz, Dygat and Konwicki - who ridiculed the Polish destiny of greatness because of which every twenty years history called the Polish nation to fight for great things and deprived ordinary life of a decent language. Therefore Pilch offered his reader the most important thing - grotesque as a method to free oneself from language fetters. Moreover, his novel, just like the works of Janusz Rudnicki Można żyć, Cholerny świat / Bloody World, Tam i z powrotem po tęczy / To and Fro On the Rainbow proved that writers in the new context could, besides playing the role of a craftsman play also the role of jesters or clowns, mocking commentator of social life and practitioners of neutrality.
- Destruction of the Flawless Democracy Myth
Criticism expressed in Polish prose of the nineties was also focused on the awareness of Polish society during the breakthrough. That awareness was permeated with understandable, but unachievable myths. As all other nations of the new free Europe, Poles dreamed of fair capitalism, stable democracy and culture with a wise hierarchical order. They dreamed of a society which, despite market competition, will not lose human solidarity. They dreamed of politicians who will remember the injustice of the old system and serve justice, of good that will triumph and of brave policemen who will always prove stronger than evil. Prose targeted at myths associated with democracy, was biased, to a large extent unjust, and mediocre in literary terms. At the same time it was needed because the criticism in it made people aware the transformation of the system had caused changes in the mentality of those who participated in the transformation. .Subsequent works showed cracks in all community ties caused by the pressure of the wild free-market economy Marek Nowakowski Homo Polonicus, Grecki bożek / Greek God, they showed how the society goes into a political madness of divisions, quarrels and proliferation of various parties Tadeusz Konwicki Czytadło, how various comedians and sly foxes create appearances of a new economy Piotr Wojciechowski Szkoła wdzięku i przetrwania / School of Grace and Survival, or how more and more citizens are choosing crime as a model of life and way of getting money Andrzej Stasiuk Dziewięć / Nine. The social interests of prose written in the nineties produced an overall result in the definitely negative, satirical, almost black picture of the new class at the early stage of its development. Its representatives identify more and more goals in life (wealth, influences, power, prestige) and choose mafia-like methods to accomplish those goals.
The "little society", or family, became another new interest of Polish prose of the nineties. In several novels, which in a few cases were an open polemic with the myth that idealised Polish families, their authors mercilessly criticised family relations and hierarchies, education models and aberrations, as well as the lack of tolerance and the practical and traumatic effects of upbringing Zyta Rudzka Białe klisze / White Film, Izabela Filipiak Absolutna amnezja / Total Amnesia, Kinga Dunin Tabu / Taboo, Obciach, Małgorzata Saramonowicz Siostra / Sister, Małgorzata Holender Klinika lalek / Doll Hospital. These works, although they oscillate between a pastoral and horror story, between being didactic and biased, are a significant element of contemporary prose. First, they constitute one of the few types of literary involvement which produces works interesting from the cognitive point of view (or even shocking) and very much like novels in the formal sense. Second, they question established family models. Family prose in this way becomes an element of the present, common and very dramatic search for new social coexistence models which are not based on violence, accepted by the general public, sustainable and valuable.
