To be a reporter is not a profession, it’s a state of mind and a lifestance, Mariusz Szczygieł claims in an interview for the Polish Press Agency. One of Poland’s most vivid journalists is the editor-in-chief of a voluminous collection entitled 100/XX. An Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportage. The two-part book arrives in stores across Poland, numbering over 1800 pages and weighing a total of three kilograms
Mariusz Szczygieł, photo: Krzysztof Kuczyk / Forum
Agata Szwedowicz (PAP Polish Press Agency): What was the definition of reportage you used when selecting pieces for this anthology?
Mariusz Szczygieł.: We decided to label as "reportage" texts created with the purpose of accounting for something, of delivering information about people, as well as events (the Latin word reporto means "I bring back"). The decisive factor was a writer’s intention, rather than the fact of a text getting published by the press. For example, the anthology includes a text by Perec Opoczyński, a journalist who worked as a postman in the Warsaw ghetto. His reportage accounts were created without the slightest chance of being printed, apparently with no addressee, without any concrete aim, and they were stored in milk cans that he buried in the ghetto. These texts were preserved in the Ringenblum archives. Opoczyński’s case proves one can be a reporter even without a newspaper, and that it is a certain state of the mind. Being a reporter is a personality, a nature, a lifestance – not a position.
The anthology seems to depict the history of 20th century Polish reportage as a tale of combating censorship. Before the establishment of Polish independence [in 1918], one could not even dream of freedom of speech. But it turns out things weren’t much different in the Second Republic either.
In 1938, Zbigniew Mitzner wrote about a transit camp in Zbąszynie founded for Polish Jews cast out of Nazi Germany. In his text, there is a clear trace of censorship by the Sanacja movement. Mitzner could not describe what was really happening: the fact that Polish authorities kept these people on the border in absolutely horrible conditions, in spite of them being Polish citizens who had rights to property in the country. Censorship was very strong at the time. The press received notes from the Prime Minister warning them that too strong a critique of the authorities could result in the closing down of the paper, and deportation of its editors-in-chief to the Bereza Kartuska prison. Mitzner would later comment "I cast a mist of allusion over this text". Afterwards, it was the period of Nazi occupation, when writing was generally impossible, and later on the Polish People’s Republic, wherein game with censorship was an everyday activity. Only the last decade included in the anthology is a period with freedom of speech.
How did the situation of constant oppression influence Polish reportage?
In the words of Małgorzata Szejnert: when it was generally impossible to write, one would write particularly, in minute detail, and the readership would infer [the text’s latent meaning] themselves. Texts had a "double bottom" [the Polish expression commonly used to describe a hidden subtext]. For example, in 1988 Marek Rymuszko wrote a reportage about a street in Warsaw called Polish (Polska) – an alley that runs among wild bush and thistles by the Vistula river, and ends at the crossroads of Eastern and Pineapple streets. This reportage that can be read as a metaphoric portrait of Poland, stuck between the "East" and "Pineapples". It is an example of the proximity between reportage and poetry. Very different kinds of texts can be considered reportage – letters, stories, journal entries.
Your choices are at times rather unexpected. A reader of the 100/XX anthology would search in vain for any of the classics.
This was precisely my intention. Hanna Krall’s Shielding the Flame and Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions are both on compulsory school reading lists. Ryszard Kapuściński’s books are constantly available in bookstores, so we also did not draw from either the [classic] Emperor or The Shadow of the Sun. However, the anthology does include a text often mentioned in Kapuściński’s biographies. To też jest prawda o Nowej Hucie (This Is Also A Truth About Nowa Huta) is considered his break-through piece, but it remains very little known. In 1955, Sztandar Młodych [a Polish journal called Banner of Youth] sent Kapuściński to Nowa Huta. He was supposed to check whether Adam Ważyk’s Poemat dla dorosłych (Adult Poem) depicted the truth [about Poland’s industrial southern town near Kraków, founded as an ideal of communist propaganda]. Kapuściński confirmed Ważyk’s dramatic image of an existential rock bottom, and also added a couple of his own observations. After the publication of this text, he spent time hiding out in the Nowa Huta workers' homes. But in the end, the authorities decided it would be more tactful to fire the Nowa Huta Steel Mill managers and present Kapuściński with a medal. It was also then that they started to send Kapuściński overseas, so that he would sharpen his pen on the description of foreign countries [rather than his own].
It was Kapuściński who said that reportage had the power of changing the world. Do the two volumes of the anthology include any reportage that has changed something?
Yes. There is the reportage by Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina, known mostly as an author of children’s books and a poet. One day she found out that in Kobrynie, present day Belarus, a drumhead court martial was held over peasants from the village who had apparently attempted to tear a piece of Polish land away, in order to incorporate it as part of Belarussia. They were threatened with the death penalty. Szelburg-Zarembina went to this trial and she wrote a very strong text about it, entitled Myjcie owoce! (Wash the fruit!) for the Wiadomości Literackie magazine. In it, she depicted how absurd the functioning of jurisdiction was at the time. She did not assume that the peasants were innocent, but she believed that if they were indeed at risk of capital punishment, then they deserved a real trial. Following her text, Polish writers submitted a protest, and it was efficient because the capacities of drumhead court martials were altered. This was the great success of this reportage. The anthology includes more examples of texts that did have the power to change the world.
An author is not always that ambitious…
Of course. Reporters often begin writing in order to note their observations, to analyse people’s intentions, as well as their behaviour. The anthology comprises different types of reportage. From traveller’s notes, interventions, to somebody’s portraits, such as Krystyna Jagiełło’s story about the teacher of Krystian Zimmerman. It is a great reportage, devoid of tension and corpses, with no antagonists or clashing rights. It is simply a story about a good pedagogue. The capacity of writing such a calm, positive text that does not bore the reader requires great skill.
