Quirky Polish novels

A masterpiece? "He laughs who has teeth" by Zyta Rudzka. Testimony? "If it cut you in half" by Łukasz Barys. An ideology for the 21st century? "Empuzjon" by Olga Tokarczuk. A yearning that politicians should hear before the elections? "Bella, ciao" by Piotr Siemion.

Reading is, of course, one of the most wonderful activities, reading, if engaged in professionally, can be a time-and-energy-consuming, and emotionally exhausting activity, it can be an extreme sport. I try to remain semi-amateur, or at least middle-distance, in this field, and I admire those who have one profession: the critic. Only they are able to deal with not dozens but hundreds of titles a year, to focus on a chosen genre, format or language (may I at this point pay tribute to Juliusz Gałkowski, who writes about contemporary Polish poetry in "Nowe Książki", or the team of Karolina Felberg - Marcin Bełza - Piotr Kieżun, who discuss young prose in "Kultura Liberalna").

I myself would be afraid to name the "Ten most outstanding Polish books of 2022". . Not because I don't have candidates for such a list, but because I am too afraid of 'the eleventh one'. That is - authors and titles I might have overlooked, which were not suggested to me by anyone else's friendly review. The publishing market in Poland, though subject to many pressures and restrictions, is fortunately decentralising - sitting outside Warsaw and browsing through the publishing houses of Krakow or Wrocław, I know, I just know, how "checkered" I am with this year's output of the Szczecin's Format, the Mikolow Institute or the Wydawnictwo Poznanskie publishing house....

So instead of a ranking and medal places, I will propose (this used to be a fashionable formula among philologists, thanks to Professor Maria Janion) a more open form. I would like to point out a few phenomena, a few attitudes and ways of naming the world that have made a particular impression on me in Polish novels published over the past year. Literature is, of course, not just a "mirror strolling through the guesthouse" - This delicious formula by Stendhal, which brilliantly captures the ambitions and possibilities of nascent 19th-century realism, does not, however, do justice to all those with creative rather than reportorial ambitions, who want to bring new entities and worlds into existence rather than catalogue existing ones. But, with the exception of the work of the most twisted visionaries and postmodernists (although they too are sometimes, if not a reflection, then a negative of the beliefs, faiths and resentments that dominate around them) - literature is also this: a mirror and a testimony. "For there is epochal salt in poetry" - one could paraphrase a line from the "Poetic Treatise". And in prose, too.

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There is really only one queen in this regard, and in this paragraph I am closest to anointing a particular title as 'Book of the Year' (there have already been several such nominations, by the way). Zyta Rudzka and her " He laughs who has teeth " (W.A.B., 2022). Well, yes, it is a masterpiece.
In the novel, Wera talks about her marriage and mourning
The author has been with us since the 1990s, I have been faithful to her at least since "Dr Josef's Pretty" in 2006. In fact, all of Rudzka's themes, aches and leitmotifs have been present in her subsequent novels at least since "Pretty...", both in "A Short Exchange of Fire" (2018) and in "Soft Tissues" (2020); indeed, the same characters sometimes return in these books. They are invariably accompanied by old age, or at least - approaching old age (this phenomenon itself has become Rudzka's trademark and I could mention it in the 'enumeration of sensibilities' I am now compiling). They are invariably corporeal (old age is a challenge for corporeality), painfully tough (and with layers of sensitivity which they do not try to give vent to in any way, closed like a shell), sometimes - with a shadow (distant, blurred, but it is impossible not to notice it) of war and the Holocaust, aware of living in the shadow of death.

But perhaps it is only in "He laughs..." the way it is written so utterly obscured the plot thread - poignant, by the way, simple and belonging to the ultimate: the Jockey (and jockey by profession), husband of the male hairdresser Vera, has died, and she - sliding, having had her establishment taken away from her, from poverty, through misery, ever closer to destitution - is scrambling around, organising a cheap funeral, desperately looking for shoes.

Only that those who would write ostentatious despair, Polish lamentations, bitter regrets into this plot are wrong. Wera is, as I have already written somewhere, a desperate woman, yes, widowed, but also proud, steadfast, brutal not only in her language, upbringing and customs, but also in her desire to be independent of everyone, especially those who would dare to show her mercy.

And 'He laughs...' is a record of a monologue delivered through clenched teeth, but also - overflowing. In this monologue, Wera recounts or even discusses her marriage and her bereavement, since she is unable to mourn them, and in this monologue she hits upon various registers that could be indexed by a sociolinguist: there is semi-intellectual, small-town jargon; there are heavy and solemn phrases, as if clods of earth, carried on her shoes from the village where Wera comes from; there are traces of the official Polish of the 1970s and 1980s, the Polish of advertising and transformation - but this is not simply a "language diary", a record of noises and dialogues.