- Creation of Myths
At the opposite pole to the one of works which destroy Polish myths, in the prose written over the past decade there are novels which idealise the past and look back on it nostalgically. Their authors build a mythical atmosphere, as if invoking the spirit of myths, and at the same time create their own myths which are a mixture of legends, epic poems and mythologies of different origin. They also freely use elevated literary traditions of the epic, myth and saga. These tools are used to present all experiences - of childhood, adolescence, first love and "little homeland". First of all, however, they create worlds which are completely different than the present. Novels in this vein refer very often to a mythical land the author has kept in an idealistic recollection of childhood, or remembers from grandparents' tales. This ground, as opposed to today's wastelands, urban deserts or metropolitan jungles, is saturated in every fragment with a meaning which it generously bestows onto its inhabitants. Every -patch of this ground is familiar, full of inner order, kind to people and life. It brings harmony between man and nature, is friendly and sublime. Its beauty is concrete and at the same time it teaches us how to live in space - it is like glass through which eternity shines. This is a description of Tadeusz Konwicki's Bohin in Vilnius, a portrait of Zamość in novels by Piotr Szewc Zagłada / Extermination and Zmierzchy i poranki / Twilights and Mornings, of Stefan Chwin's Krótka historia pewnego żartu / A Short History of a Joke and Paweł Huelle's Gdańsk Weiser Dawidek, Opowiadania na czas przeprowadzki / Stories For the Time of Moving, Pierwsza miłość i inne opowiadania / First Love and Other Stories. It is a picture of Wrocław as seen by Andrzej Zawada Breslau, of Kuromęki in Podolia in the novel Biały kamień / White Stone by Anna Bolecka, of Jerzy Pilch's home village in Silesia near Cieszyn in the novels Inne rozkosze / Other Delights and Tysiąc spokojnych miast / A Thousand Peaceful Cities, of villages in the Beskidy mountains in Andrzej Stasiuk's Opowieści galicyjskie / Galician Tales, of the pre-historic age created by Olga Tokarczuk Prawiek i inne czasy / Prawiek and Other Times, of Sandomierz charmingly coded by Wiesław Myśliwski in his great novel Widnokrąg / The Horizon, it is a portrait of Sciegi in Magdalena Tulli's parable In Red.
Most of these specific "little homelands" - rescued and recorded by writers - fell to pieces in the past due to History which banished Jews from Zamość Piotr Szewc Zmierzchy i poranki, Germans from Wrocław Andrzej Zawada Breslau, and Poles from pre-war eastern Poland Anna Bolecka White Stone. Today "little homelands" are no longer threatened by History which comes from the outside, but by intolerance dormant in an individual. This probably finds strongest expression in novels by Stefan Chwin in which their author, using the example of pre-war Gdansk Hanemann and Warsaw in the early 20th century Esther shows that in a multi-ethnic community there is as much hatred as many differences. Openness to another person, on the one hand, and intolerance, on the other one, are not therefore alternative social models, but two forces co-existing in every human being and thus present in every community.
Yet the opposite attitude of tolerance also proves to be a force that threatens contemporary "little homelands". Multiplication of differences, multiethnic communities, accumulation of dissimilarities in one space fosters not so much tolerance, but indifference and instead of consolidating a community, it leads to division into separate individuals. Such atomised communities, split by tens of insignificant differences, are endangered by the third force which destroys little homelands - sameness. Today these homelands are not facing the threat of ideology as previously, or of an expansive state or crushing roller of nationalism, but of unification tendencies which occur in the whole culture. Włodzimierz Kowalewski's Arcadia described in the novel Powrót do Breitenheide / Return to Breitenheide, the Galicia in People's Poland from Andrzej Stasiuk's Galician Tales, the Kashubian Atlantis of the North created by Zbigniew Zakiewicz in Ujrzane, w czasie zatrzymane / Seen, Stopped in Time do not lose in the duel against history, but perish in silent, unnoticeable, and free-of- bloodshed combat against a culture of no differences, boutiques, news-stands with colour magazines, Macdonald's restaurants, supermarkets, the same advertisements and international folklore. There is no oppression, violence, or compulsion in this culture, no rationed freedom and forbidden local identity. The destructive force is in convenience, standardisation and lack of problems.
When a new generation comes onto the literary stage, older writers must in a way introduce themselves to the audience again. The nineties paradoxically equalised the chances of younger and older writers. As a result of the changed situation and the conspicuous time boundary of the year 1989, everybody could, and in a sense had to, start over.