What other types of reportage in the anthology would you draw attention to ?
There is historic reportage which I love because, in a way, my Gottland is a collection of historic reportages. An exemple of this genre in the anthology is Tadeusz Staniewski’s text about children going on strike in Września, written 23 years after the event. There is also Piotr Lipiński’s piece about a meat scandal from the 1960s, which was written in 1999. Only then was it possible to access all the documents. I am not a good typologist, but I would select "reportages of amazement". Stefan Bryła’s text can be an example. Bryła was an architect and builder of pre-war high-rise buildings. In the early 1920s, he also wrote about America. He was amazed by a self-service pharmacy, and could not believe that it was possible to buy something from a vending machine. In 1902, Zygmunt Miłkowski (one of the founding fathers of Polish nationalist party endecja) wrote under the pseudonym Teodor Tomasz Jeż. With awe, he announced to his fellow Poles that in America, it’s forbidden to beat your wife and you can go to jail for it. And, something that completely surpassed his imagination, you could even get punished for verbally insulting of your better half.
As the editor of this anthology, is there something you are particularly proud of?
I think that I am proud to have been able to convey "old fires", in the emotional sense, of course. We are really able to touch what people lived decades ago, and what disturbed and provoked them. In a text for Po prostu from the 1950s, Włodzimierz Godek writes about an intellectual collapse among the dwellers of Nowy Sącz. This collapse was taking place in spite of the presence of communist authorities and the Polish Youth Association. According to Godek, in spite of the growing accessibility of higher education, Nowy Sącz was at an intellectual rock-bottom. This was a widely commented on text that made a big impression.
Another reportage that was once a hit was Małgorzata Sztejnert’s piece from the early 1970s, which described the de-classed aristocracy of the People’s Poland. This was incredibly hot, almost scandalous. Trybuna Ludu [The People’s Tribune magazine] condemned the author, and when Sztejnert was picking up her pay at a post office, all the workers there gathered to point fingers at her "look, it’s the one who wrote about aristocracy".
Another "hot" topic was Barbara Pietkiewicz’s text about homosexuality from 1981. To this day, the gender studies milieu considers it a break-through piece. It was a shock at the time, because if the word "homosexual" ever appeared in the press, it was in the criminal section. But Pietkiewicz wrote calmly, with no emotion, in a tone that was descriptive. This lack of emotions in the author actually stirred great emotions in the readers.
Looking at reportage from a centennial perspective, do you think that the subjects of these emotional "fires" have changed, or do they remain the same?
Intellectual downfall, cultural habits, and fates of the nation’s old elites are all universal themes. Just like themes of violence, atrocity, and evil. They are eternal topics.
The initial idea for this anthology was to find the 100 most significant events of the 20th century and illustrate them with reportage. Did you succeed in realising this concept?
Unfortunately, no. It turns out that there were fantastic themes which nobody decided to take up. No one described the re-gaining of independence in 1918, the birth of a new state, and the founding of offices and independent press - there isn’t a single text accounting for this period.
How many texts did you start from for your selection of the hundred? And what was more significant - an interesting theme or a thrilling description?
You have to read 700 in order to choose a hundred. Among them there are reportages that say something interesting about important moments in history. There is the text by Marek Miller and his team about incidents that took place in August of 1980, entitled "Who let the journalists in?” ("Kto tu wpuścił dziennikarzy?”). There is also one by Zbignew Gluza and the Karta magazine, about the Martial Law period as seen through the eyes of regular people. But there are also many texts about less significant topics which are interesting and very well written.
For example, Konrad Turowski’s reportage from Łódź. He was the Nikifor of Polish reportage, he would always search for unusual themes. We chose his story about a terrible accident, in which an inhabitant of Łódź fell into the sewer of a public toilet, along with the entire toilet seat. He was saved by an anonymous man, and in his text, Turowski searches for this good person. It’s a curiosity, but it has its own power and it’s a great read. Towards the end of the 1990s, Michał Matys wrote about a new vacuum cleaner, capable of doing almost anything, and "guaranteed to give you happiness", according to the marketing tagline. The vacuum cleaner did not bring us happiness, but it’s a great metaphor of the new Poland and what was expected from it. I hope that this anthology maintains a balance between texts dealing with serious matters and well written pieces on smaller themes.
Did you prepare yourself in any way for the attack from your colleagues whose texts were not included in the anthology?
I hope they will keep their heads cool, that they will have a lot of compassion for me in themselves. I beg 118 prominent reporters, whose texts are not included in the anthology but whose names are mentioned in the introduction, I beg for their empathy and forgiveness. It turned out that two volumes, a hundred chapters, three kilograms are not enough to fit all those who deserve it. The reader would not be able to carry a third volume back home from the bookstore. At two volumes it’s already troublesome for weaker people. Let my colleagues walk in my shoes and think about how difficult it was to make those choices. Perhaps in the future we will be able to make an appendix to the anthology.
It can be a disappointment for some that the anthology lacks a Mariusz Szczygieł text
There are 101 texts of mine there. There was little room. I was saving it. I wrote the introduction and I gave each text a little description, in which I tried to re-create the circumstances of its making and also to talk about its author. And there was not enough room for my own reportage. I saved it for the others.
The 100/XX Anthology was released by the Czarne publishing company on the 5th of March, 2014.
Read a Culture.pl review by Jakub Nikodem.
The PAP interview by Agata Szwedowicz was released on the 3rd of March. Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser from Mikołaj Gliński's text , 7/03/2014