Chop the novel into pieces

The hairdresser Wera speaks in phrases so condensed and dazzling that this novel could be shredded, page by page, and distributed to poets and writers: one could make a fortune on such retailing of what one gets in the wholesale trade. Wera slurs her lips like a pair of scissors, cutting this language, this Polish, as if she were tugging at an uncombed hairdo, or as if she were pruning a bonsai tree (she could be a gardener). It's written like a symphony orchestra.
There are a lot of phrases between the church in Siekierki and the National Library.
And its complement - like a quartet of flute players, playing lightly, birdlike and mocking - is a collection of 'linguistic pictures', notes, impressions by Eliza Kącka. Over "The Crumple Zone" (Lokator, 2022), one can shudder with laughter, one can sigh.

It's a metropolitan audience that speaks up, though not from the highest ranks: students, pensioners, high school girls, often from line 167, between the church in Siekierki and the National Library there's a lot of catch phrases. "The Crumple Zone" is a testament to the intelligent foreigner who would like to bite into Polish language, a ready recruit for competitions for the youthful and old-fashioned word of the year.

Mother sits at Orlen

Those who are curious about the 'folk' experience, the truth about life itself, no longer mediated by language and its games, but the simple testimony of the times, the adverts, the rubbish, the great - as the old polonists used to say - 'fresco of manners', will also find it. Except that today such prose is written by 25-year-olds, among them Łukasz Barys His first novel, "The Bones You Carry in Your Pocket" (Cyranka, 2021), received the Polityka Passport at the beginning of 2022; the end of the year brought an almost-sequel, "If It Cut You in Half" (Cyranka, 2022): an almost-sequel, so similar are the narrator's dilemmas, his adolescence, his maladjustment, his burning experience of poverty.

The main protagonist of 'Bones...' was a girl from a small town, in 'If it cut you in half' the story is taken over by a boy from a village cut by an A-road, one of the motorways, cut off from the rest of Poland by a high, dirty soundproof screen - but this changes nothing, one mother sat at the checkout in Biedronka, the other - at Orlen, one and the other family are cut off by successive screens and barriers from 'Poland A', from the wealthier children in the class, from any cultural capital.

No, this is not the fashionable and always well-selling "prose about pathology": in these families, grandmothers are respected (even if it is difficult to get along with them), children are sent to school, there is little (or no) drinking, they visit the graves of relatives and try to pray, they clean their small flat and a non-breed, faithful dog roams the house. But the sadness and poverty beat more from these novels than from Magdalena Okraska's reportages, than from the pre-war novels about children from Polesie and Zagłębie Dąbrowskie.
No town in the Polish prose of the 1960s, 1970s or 1990s seemed so hopeless to me
Barys's protagonists are not threatened by hunger or cold - they can always afford (unhealthy) breaded chicken from the market and brightly coloured or worn-out trousers and T-shirts from second-hand shops ("delivered every Thursday", almost like mules in the pubs on Plac Zbawiciela). But they have almost no chance of breaking out of the stupefying circle of foul-mouthed kids at school, weary teachers doing their job, bewildered and resigned parents, the kaleidoscope of the world peeped at by Instagram on their mobile phones and two mind-numbing, mind-boggling sources of stimuli: the television and grandma's murmuring radio, both on non-stop, white noise overflowing in overheated rooms.

This striking, ubiquitous ugliness and banality of the surrounding world contrasts with the obvious sensitivity of the main characters - who, endowed with a huge imagination, escape into fantasies - wild and barren, because they have almost no nourishment in their reading (which they had no one to suggest to them) or in the views of the world (because they are surrounded by a devastated landscape: the heroine of "Bones..." walks her dog by a rubbish-infested, stinking and drying river on the outskirts of the town. The protagonist of "If..." wades through rubble, rags, broken glass and pampers, disposed of by townspeople and locals on the outskirts of the village.

It's strange, but no block of flats, no small town from the anti-utopian pictures in Polish prose of the 1960s, 1970s or 1990s seemed to me so hopeless (or so chained to each other forever, with no chance of escape) as these houses built in free Poland - with plastic windows, oil stains on the road, terrazzo cemeteries and not a single book.