Some older writers, e.g. Kazimierz Orłoś Niebieski szklarz / The Blue Glazier, or Julian Kornhauser Dom, sen i gry dziecięce / The House, Dream and Children's Games took this opportunity and used their childhood experiences in order to extend their earlier image of "writers involved in social problems". Their works joined a larger group of novels concentrated on biographies and approaching them within the framework of a story of initiation which became a real literary fashion in the nineties. Initiation novels, well established in European literature, owing to German writers (from Goethe to Thomas Mann and Gunter Grass) are narratives about adolescence, about crossing the threshold of adult age, leaving the state of innocence for the stage of sin and experience. The initiation model in recent Polish prose was basically applied in two ways. In the first one, saturated with autobiographical elements, as in Lata nauki Wilhelma Meistra Goethego / The School Years of William Master Goethe, the writers used the educational fiction tradition to present the dramatic process of adolescence, often accelerated by politics. The process was preventing disintegration of a biography into separate stages The author's literary ability to return without limitations to bygone times is the effect of this process and the only force which prevents disintegration of his biography into separate stages. Such examples in Polish literature of this decade are numerous: Paweł Huelle's Weiser Dawidek, Opowiadanie na czas przeprowadzki, Pierwsza miłość i inne opowiadania; Aleksander Jurewicz Lida, Pan Bóg nie słyszy głuchych / God Does Not Hear the Deaf, Krótka historia pewnego żartu / A Short History of a Joke by Stefan Chwin seems the most valuable of those works. This autobiographical essay is an attempt to return in a narrative to the land of childhood - Gdansk right after World War II. Chwin who reconstructs a child's perspective, presents his childhood as a process of uncovering more and more time strata which made up the Gdansk reality. Contrary to what adults say, it was not a homogeneous reality. It was not only and always Polish, unambiguous and basically secular, but it consisted of many layers. It was composed of various cultures which the child gradually discovered (German, Polish), of various denominations (Protestant and Catholic) and opposing aesthetic approaches (Stalin, Hitler, Burghers). The child-narrator who confronted these approaches, discovered also his own method for unprejudiced contact with the world. That contact could not be dominated by any ideology. That contact resulted in the discovery of one area which is resistant to ideological manipulation - beauty. It is real beauty, or one which gives itself to the individual, i.e. inspires his ability to commune unselfishly with life, and thus enables acceptance of the pain of existence - of the accidental nature of history and never-ending process of learning the world. Precisely this lesson learned in childhood, this art of interpreting the real world, allows the adult author to go back to any moment in the past (just like we can go back to the books we once read) and lets him keep his childlike ability to be amazed at the world.
The other model of the initiation novel is more fictional Tomek Tryzna Panna Nikt / Miss Nobody, Manuela Gretkowska Kabaret metafizyczny / Metaphysical Cabaret, Olga Tokarczuk Podróż ludzi księgi / The Journey of the People of the Book and E.E, Andrzej Stasiuk Biały kruk / White Crow and Przez rzekę / Crossing the River, Izabela Filipiak Absolutna amnezja / Total Amnesia and adds elements typical of a thriller, mystery or crime story and adventure novel, to the prose of development. It shows two stages in a biography (the stage before and after initiation) and radically exalts the stage of innocence above the stage of maturity. This model, as in the novel by Jerome D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye, or in the work by Günter Grass The Tin Drum, has taken the form of anti-educational prose which depreciates social (school, family) compulsion of maturity and its effects as well as stresses the irreversible loss of youth as a value in itself.
These two groups of novels revealed a frequently mixed-type of diagnosis of a contemporary protagonist's identity. The basic change in the definition of identity which occurred after 1989, was that the Polishness, understood as an answer to the question "Who are you?", has lost its obviousness. Therefore this identity started undergoing more modifications and to a large extent was replaced by local identity associated with the "little homeland". Thus, if someone did not want to answer the question by saying "I'm Polish", one could say: "I'm Silesian", "I'm from Wielkopolska", "I'm Kashubian..." (as a French person may more specifically describe his identity and say he is Breton, or Alsatian, a Spaniard may say he is Catalonian or Basque, a German may say he is Bavarian, a Belgian may say he is Walloon or Flemish). And what if someone does not feel any attachment to either a big, or little homeland? Then such a person is not rooted anywhere.
