Paziński's book is a story about melancholy as the driving force of literature.
The main character comes back to a place he used to visit with his grandmother. A Jewish guesthouse near Warsaw previously full of life now is filled with ghosts of the past. Piotr Paziński avoids pathos when creating reality anew after it had been lost in the depths of time, and skilfully employs irony and wit. It is a philosophical tale about lasting, passing away and about decay, yet it is at the same time a literary rite of reviving memory; one of the first voices of the third generation of Holocaust survivors in Poland. (Justyna Sobolewska, Polityka, July 30, 2009)
It is an outstanding debut, by all accounts worth noting. This is prose both piercing and deeply evocative. The author knows how to write about his characters, to suggest general and symbolic meanings in their personal histories. But he can also describe a tree or a forest. It is quite likely that 'The Boarding House' will become a literary event. (Prof. Michał Głowiński, The Institute of Literary Research)
Piotr Paziński, born in Warsaw in 1973. A graduate of the Philosophy Department at The University of Warsaw, Doctor of Liberal Studies (The Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences). Midrasz monthly editor-in-chief since 2000. His monograph on James Joyce's Ulysses, titled The Labyrinth and the Tree / Labirynt i drzewo was published in 2005. Co-originator of Jewish Book Days. A writer and translator, he is interested in the philosophy of Judaism and Jewish themes in literature. In addition to writing down his many unfulfilled ideas, he occasionally publishes articles in a range of journals. The Boarding House is his literary debut. The book has been nominated for the 2010 NIKE Literary Award.
The Boarding House
Gazeta Wyborcza presents books nominated for the Nike award in 2010
by Piotr Paziński is a story about a disappearing world that refuses to vanish entirely.
Paziński writes about a man who after many years comes back to a guesthouse on the outskirts of Warsaw. It is a place where he used to spend summers with his grandmother - a Jewish Holocaust survivor, just like many of the guesthouse's residents. The novel does not simply tell the story of the abrupt annihilation of the Jewish world during the war. First and foremost it is a story about this world's slow post-war death, about a world which has lost its vital strength. It is still approaching this end - given the subsequent exodus waves of the Jews and deaths of residents - but is unable to completely fade away. 'We are almost non-existent, but you think that you kind of still exist.'
In this world the arguments over Zionism, communism, and assimilation continue with their own momentum; here the stories of Noah, Jacob and Moses are discussed at length. The members of the Chosen People are tired of waiting for the coming of the Messiah, endowed with an ironic understanding typical of the decadent age. When asked how one can recognise a false Messiah, the cynical reply is: "by his coming". The history of the Chosen People turns out to be a story full of long-drawn-out passages, tangles and tiresome repetitions. The guesthouse residents are not sure if they can survive another flood, if they will not fall on the never-ending road to the Promised Land.
Paziński's main hero, like the author himself, was born after the war. Therefore both the pre-war Jewish world and the Holocaust are known to him only thanks to other people's stories. The Boarding House explores the mystery of the melancholic identity, shaped not by experience, suffering or trauma, but by echoes, shadows and memories of memories. In the end the hero tries to escape from the place which had trapped him in the past. He is chased by shadows of the guesthouse's dead residents, by the voices he cannot drown out. Although he finally catches the train, we know that his mind will stay in that place forever.
Paziński's book is, finally, a story about melancholy as the driving force of literature. To dwell on loss proves a way to keep the past which, it turns out, is never completely lost. At the same time it is a story about the ambivalence of literature, which allows to keep the past but it devours our present and the future.
Interview with Piotr Paziński:
Juliusz Kurkiewicz: According to the universal imagination the Holocaust functions as the annihilation of the Jews. You write about what happened later, about the extended post-war fading of the Jewish world in Poland…
Piotr Paziński: The Holocaust was annihilation. Ninety per cent of Polish Jews did not survive the war, and the pre-war world of those who managed to stay alive fell apart for ever. There were many ways out for the survivors: emigration, attempts to settle down in Poland on "a Jewish street" or completely outside. Some believed that the creation of a new, strictly people's Poland would be the best answer to Hitler. The circle I described was quite diverse: those who stayed at the guesthouse were "the Jewish Jews", assimilationists, ex-communists as well as traditionalists, mostly from cities and villages other than Warsaw. All the same, an awareness of the end, of the closing years prevailed - children and grandchildren, if they were to remain in Poland, would no longer be Jews. Although you could also hear a joke about ten Jews going to the train station to say goodbye to the last one, and he was leaving.
JK: To what extent is your book about the Holocaust and its consequences and to what extent is it about "objective" fatigue of the old nation of a long and exhausting history?
- I certainly wouldn't want The Boarding House to be read only as a story about the Holocaust. I am not a member of the survivors' generation. Attempting to step into the shoes of Bogdan Wojdowski, Irit Amiel or Michał Głowiński would simply be an insult. The Boarding House, rather, is a story about the Jewish fate in the shadow of the Holocaust, about the choices made by the Jews. Indeed, it's about an ancient nation and its history, which has been long and often tragic. And about old people. In my childhood there were many old, tired people around me, who were nonetheless curious about life, vigorous. This made them interesting. In some way it is also a polemic with the assimilationists.
JK: Was the ambition of complete assimilation a mistake?
- The best evidence is what happened during the Second World War: the Nazis murdered all Jews, same difference. I believe that after the war, after such an incredible loss suffered by the Jewish civilisation, standing by Jewish culture is in some way a moral imperative. Poland will do just fine without me, but I might be of use for the Jews. Besides, I am very upset when I hear such statements as: the Jews are shtetl ignoramuses or outstanding Polonised figures of culture. These claims are made by those Jews who have been deprived of the knowledge about the Jews' achievements in human civilization. It's as if you were to say: the Poles include either peasant dimwits or Joseph Conrad, who became a great man after he had left this hole and began writing in English.
JK: The heroes of The Boarding House talk a lot about Judaism. Were the old religious arguments still alive in the Polish People's Republic?
- I have heard a ridiculous accusation that there is too much religion in The Boarding House because there were no religious people left in Poland after the war. Hence, the intentional reference to Judaism and to the Midrashes is an expression of conservatism with a longing for the shtetl. This is the silliest way of reading this book. The majority of the people portrayed in the novel existed in reality; they came from religious families and chose traditional Jewish education. They were very knowledgeable about Judaism, despite having abandoned it or, rather, having pushed it away into the subconscious during the pre-war break, involvement in communism, assimilation or the Holocaust. They returned to religion in their old age. It turned out that these old people spoke perfect Hebrew, that there were many things they could express better in Yiddish than in Polish, and that they had a need to hand it down. Maybe it was because of a guilty conscience for all the decades of neglect, and for the fact that the only thing they passed on their children was a contempt for religiosity and the shtetl.
JK: You can find an optimism in literature - one that can rebuild the pre-war world or reconstruct the tragic war stories - in the writings of American authors with Jewish roots, born many years after the war, such as Jonathan Safran Foer or Daniel Mendelsohn. In your book, however, melancholy prevails…
- I have faith in literature, too. Perhaps it is a belief that only through literature can the dead world be rescued. But, as a pessimist by nature, I know the world cannot be rebuilt this way. Hence the melancholy. But not nostalgia. I don't miss that what is gone.
Wydawnictwo Nisza, Warsaw 2009
135 x 205 mm, 136 pp., soft cover
Author: Juliusz Kurkiewicz - wyborcza.pl, June 16, 2010
Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, July 31, 2010