Article published on August 5, 2017.
Poland, finally here’s a country I’m familiar with.
Well, when I say familiar, I mean I’ve heard of it, have a vague sense of where it is on a map, and even know a smidgen of its history. But despite my obvious wealth of knowledge, let me hand you over to an even more informed authority to fill you in a bit more: Google. Did you know for instance that the most successful world’s strongest man (Mariusz Pudzianowski for any quizzers out there) heralds from Poland? (Did you want to know, is probably a more pertinent question.) Or that in Poland, pizza bases do not have tomato sauce on? (Unbelievable, I know!) Perhaps more enlighteningly, Poland shares its borders with seven countries: Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Slovakia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Germany, and the Polish alphabet has 32 letters. (Now we’re getting somewhere.)
The Polish constitution was the first in Europe and the second in the world and Poland is the birthplace of many a famous name, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Curie and, of course, Józef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski. Ah yes, our very own Joseph Conrad, author of Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and other twentieth-century classics was born in Poland, but I’ll keep it quiet if you do. And the list of estimable people doesn’t stop there. No, Poland in fact boasts 17 Nobel Prize winners, five of whom won the prize for literature: Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska – so not a bad starting point for exploring their literary tradition. Poland too has fourteen world heritage sites, one of which is a natural site – Białowieża Forest – and the remaining thirteen cultural (although surprisingly Poland has no elements included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage), one of which is Auschwitz Birkenau. And herein lies the other side of Poland’s past, one that it is impossible, nay foolhardy, to overlook. Yet despite being the stage for such atrocities, the Polish Resistance movement was amongst the largest in Europe in World War II.
Poland’s difficult history has inevitably seeped into its literature, and world literature as a whole. But the history of Polish literature really got cracking in the Renaissance when Polish was accepted alongside Latin. Mikołaj Rej is the so-called Father of Polish Literature, being the first author to write exclusively in the Polish language and Adam Mickiewicz penned the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz in 1834, with its opening lines ‘Lithuania, my fatherland!’. (Err, do you want to let them know, or shall I?) Moving to more modern times, Nobel winner Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis is amongst the most well-known of Polish literature, whilst Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Borowski and Czesław Miłosz all contributed to the Polish canon on the war, as does Boleslaw Prue’s frankly named This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. As well as fictionalised accounts, there are also numerous non-fiction accounts, often first-hand, of World War Two as experienced by the Polish people, including Jan Karski’s 1944 memoir Story of a Secret State and Witold Pilecki’s Auschwitz Volunteer. Slavomir Rawciz’s, The Long Walk, offers something slightly different, as it follows his three-month journey of escape to Siberia and was the inspiration for the film The Way Back. In a separate field, Stanisław Lem is known as one of the world’s greatest science fiction writers, with his novel Solaris also having been made into a film in 2002, whilst in the fantasy genre, Andrzej Sapkowski has been labelled ‘a European superstar’ with his Witcher series, and 2016 sees the release of two further English translations Sword of Destiny (March) and The Tower of the Swallow (May). In crime fiction, there are several names of note, including Marek Krajewski with The Minotaur’s Head and Death in Breslau, Zygmunt Miloszewski with Entanglement and A Grain of Truth, Andrzej Stasiuk with Nine, Joanna Jodelka with Polychrome and Mariusz Czubaj, whose first crime novel – 21:37 – won the High Calibre Award for the best Polish crime novel in 2009. Olga Tokarczuk is also a prize winner, Primeval and Other Times having been awarded the Koscielski Foundation Prize in 1997 and having also won the Nike Literary Award, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Poland, in 2008. Jerzy Pilch, author of The Mighty Angel and My First Suicide, amongst other works, won the Nike Literary Award in 2001, with Andrzej Stasiuk took the prize for his travel narrative On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe, described as ‘a Kerouac-style amble from the Baltic to the Adriatic’ in 2005. The 2006 award was given to Dorota Maslowski whose translated works include Snow White and the Russian Red and is considered the enfant terrible of Polish literature.
