Tag Archives: Polish Literature

Phantoms, Death and the End of the World in Breslau

One of the main ways a foreigner can get to know more about another culture is through literature. However, the difficulty in Poland with learning the language can mean that literature can usually take a back seat until more pressing issues such as job, friends and speaking the lingo get sorted. To simplify the literature search, translations of existing publications will always be the easier option. Thus, I was pleased to find some books written by Marek Krajewski which have been translated into English. Krajewski has written a few series in the past twelve years, notably the Eberhard Mock series, Jarosław Patera series and most recently the Edward Popielski series.

Krajewski writes criminal thrillers, and is best known for the Eberhard Mock books. He is from Wrocław originally, and thus sets most of his books around Wrocław, especially in the period between the First and Second World Wars (from approximately 1919 to 1950) – thus giving rise to the “… in Breslau” grouping of books. The subtitle for each of the books in the series is ‘An Eberhard Mock investigation’, with the eponymous ‘hero’ featuring in each of the books. Mock is a detective in the Breslau Police Force, classically schooled in Greek and Latin, and yet flawed. He is never too far from a bottle of schnapps and a cigarette, and yet is at his best when forced into situations where he relies on alcohol and other stimulations for sustenance. In each of the books, he has to investigate brutal and often gruesome murders. His experience with the Vice Department also comes into play, sometimes in professionals matters and other times in his personal life. He works with members of his team such as Kurt Smolorz and Herbert Anwaldt to investigate and in many cases, they need to delve into the aristocracy of Breslau and a number of sects and cults who are involved in the murders.

There are 5 books in the Eberhard Mock series, Death in Breslau, The End of the World in Breslau, Phantoms in Breslau, Fortress Breslau and Plague in Breslau. Only the first three of these have been translated into English, but the others will surely follow shortly. Krajewski uses a very descriptive style which expertly presents Breslau, down to the imagery of the streets, the people and the life of the city in the 1920’s. Naturally, the city is Germanic at that time, but touches of Poland and Polish sneak through which seem to be reflective of how the city has evolved over time. When it comes to the murder mystery part of the novels, the step into Mock’s mind gives a glimpse into the requirements and pressures on a criminal detective. I also think that excellent translations have been applied to the books. As a native speaker, the best recommendation I can give is that you would not notice that it is a translation. The descriptive elements are so well presented that it makes it easy to get lost in the story. And now the only difficulty would be in finding other such Polish novels which are also well translated and well presented. Until language fluency ‘kicks in’, that has to be the next best option, and in this case Marek Krajewskis books work very well.

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Not looking for Stanisław Lem

It took me twenty years to find Stanisław Lem. For the first 19 years I didn’t really know I was looking, but apparently I was. The last year was the hardest, not least because the guy was dead by then and consequently rarely attended book signings.

I started not looking for Stanisław Lem in 1988. As a callow young student of philosophy I was handed a collection of essays facetiously entitled The Mind’s I. Three of Mr Lem’s mind-expanding pieces were included and I liked them very much. In fact they changed my life, but that was nothing particularly unusual when I was 18; a couple of weeks later something else changed my life as well, and then something else a few days after that. When you’re 18 life-changing experiences can be stumbled upon up to 14 times a week with minimum effort.

I liked these essays so much in fact that I even bothered to remember the name of the author. Stanisław Lem. Pronounced Stanislaw Lem in the untutored English mind. Apparently he was from Poland, wherever the hell that was. Lem lived in the part of my mind that thought about mind-body conundrums, Cartesian duality, and the Chinese Room – this department rarely got in touch with the Real-World Geography department or went out for a pint with them on a Friday.

Tribodice family, by Stanisław Lem

I continued not looking for Lem for about a decade. Whenever I happened across one of his books in a second hand emporium, however, I seized it and hid it down the front of my trousers. My my, what strange and illuminating things they were, and not just because they made odd angular bulges in my Levis. On the TV news came and went about revolutions, upheavals, Solidarities, Wałęsas, and John Pauls. I paid them little heed.

In 1998 my continuing non search for Stanisław Lem took a sudden and unexpected turn when I inexplicably moved to Poland.