Silent doom is coming

This trait of "silent doom", of an ecological and demographic catastrophe coming at the cat's paws (drying up of rivers and forests, snowless winters, fields lying fallow, which are not worth cultivating, heaps of rubbish, concretosis, carosis and baumisation of crowded streets, the disintegrating, childless relationships of adults with successive "partners"), readers of more conservative persuasions or those who are simply more distrustful will probably be prepared to regard it as a superficial fashion, as a tribute to taste, as "writing for criticism". Except that it is not as simple as usual to transform consciousness: it is easy to perceive someone else's (other people's) consciousness as "imposed" or constructed, but how do we know what it is like in reality?

A book for Christmas. But „not for… everyone”

Men put aside the table, bed and the fridge shelter.

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Kajetan Koźmian, who was once described in these pages, might have fretted about Mickiewicz and his cronies, sloppy, undereducated and "apeing Bayron" - but these cronies (and their political fate) meant that Polish thought and sensibility became completely subordinated to the canons of Romanticism for two generations, and Koźmian could write his memoirs (excellent ones, by the way).

The record of the world in Barys (and dozens of other young authors, published by Cyranka, Warstwy, Filtry, Ha!-Art, Format and W.A.B.) can bewilder, infuriate and alienate audiences over 50: it would even be strange if it were not so.

What kind of world is this, where some Independents, Popes, Herberts and Miłoszes are rustling sounds, subjects of boring school exercises, and only low-end commercialism is alive (sausages on promotion, a monkey of raspberry vodka on promotion, pampers on promotion)? Well: that's how it is, that's how it is seen. The experience of 'impending catastrophe', the trashiness of the matter around, the sense of blurred barriers between species, closeness to animals, the ease and 'unproblematic' nature of homoerotic attempts (even something as trivial as surreptitiously touching a colleague's hair in the cloakroom) - such are the components of the imagination of Łukasz Barys' generation.

And the sacrum? It returns 'wild', through the back door, crippled, but it does return: yet another trademark of Barys' prose is the dead ancestors, in the most natural way possible, entering overheated rooms - for a few hours, just enough to warm themselves and eat instant soup, low-key but not awe-inspiring.

These disgusting men in their flying patriarchies

From a different, much higher shelf come Olga Tokarczuk's thoughts and ideas (especially the ones that are not explicitly sued). Her first book after the Nobel is just as great a challenge (perhaps greater) than the second book in the novice novelist's oeuvre. Empuzjon (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2022) has been awaited, despite the fact that the OT has accustomed her readers to the fact that she often acts in a churlish manner, that she shies away from declarations or manifestos, that in place of the "great prose" expected of her, she is happy to reach for pastiche or even allow herself a literary joke .
The elderly and sickly gentlemen who populate the boarding and spa houses are invariably disgusting and pathetic.
This is what 'Empuzjon' is in part. "Natural Horror" (as the novel's subtitle reads) is naturally not a frontal polemic against Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" or an attempt to live up to it, as Tokarczuk's naïve and unsympathetic early readers would have liked. Naturally, the story of a tuberculosis sanatorium in Lower Silesia on the eve of the First World War refers to the tensions and human types present in Mann's grand panorama - but above all in order to sneer at them, to ironically invalidate them, to show how such a novel cannot be written a century later.

What strikes the eye above all is the ubiquitous, ostentatious, one could almost say - for Tokarczuk - declarative misoandry of 'Empuzjon'. An author of this class could easily draw mocking, exposing or ridiculing portraits of men in a nuanced manner, operating with chiaroscuro. Instead, she opts for caricature; the elderly and sickly gentlemen populating the boarding house and the spa house are invariably repulsive and pathetic.

Like any caricature, they must both faithfully reproduce the features of the originals (to be recognisable) and at the same time do so in an exaggerated manner: and they do so, grotesque as the puppets from the Trumanillo circus, pondering whether women have souls, advocating the nationalisation of mothers and going surreptitiously for country whores - and since these puppets need to be stuffed with paper to make them light and prevent their stomachs from sinking, Tokarczuk fills them with several dozen "anti-women" quotations, culled from school transcripts, from St Augustine to Yeats and carefully enumerated at the end of the novel.

Non-human, extra-human
However, 'Empuzjon' has an ideological core much deeper than a derision of patriarchy. In the shortest terms, our Nobel laureate refers, in my opinion, to the work of still little-known philosophers of the early 21st century such as Donna Haraway and Timothy Morton, calling for a consistent abandonment of the anthropocentric perspective, an opening up to (and union with) that which is "non-human", "extra-human" and even (from an anthropocentric perspective) abhorrent. This is a coherent concept: if we consider that the elevation of the human being, the granting of human dignity, the formulation of the postulate of "making the earth subject to oneself", is the fruit of a patriarchal, oppressive culture that subjugates "otherness" (psychological, moral, species) - then the only chance to heal the world is to reject similar notions and cultural or civilisational concepts based on them.