A protagonist with no roots is the most original invention of recent prose and its most alarming element. This protagonist appeared in lengthy works which sometimes restore the grotesque tradition, which are hybrids that mix a plot with an essay, which often present stories of Polish expats. Their protagonists are people who understood at some point that every type of attachment - to one's country, religion, customs, or even language - restrains their lives. Thus they experienced the epiphany of separating themselves from their roots - from the birthplace, tradition, faith and customs. Individual writers pointed to various reasons for the lack of roots: the hypocritical and compulsory patriotism which destroyed genuine national ties (Manuela Gretkowska My zdies' emigranty, Izabela Filipiak Total Amnesia, barbarian upbringing (Krzysztof Maria Załuski Tryptyk bodeński, Szpital Polonia, deliberate loss of national characteristics in the hasty efforts to assimilate as soon as possible in the foreign country (Zbigniew Kruszyński Schwedenkrauter, Bronisław Świderski Słowa obcego / The Alien's Words. However, the most typical man with no roots (we will find him in novels by Gretkowska Tarot paryski / Paris Tarot, Kabaret metafizyczny, Podręcznik do ludzi / A Textbook on People, Filipiak Śmierć i spirala / Death and Spiral, also by Natasza Goerke Fractale, Ksiega pasztetów / Paté Book, Pożegnanie plazmy / Farewell to Plasma and by Marek Bieńczyk Terminal is the one who chose his situation of being an alien in his birthplace and every new place of his residence. He made this decision in a world in which nobody is "local", or "native", which residents of multinational cities know well. Therefore everybody is an alien there. In this world, where it is as simple to convert oneself from Buddhism to Judaism as undergo plastic surgery and changing one's sex is a surgeon's, not God's task, the protagonist with no roots got used to the experience of being alien and discovered that he could become anybody - he could choose a new faith, language and customs because each of these sets of values is a superficial layer of a human being (or because no change goes as deep as the soul, or because man has no soul). The protagonist with no roots perceives standards and values of social life as possible, but never necessary or absolute. He always treats goals which constrain him on an ad-hoc basis. The freedom ahead he can see is experienced as something thrilling and ecstatic - something which gives him a chance for a totally new, independent creation of his own identity.
Challenges of genre
The poles of European prose in the eighties and nineties seem to extend from Umberto Eco who proposes a multi-genre pastiche, to Milan Kundera who creates digressional novels. Polish literature enriches this combination.
- The Return of the Story
The first observable trend in the selection of form in prose written in the late eighties was the return of the story. In previous decades it appeared, this refers not only to Polish prose, that literature was not capable of telling a story. The prose of the nineties was (on publication of books by Paweł Huelle Weiser Dawidek, Max Lars, alias Stefan Chwin Człowiek-litera / Letter-Man, Ludzie-skorpiony / Scorpion-People revived by the spirit of unrestrained making up and telling stories, using interesting events in composition of novels. Obviously, the purpose of the plot was not only to attract the reader, the story was not only a way of making narration more attractive and arranging events in an order, it was also intended as a vehicle of important contents. Even if such depth was missing, however, the right choice made by the Lust zu fabulieren was confirmed by the success of writers who considered the novel and story to be inseparable. The literary audience in the eighties did not spare applause for important prose, involved in politics, for documentary, not very literary works. But that audience gave their hearts to writers whose novels were based on popular fiction models. This explains why greatest popularity was the works of Andrzej Szczypiorski Początek, noc, dzień, noc / Beginning, Night, Day, Night, Amerykańska whisky / American Whisky, Autoportret z kobietą / Self-Portrait With a Woman, or Maria Nurowska Hiszpańskie oczy / Spanish Eyes, Postscriptum / Postscript, Panny i wdowy / Maidens and Widows enjoyed greatest popularity. The fact that the storyis the most effective way to attract readers was additionally evidenced by the most spectacular writing career of the eighties and nineties - the career of Andrzej Sapkowski. This most famous Polish writer of fantasy, author of a saga in five parts about witchman Geralt, published his first story entitled Wiedźmin in 1986 in a small number of copies. Ten years later the number of copies of his subsequent works published abroad emulated the success of books by Stanisław Lem (one of the greatest science-fiction writers in the world who, however, devoted himself totally to essay-writing in the nineties). Sapkowski made a real hole in the wall that tightly encircled the ghetto of literary fantasy understood as a lesser genre - strongly commercialised and thus easy to write, purely entertaining and unimportant. In his works, which are conventional in terms of narration, but attractive in their plots and showing extraordinary vivid imagination and rich language, Sapkowski originally drew upon Slavic mythology, but later began to turn his narratives into apocryphal prose, added to the legends and myths of medieval Europe (particularly to the legends of King Arthur). That prose exceeded the fantasy convention and was intended as a morality play-like parable of the controversy between good and evil.