Other writers and works of note include Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz, Choucas by Zofia Nalkowska, Saturn by Jacek Dehnel, Sefer by Ewa Lipska, Cold Sea Stories by Pawel Huelle, Lovetown by Michal Witowski, The Polish Complex by Tadeusz Konwicki, In Red by Magdalena Tulli, The Graveyard by Marek Hlasko, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek, Madame by Antoni Libera, The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski and the works of Ryszard Kapuscinski. This year also sees the release of Stone Tablets by Wojciech Zukrowski, which won the Pietrzak Prize for literature in 1966, was named the most popular book in a poll of Polish booksellers in 1974 and was made into a movie in 1984. Zukrowski also won the Reymont Award for lifetime literary achievement in 1996. So there’s quite a selection to choose from, and all of this despite being deemed one of the most difficult languages in the world – indeed there’s a whole webpage devoted to the fact: ‘The Untranslatables – Writers You Will Never Read’.
My selection for this leg of the journey was Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts – a strangely titled book that gives little away as to its subject matter. Like many of the Polish novelists whose work has been translated into English, Hanna Krall has an impressive array of literary credentials, having won the Polish PEN Club Prize and the German Wurth Preis for European Literature. Chasing the King of Hearts was shortlisted for the Angelus Central European Literary Award in 2013, and the novel does have something of that air of the literary elite about it, being both meaningful and significant but also, as is often the way in these awards, I find, slightly atypical and enigmatical. Indeed, whilst one cannot question the weight of the novel’s thematic which follows protagonist Izolda across the lifetime of her relationship with partner Shayek, importantly exploring the realities of life in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw and the subsequent imprisonment and struggles for survival during the Second World War, the manner in which the story is told is where the novel slips up for me in terms of its effectiveness and impact. It is a very sparse style that the author uses, one that is largely devoid of emotion and sentiment, and this in a novel about one of the most emotional experiences of humankind and one of the most sentimental experiences of life. Yet, the narrator reports on events with astonishing detachment and surprising dispatch, rattling through, from one moment to the next and condensing the events to the briefest and curtest of moments. There is no reflection, no introspection on what has happened, nor any sense of the gravity, horror or pain of the realities. Even Shayek’s internment in Auschwitz is introduced seemingly offhandedly by a dependent clause: ‘She does get news, but it’s from Auschwitz.’
However, the style is clearly a deliberate and purposeful choice by the author, one that her own narrator acknowledges: ‘The woman writes a book but it does not meet Izolda’s expectations. Not enough feeling. Not enough love, loneliness and tears. Not enough heart. Not enough words. Not enough of everything, simply not enough.’ It is not often that an author acknowledges the shortcomings of their own work, let alone spells out the criticisms for you; she clearly recognises then the criticisms that are to be levelled at her work (indeed, I couldn’t have put them better myself) and therefore knows how to avoid them, yet still she chooses to write the novel in this way and thus uncovers a significance to her style. Indeed, the implication seems to be that such brevity, such bluntness is what is required of Izolda to cope against the overwhelming circumstances of her life. She has to cut off ‘feeling’, deny herself of ‘love, loneliness and tears,’ stymie her ‘heart’, be careful of her ‘words’ in order to survive. Krall’s style can be justified thusly and it is clearly an integral part of Krall’s plan for the novel. Nonetheless, the decision to remove this emotional plane does leave the novel remarkably aloof, and in a novel about the horrors and sacrifices of war, it does seem like an oversight.
Izolda too, perhaps because of this emotional distance, is a difficult character to warm to, in spite of her plight. Given all that she goes through, you would expect to engage with her fully, be invested completely in her struggle, and yet she remains rather an unsympathetic character, arguably even standoffish. And in part this comes down to her absolute commitment to her husband to the detriment of all else. Her loyalty and devotion should be something of praise, but it is a narrow-minded, misanthropic, even dangerous obsession at times, as she is prepared to forgo all others for his safety, as she says: ‘There was no cause more important to me than my husband. The whole world could fall apart as long as he survived.’ And indeed the world does fall apart, yet her focus remains very much on the man she loves, a man who it should be said we see little of, understand less of and similarly struggle to engage with. A novel that deals in the horrors and atrocities that this one deals with – imprisonment, war, genocide – comes with an expectation, arguably a requirement for, a strong emotional core, and despite Krall’s intentions with her novel, it is this lack that is felt most keenly and which ultimately impoverishes and undoes the novel. Other readers may enjoy Krall’s approach to her subject matter, her narrator’s cold, aloof objectivity, but for me it sat uncomfortably with the gravity of the moment. Love it or hate it, it will however form the basis for some impassioned reading group discussions, though, I imagine.
Personal read 3
Group read 4
Chasing the King of Hearts by Hannah Krall, published on 1 September, 2013 by Peirene Press
How Much the Heart Can Hold: Seven Stories on Love edited by Emma Herdman