I completely failed to look for Stanisław Lem for another year, until I happened across one of his slim, intriguing volumes in a branch of Empik. The chaps from Mind-Body Conundrums and Real-World Geography finally got together for a chin wag and telexed me an important message, it said:

“Hey you, brain guy. You see this strange country all around you full of scowling people, trams, and balconies? Well we’ve just figured out this is where that Lem guy is from. Pay attention, you might learn something.”

I paid attention. I learned that Stanisław Lem lived in somewhere called Krakow, which was a magical city far away in the south where there were, quite literally, dragons. This intelligence seemed rather unlikely, and confirming it apparently meant sitting on a train for 5 hours, so I hung loose and waited. After a bit I forgot all about it and accidentally moved back to England.

Most of another decade passed in the ineffable way that decades have of passing. I periodically unearthed copies of Lem’s works that I had stashed in strategic book dumps around the world, reread them and had my mind expanded or infuriatingly confounded all over again.

Family in a tube, by Stanisław Lem

In 2002 George Clooney starred in a James Cameron production of Solaris, which is Lem’s most easily digested novel. This was too much to ignore. I had seen the 1972 Tarkowski version and recalled the scene where Kris Kelvin stands watching the rain falling on the lake before leaving Earth as one of my favourite moments in cinema history. In my typically perverse way I had always refused to seek out and read the novel itself. I still can’t bring myself to read Roadside Picnic for the same reason, I always chicken out after the first two pages.

The homunculi had a bit of a conflab and decided to send me back to Poland. The first I heard about this was a strange compulsion to spend the summer of 2006 in Krakow. At the last moment I received an interdepartmental email suggesting that I try and find out exactly where Lem lived so that we could hang around outside his house and see the great man nipping out for his morning paper. I looked, and found out that he had died about four days earlier; morning papers were no longer on the agenda.

Now that Stanisław Lem was actually dead I could safely start looking for him. I told you I was perverse.

I found the cemetery with minimum effort. Of course, if the internet had existed in 1988 my entire non plan would no doubt have been scuppered right away by a foolishly hasty google search that would have fed me into a livecam from the Lem bedroom.

Stanisław Lem is buried in the Salwator Cemetery about half way up Bronisława Hill in the west of Krakow. It’s a truly spectacular cemetery. Situated on the southern shoulder of the hill it commands fabulous views of the city and the river. I went there right away.

The Temple to Fallen Octabods, possibly

How do you find a dead man in a cemetery? Not hard. How do you find a dead Stanisław Lem in a cemetery? Not so easy. I looked around for a bit and saw a lot of interesting things, but I didn’t see the grave of Stanisław Lem. I could have asked somebody, but I hope by now you understand that wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the non search.

Just read the names. It can’t be that easy… can it?

A year has passed and now I know where the gravestone with Stanisław Lem’s name on it is, whatever that means. I won’t spoil anything, your non search is just beginning.

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Top 10 Polish Books in English

According to the author James Hopkins, writing in the Guardian newspaper Poland has made a significant contribution to world culture, not least in the field of literature. Hopkins first visited Poland in 1998 and was amazed by the reverence shown to writers and books – so much so, in fact, that he later moved here to write his first novel. Here’s his list of 10 ten Polish books translated into the English language. He says “you may have to hunt for one or two of the titles listed below but, believe me, you’ll be rewarded”.

“1. The Collected Poems, Zbigniew Herbert (coming in November from Atlantic Books)
Not only Poland’s finest poet but also one of the best of the 20th century – he died in 1998. Inexplicably overlooked by the Nobel Academy, who instead honoured two of his compatriots, Czeslaw Milosz (1980) and Wislawa Szymborska (1996), Herbert’s work draws on classicism and mythology, though often to lampoon any system’s claim to completeness. In 1981, he gave his voice to Poland’s nascent Solidarity movement. His wry poems are modern, European, mischievous and frequently breathtaking. He influenced my first novel and I returned the favour by pinching my subtitle – ‘Conversation with the elements’ – from a line in his wonderful poem, ‘A Journey’.

