Reading Poland (in Poland)

I spent the last week traveling through Poland. As is customary, I try to punctuate such journeys by reading some of the literature of the country I’m traveling in. Apart from getting a deeper sense of place, it always serves as an excellent excuse for reading new kinds of writing, often beyond one’s comfort zone. So, this is what I read out of Poland:

MadameAntoni Libera, Madame: Imagine a combination of the hilarious wit of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the savage satire of The Joke, and the virtuoso language games of The Seventh Function of Language. That gives you Antoni Libera’s Madame, which I read through my first day in Warsaw, whenever I was taking a café break – it is that addictively good. Set in communist-ruled Poland on the cusp of the 1960s, Madame is the story of an eighteen-year old schoolboy who falls in love with his thirty-two-year old French teacher. In the course of a determined quest to uncover her past – which would allow him to know her better and so woo her with more dexterity – the personal and the political (history of Poland through World War II and then suffocating communist rule) come together in ways that are both amusing, and deeply moving. Peppered with clever literary references and language games, woven into the romantic pursuit with consummate skill, and with the political backdrop always framing – but never impeding – the narrative, Madame is a rich and very satisfying red – and with an ending that is a fitting climax to the quality of the story.

HeathenNarcyza Zmichowska, The Heathen: I think this is a book whose value lies more in the context that it arose from, and the milieu that it spoke to, rather than how well it reads in the twenty-first century. The Heathen is a novel written by Narcyza Zmichowska, a mid-nineteenth century writer who is acknowledged to be one of the earliest figures of Polish feminism (and The Heathen – first published in 1846 – the earliest Polish feminist novel). The plot of the novel is straightforward: Benjamin, a romantically-inclined Polish youth falls in love with Aspasia, an older, more emancipated woman; in the beginning, her love exalts him, and Benjamin achieves great worldly renown under her tutelage; when, however, she inevitably leaves him, Benjamin descends into unthinking rage, and commits serious crimes (there are shades of Maupassant’s Alien Hearts in this novel, although those themes are relatively underdeveloped). The writing is florid, of a piece with nineteenth-century romanticism, and requires a degree of patience to read through. The significance of the novel, however, is brought out brilliantly in a fifty-page long Introduction, which puts Zmichowska as well as The Heathen in its temporal context, pointing out the subversive character of the relationship that frames the novel, as well as an underlying current of homoeroticism that runs through it. The Introduction fascinatingly places The Heathen within the nascent feminist movement in 19th-century Poland (Zmichowska being one of its founders), and helps the reader understand many of the narrative devices that it uses. And all that said, it also has one of the more memorable lines that I’ve come across recently. Aspasia says: “How do I love? Like a God loves, through destruction and mystery.

LalaJacek Dehnel, Lala: The hundred years between the mid-19th century of The Heathen and the mid-20th century of Madame are filled neatly by Lala, a generational saga seen through the eyes of one woman. The eponymous Lala is the narrator’s grandmother, who is dying. In fragments and in bits and pieces of memory, she recounts to the narrator the story of an extraordinary life, from pre-War Poland, through the German occupation during World War II, and the beginnings of communist rule. The narrator attempts to impose some kind of a chronological pattern on the telling, but for the most part, he lets the story do its job: the narrative, therefore, slips and stumbles, skips and doubles back, twists and turns, and so – as though seeing a reflection through broken glass pieces hurriedly placed together – we reconstruct the early-20th century history of Poland. As in Madame and as in The Heathen, one of the defining characteristics of Lala is how a memorable female progatonist occupies centre-stage, not just in presence, but also in action. Apart from this, there are also passages of striking beauty, such as: “And that was when Granny saw – yes, saw and not heard – the silence, the great silence, intensifying in the trees, silence solid enough to cut into large blocks and haul on a wooden sledge, down into quarries of quiet, where maybe one day someone would buy them to sculpt a mute David of a Pieta.” Or, as a description of a person who is fading away: “Like a dark stain on the brightly coloured carpet of the world.”

FlightsOlga Tokarczuk, Flights: Olga Tokarczuk is one of contemporary Poland’s most famous writers, and Flights won the Booker International in 2018. Much to my shame, therefore, I found myself unable to finish this book; I got through about one-third, and then couldn’t go on. Flights is a novel composed out of a set of aphoristic, essay-length pieces, moving between vignette-length short stories and simple reflections; Calvino is perhaps the author that will come to mind, but the book it most reminded me of was Dubraska Ugresevic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. While the unifying themes of that book were memory and the Balkan War, Flights is loosely organised around the idea of travel and movement (although many of the essays aren’t about that either). For example, at the beginning, we have:

That life is not for me. Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow: the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. I don’t know how to germinate. I’m simply not in possession of that vegetative capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement – from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of plains, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.

 

Many of the passages are deeply striking in the sharpness of their images (“… a ball of tautly tangled emotions breaking down, like those strange tumours that turn up sometimes in the human body”, or “… life always managed to elude me. I’d only ever find its tracks, the skin it sloughed off…”) or in the manner in which they express unutterable truths (“… if instead we simply saw the world as it was, with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts … what we learned at university was that we are made up of defences, of shields and armour, that we are cities whose architecture essentially comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds: bunker states). But without an organizing theme, I found it hard going after a point; maybe I’ll try again one day.

Nobody Leaves

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland: This was my first foray into Kapuscinski, whose books I have been seeing in bookshops all over the world for so many years. Nobody Leaves is a series of journalistic sketches published by the young Kapuscinski, in the relatively early days of communist rule in Poland. The sketches are primarily from rural or semi-urban areas, and you can see the qualities that have made the writer such a famous journalist. It’s not just the acute sense of observation and that ability to distance yourself while you write while retaining empathy and investment in the story; but its also a preternatural sense of what makes a good story. From the two German women who listen to the radio one night and believe that the Fuhrer has won the war and that they can now claim their properties back, to the disaffected men who watch a famous discus-thrower in training, waiting for that one record-breaking throw (“… the fan is one of those who, at a certain point, missed his chance”), there is something deeply human about these sketches, that sets them apart both from reportage and from travel writing.

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