It was, e.g., Sapkowski's popularity as a clear signal of longing for "legible literature" and the advantages of classical narration noticed by new writers, that determined the universal return to the story in prose written in the nineties. There appeared novels with affinities to popular fiction - mainly crime stories (Tadeusz Konwicki In, Czytadło, Paweł Huelle Weiser Dawidek, Andrzej Stasiuk White Crow, Stefan Chwin Hanemann, Antoni Libera Madame), thrillers (Sister by Małgorzata Saramonowicz), romance (Marek Bieńczyk Terminal, Włodzimierz Odojewski Oksana), ghost story (Olga Tokarczuk E.E, Christian Skrzyposzek Mojra), and detective story (Gustaw Herling-Grudziński Gorący oddech pustyni / Hot Breath of the Desert, Biała noc miłości / White Night of Love. The crime story and romance conventions which prevail in this group seem a separate regularity of Polish prose of the nineties resulting from the transformation of the world into a mystery (crime story) and from reconsideration of the so-far images of human relationships (romance). The return of the story, the triumphant entrance of the plot into the novel, took place, however, in the style of pastiche which allowed writers to go beyond conventions, to introduce, e.g. into a crime story, some reflections or digressions concerned with critical issues such as: attitudes towards the incognisable (Huelle) the meaning of the present (Konwicki), the possibility of understanding the world (Tokarczuk), the conflict between the rational and irrational (Skrzyposzek), chances to overcome the gloomy heritage of the past (Odojewski), or the mysteries of melancholy (Bieńczyk, Chwin, Libera).
- Parodying the Novel
The story was not the only solution to the formal problems of prose. Two different tendencies emerged in the nineties. The first was simply to parody the novel (Paweł Dunin-Wasowicz Rewelaja, Marcin Wroński Obsesyjny motyw babiego lata / The Obsessive Indian Summer Motif, Andrzej Tuziak Księga zaklęć / A Book of Spells, Cezary Domarus Caligari Express, Marek Gajdziński Głowa konia / The Head of a Horse, Anna Burzyńska Fabulantant). Those writers questioned principal elements of the story, emphasising the conventional nature of the plot, the apparent cause-effect relations between events, artificiality of the requirement to build the plot and all protagonists. Their works showed the novel as a genre incapable of hiding its own fictional character and extricating itself from never-ending intertextual entanglements. They presented the novel as a genre which is mimetically helpless and deepens the artificiality of communication with the reader, an obsolete and limited genre.
They were mostly deliberately spoilt works, full of digressions and comments on novel-writing. They found satisfaction in destroying all elements of prose which may serve creation of illusions. They were intended to be parodistic.
- Non-Epic Prose
A non-epic prose model turned out to be another way of avoiding the story. In this model, which had a rich tradition in pre-war Polish prose (Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz), and at the same time is well-known to European literature (from and digressional narratives by Cervantes and Sterne to poems in prose by Lautreamont or Gide), the author uses poetic style and sometimes combines novel and poem forms. The plot in such works is not governed a sequence of adventures, but rather by lexical associations. If a narrator appears, the author grants him mainly a right to interrupt the story as he wishes, to depart from the main plot, to subordinate events to a commentary, digression, or play with associations. These characteristics may be found in works by Marek Bieńczyk Terminal, Tworki, Natasza Goerke Fractale, Paté Book, Aleksander Jurewicz Lida, God Does Not Hear the Deaf, Zbigniew Kruszyński Schwedenkrauter, Szkice historyczne, Jerzy Pilch Inne rozkosze, Tysiąc spokojnych miast, Zyta Rudzka Białe klisze, Uczty i głody / Feasts and Hungers, Grzegorz Strumyk Zagłada fasoli / Extermination of Beans, Kino-Lino, Tadeusz Komendant Lustro i kamień / The Mirror and the Stone, Jakub Szaper (real name: Jakub Bulanda) Narogi i patrochy, Magdalena Tulli Sny i kamienie, In Red.