2. A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki (Dalkey Archive Press)
A classic, dark satire of communist times in which a struggling writer is asked to set fire to himself, by way of protest, in front of the hideous Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. In an ‘age of sorcerers and soothsayers dying away, all those prophets and messiahs who failed to save the world’, Konwicki steps in to offer a little magic, a little poetry and a little guidance in a grim totalitarian world.

3. Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz (Marion Boyars)
Susan Sontag described Gombrowicz (1904-1969) as “one of the super-arguers of the 20th century” and who are we to disagree? The undisputed master-stylist of Polish literature, Gombrowicz offers, in Pornografia, a novel of role-playing, voyeurism and (one of his abiding themes) the joys of prolonged immaturity. Only last year, his wickedly playful novels were removed from the school syllabus by the Polish minister of culture on the grounds that they were corrupting Polish youth. “Alas!” writes Gombrowicz. “After the age of 30 men lapse into monstrosity!”

4. The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (Abacus)
The story follows the arrest of Irma Seidenman, one of the last surviving Jewish women in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. With a fine balance between poetic tenderness and an unflinching account of the brutal realities of the day, Szczypiorski shows us the intertwining lives of the few Poles, Jews, and Germans who risk everything to save her. Szczypiorski himself fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, then survived Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His experiences are brought to bear with both shocking and heart-warming brilliance.

5. The Fictions of Bruno Schulz (Picador)
A self-confessed “parasite of metaphor”, Schulz treats us to a rich poetry of transformation. A magically-drawn panoply of characters range from an eccentric father in the attic, to Adele, the maid, for whom the narrator harbours a self-flagellating love. It’s a painstakingly vivid evocation of life in a cluttered shop threatened by the merchants along The Street of Crocodiles. One moment Schulz is darkly foreboding, the next he bursts into colour and flight. As he once explained, he writes of “the state of spellbound suspension within a personal solitude”. And you will be spellbound, too.

6. House of Day, House of Night – Olga Tokarczuk (Granta)
One of the leading lights of contemporary Polish literature, Tokarczuk was once a psychiatric nurse with a fondness for Jung. Her writing frequently investigates the borders between waking and sleep. This wise and moving novel is set in a town lying on a geographical border and steadily reveals the secrets and dreams of its disparate inhabitants, and was the winner of the prestigious Nike prize in Poland. Also worth discovering is Farewell to Plasmas (Twisted Spoon), a sharp and witty collection of vignettes by Tokarczuk’s friend, Natasza Goerke.

7. New Poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz (Archipelago Books)
The last living truly great Polish poet, and, like Herbert, unlucky to have been pipped tothe Nobel by two compatriots. New Poems translates the last two collections in Polish from this 86 year-old poet and playwright. A soldier in the Polish land army during the war, who had a brother murdered by the Gestapo in ’44, Rozewicz saw that ‘at home a task / awaits me: / To create poetry after Auschwitz.’ He accomplished this with unflinching wit, poignancy and elan.

8. Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk (Twisted Spoon)
Galicia was a district of the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassing southern Poland and western Ukraine, which Stasiuk recreates on his travels, encountering all sorts of fascinating characters on the way. Like Tokarczuk, the prodigiously creative Stasiuk likes to investigate the hinterlands and the rich seam of stories buried therein. He, too, is one of the forerunners of contemporary Polish literature, highly regarded in Germany as well as his homeland.

9. Castorp by Pawel Huelle (Serpent’s Tail)Taking Hans Castorp from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Huelle pictures the reluctant young scholar’s student days in Gdansk. Love and mysteries ensue, alongside a sly indictment of German colonialism. Gdansk-born Huelle is an internationally recognised author whose other novels translated into English include Mercedes-Benz, a charming homage to Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and Who Was David Weiser? which is fast becoming a modern classic.

10. Death in Danzig by Stefan Chwin
A magically melancholy (ie quintessentially Polish) novel, focusing on Hanemann, a German doctor, who remains in Danzig at the end of the war after most Germans have been expelled. A paean to the troubled history of Gdansk/Danzig, Chwin marvels at what endures though such turbulent times, from small personal triumphs to a range of bewildering, often talismanic objects, all beautifully evoked”.

I am an avid reader but have not read any of these…Here’s two questions – 1) Which one would you recommend, if any, that I read and why? 2) Are there any Polish books not on the list that I should read and why?

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