A feminine, inclusive culture, transcending the barriers of identity (individual, species or gender, not to mention cultural or national) - appears in such logic as a desirable, in fact only possible solution. "Empuzjon" formulates such demands not explicitly, but quite clearly, the more clearly it shows the discrediting of "patriarchal culture". The effects of reading and absorbing this novel will be far-reaching - as is usually the case with books that are truly outstanding or that perhaps only hit the mark in terms of aroused expectations.

But while we are still moving in the circle of existing identities (cultural, national and gender) - two more books, from the beginning and the end of the year, which are, in my eyes, testimony to a similar longing and transformation.

Dystopia and pulp fiction

These are very different books. The first one, hastily christened 'dystopia' by reviewers (sometimes with the word 'apocalyptic' added), is high quality literature: excellently constructed (especially in the first chapters), with fantastic and precise use of words, but also constructing the story and characterisation very delicately, very in passing, from climates and cultural references rather than directly.

The second appears at first glance to be a thriller novel - fantastically vivid, sparkling, masterfully gripping, although told (inevitably in this genre) hastily and with a disregard for detail or nuance: the main character is supposed to have two or three axial features, a bit of snow, a couple of tanks, a few greps, all smeared on like watercolour, will suffice as the historical background.
Both novels play on our most sore historical memory.
The first of these books is 'Bella, ciao' by Piotr Siemion (Filtry, 2022), the second is "The Kiszczak Plan" by Wojciech Czabanowski (Novae Res, 2022). One and the other I have to summarise and spoiler a tad, which is forgivable insofar as 'Bella, ciao' was published in the spring, so everyone has already had time to discuss it, or at least rehash it, while 'The Kiszczak Plan', still warm (December) abounds with announcements of plot twists and its synopsis already on the wings and the last page of the cover.

"Bella, ciao" deals with a few days of spring after a long, devastating and displacing millions war. We are in the post-German Western Territories, we have an exile of refugees from the interior of the country, an army that supposedly collaborates with and is subordinate to the Soviets, although it secretly hates them, and a group of "steadfast" people who do not have to hide their hatred, but have to hide themselves if they want to break through to the West.

Except that the West is virtually non-existent, there are no man's lands and Soviet army transports, merciless in drinking, raping and stealing. This could have been 1945, it could have been some kind of prose by Konwicki or Mrożek's 'On Foot', 'The First Day of Freedom' or 'Law and Fist' - if it weren't for the suggestion of a recent nuclear bomb strike (which the Soviets didn't have in '45, however) and other clues showing that this is not a simple remake of 1945, but rather another instalment of the same tragedy.

"The Kiszczak Plan" is a marvellous folly, a reversal of all sanctities and signs as if in a carnival costume parade, with a donkey baring his ears from under the bishop's tiara that has been planted on him: Suffice it to say that the story begins with Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of war against the Soviet Union on 13 December 1981... - and then picks up steam as the scene of action (and the theatre of battle) shifts to Volhynia and near Kiev, and the survivors of the 'steadfast' from the war years, Solidarity, the CIA and the UPA join the struggle.

Where is the 'eternal Polishness'?

A murderous cocktail, like a "white bear" (dry sparkling wine into which a glass of well-chilled spirit has been poured) - and in Siemion's case it's the same, only better bittered and less concentrated, so that first the legs are taken off, then the consciousness. But both novels play on our most aching historical memory, our most vivid identifications (we of the Steadfast, we of the Home Army, we of Solidarity and the underground) and - THROUGH THEM.

In both novels (sorry, this is the last spoiler), the quasi-steadfast and quasi-soldiers of People's Poland, Kiszczak's militiamen and the zealots from the Podkarpacie region - in a situation where the world is standing on its head and the magnetic poles are shifting - finally join forces, rejecting their quasi-party, or at any rate political, identifications in favour of a Polish cause older (and bigger) than any organisation, however close.

If this is not an expression of the fatal weariness of Poland's stagnation in two hostile trenches, a longing for what the Jagiellonian Club a few years ago called an 'inclusive Polishness', polyphonic, unifying and bonding - then I don't know what other signal readers would need to notice this longing.

– Wojciech Stanisławski
-Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: This year's Autumn Book Fair in the Kubicki Arcades and Gardens of the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Photo: PAP/Leszek Szymański
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