The two prose models - one using a plot, the other using poetic language - have one feature in common. They both intend to narrate a story. But while in the former model this leads to a plot which abounds in events, in the latter model all this energy is targeted at something else: at slowing down things, in which Pilch (retardation), Bieńczyk (digression) and Chwin (description) are masters, at using single metaphors to develop general stories (Tulli), at revealing literary and language borrowings in reconstruction of the past (Jurewicz), or at a description of the world as a sum of languages we use in the act of calling things.
- The Silva, or a Novel without Consequences
The silva, or z "mish-mash" narrative, seems the most interesting and difficult to interpret formal choice in Polish prose of the nineties, known also to European prose. The silva belongs to the informal writing tradition. This means a work written in this style does not constitute any thematic, generic, or aesthetic whole. Narration develops here by accident, it is stimulated by associations, memories, and mainly opportunities. As a result, the silva appears to be an anthology of chances in the narration which come up during writing. A work close to the novel may contain a portrait, anecdote, sketch, essay, short story, micro-drama, commentary, picture, or record of an idea for a masterpiece. In books by Tadeusz Konwicki Pamflet na siebie / A Pamphlet on Myself, Manuela Gretkowska Tarot paryski, Kabaret metafizyczny, Anna Nasiłowska Domino, Traktat o narodzinach / A Treatise on Birth, Zbigniew Zakiewicz Ujrzane, w czasie zatrzymane, Czesław Miłosz Abecadło / The ABC, Inne abecadło / Another ABC, Piesek przydrożny, Andrzej Stasiuk Dukla, Olga Tokarczuk Dom dzienny, dom nocny, Krzysztof Rutkowski Pasaże poetyckie / Poetic Promenades, Raptularz końca wieku / Fin-de-Siècle Household Book, Smierć w wodzie / Death In Water, Paweł Huelle Inne historie, the author's free statement is every time placed within the limits of conspicuous order. The order may manifest itself through an alphabet (Miłosz), treatise (Stasiuk, Tokarczuk), chain (Gretkowska, Kabaret metafizyczny), or non-literary arrangement (the composition of Tarot paryski reflects the sequence of tarot cards; Huelle gives some fragments numbers and combines them into configurations with references). Consequently, the silva plays an interesting role in literature by showing through its structure the arbitrariness of every order and making the reader aware that no whole, both in terms of a complete utterance and genre system, is possible at the turn of the 20th century. The silva itself defines one-time coherence standards of composition, genre and aesthetics, but is also considerably disciplined both in its intellectual content, and composition. As a result, the silva comments on and contests every order - in the world and literature. It shows that in every order there is a morsel of cosmic harmony but also a grain of utopia which leads to violence.
The prose of the nineties has developed several distinct strategies which may be followed as a tradition by the successors. The first strategy is based on the use of the classical story and clear-cut genre patterns (including also popular fiction) to make it easier for the reader to consider important subjects (e.g. Olga Tokarczuk's Prawiek i inne czasy, a family or initiation novel deploying the sensational novel convention, also - based on the mystery pattern - metaphysical stories by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński Wieża i inne opowiadania / The Spire and Other Stories, Gorący oddech pustyni, Dom Ildebrando, Biała noc miłości). The second strategy, which refers to the tradition of poetic prose, uses non-fabular patterns of story development. Such patterns are inherent in the lexical associations mechanism (Kruszyński, Tulli), in the approach to events as a pretext to make digressions (Pilch, Bieńczyk), or are treated as a foundation for description and philosophical reflection (Chwin). The retardation of narration achieved in these ways is to give aesthetic delight but also to make the reader aware that the world becomes legible only when we notice its textual nature and if we treat literature as the most complete instrument enabling cognition of existence (as literature is unselfish). The third strategy, based on the silva, goes back to an earlier tradition of informal writing (texts not committed to any clear subject, genre, or aesthetics) and at the same time instead of completely unpredictable narration it suggests several reading orders. Owing to this strategy the silva proves to be the most inclusive type of narration which fosters creation of texts audacious from the cognitive and sophisticated from the literary points of view.
Between the pastiche and the silva - these seem to be the poles of the novel in Polish prose on the threshold of the 21st century.
Author: Przemysław Czapliński, 2001