Polish translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones recommends six books by contemporary Polish authors, which have not yet been translated and published in English.
This selection of books illustrates the range of genres and themes in contemporary Polish literature – there’s great diversity, offering something for every reader in just this short list. I chose these books because they represent a development beyond the tendency to use fiction to write about the country’s own tragic history, and also beyond the cryptic, impressionistic style that dominated in the past. Only one of these authors has ever been published at book-length in English before. These six writers show that Polish literature travels widely in time and space, covering every facet of human experience.
All but one of the books are by living authors who have only come onto the literary scene in recent years and have promising careers ahead of them. So they’re still making their mark in Poland, where literature is valued and rewarded with a range of prizes, numerous festivals, dedicated journals and debate in the media.
1. A meticulously researched, epic historical novel set in Italy: Maciej Hen, Solfatara (WAB Foksal, 2015)
Solfatara is a dormant volcano just outside Naples. This is a historical novel, set in July 1647 in the Kingdom of Naples, over the eleven days of a popular revolt ‒ a real historical event ‒ when a new tax on fruit and other food was the final straw for the local populace, who rose up against the hated Spanish viceroy and his men. Led by a fisherman called Masaniello, it turned into a ten-day rampage of violence against the aristocracy. Of course he came to a sticky end, when his head was parted from his body.
The language is simple but sophisticated. This is Polish of the highest quality, lovely and rich. Solfatara not only pulsates with literary force, but also with the energy of the Neapolitan street.
The book has been meticulously researched, but the result is a rapidly moving adventure novel full of fabulous stories and colourful characters. It has 900 pages, and when I first saw it, I had doubts, but it kept me up until 03.00, eager for more. It’s not just the immediate time scale, describing the riots, that is vivid and thrilling, but Fortunato’s past too, his amorous misadventures as a musician among the upper echelons in Rome and Paris, and his discovery of his own dramatic origins as the son of a woman who was killed for a horrific but inevitable crime of passion.
2. An atmospheric short novel linking an unlikely trio: Julia Fiedorczuk, Weightless (Marginesy, 2015)
This short novel, set on a single day in May in 21st-century Warsaw, about the lives of three women in their late thirties. They come from very different backgrounds: one works in advertising – she’s on her way to Athens on a business trip; the second is a cleaner in a provincial town a little way from Warsaw, she’s on her way to clean the Athens conference centre hotel; the third is homeless: a ‘bag lady’, and is on a rather different Odyssey.
So what links the unlikely trio? There are two distinct time scales – the present, and a provincial town in the late 1980s, towards the end of the communist era. The three girls first meet at school, and form accidental but significant ‘friendships’, made before you know who you are, but which establishes a permanent, indefinable bond, for better or worse. There’s also a boy with a mysterious background who is ‘different’. There’s something fragile and naive about him. He is sometimes mocked by the other kids. Then one day, something happens between them – clearly something disturbing, though we don’t immediately know what. Each of the girls confronts these events differently, or fails to confront them, and we watch the aftershocks ripple into the future.
The novel is moving, sensitively focused on its heroines, which shows that coming of age is never at an end. The writing is very good, cleverly building up an atmosphere – Fiedorczuk includes small details that you don’t necessarily notice, but that explode into something much bigger further down the line. There’s also a lot of subtext, things that aren’t said, but that hang in the air. The childhood section is often singled out for its great perceptiveness; the child in Fiedorczuk’s work also functions as a very particular kind of 'witness', exposing the folly of surrounding adults. How can we act freely under the weight of our past and the restrictions of the present? How do we assign things and events and memories their proper ‘weight’?
3. The enfant terrible of post-war Polish literature: Marek Hłasko, The Rice Burners (1968)
The Rice Burners is a short novel written in Polish by the enfant terrible of post-war Polish literature, Marek Hłasko, while he was living in the United States in 1968. Set in California during the Vietnam War, it is a dark, original story about an outsider’s encounter with the American dream and about the place of love and ideals in the modern world. The narrative centres on Jacob Anderson, a former flight instructor from Eastern Europe – a man with a difficult past, a cynical outlook on life and a passion for flying. When Anderson encounters Mike Ryan, a well-off young American intent on learning to fly a small plane to please his fiancée, Esther Schellenberg, the two men develop an unlikely and intense friendship.
Anderson is very much an anti-hero – a gruff, hard-boiled and at times cruel misanthrope with a gift for punchy one-liners and a strange allure. His world is the exact antithesis of Ryan’s easy-going, comfortable middle-class America.
The Rice Burners is a compelling, dark novel by one of Poland’s most interesting 20th-century authors. The writing could be compared to that of Graham Greene.
I feel Hłasko was inspired by Dostoevsky in his obsession with duality in human nature – there are often people in his books who, despite being outward opposites, actually reflect facets of a single, split character.
The Rice Burners is a hard-hitting but at the same time strangely exquisite and poetic novel. Although it was written in 1968, many of its themes are still current, and the specific issues that are present in the background – such as the pursuit of material wealth in the Western world, war, illegal immigration, trade unionism and race relations – remain relevant 45 years later.
4. A Polish immigrant’s life in Britain, on the Isle of Man: Dionisios Sturis, Wherever You Throw Me (WAB Foksal, 2015)
I am occasionally asked by publishers if there are any good books about the experience of Poles who come to work and live in Britain. Finally, I’ve found one that I absolutely love. This author, as you can tell by his not very Polish name, has a Greek father – but he grew up in Poland, where he is a writer and also a radio journalist. In his twenties, in the mid-2000s, he first came to Britain, and got a job at a mussel-processing plant on the Isle of Man. He’s been coming back ever since, and this book is the result of the years he spent living there.
In the fortunes of a scrap of land in the Irish Sea, Sturis perceives global processes: migrations, the death of traditional cultures, and conservative pressure against change.
It’s a fascinating mixture of stories about the local Manx people whom Sturis met and befriended, and about the Poles who are there to make a living, and who in some cases put down roots. It tells the history of the island, including how it was the site of an internment camp during the war, how a local widow championed women’s suffrage and was the first woman to vote in Britain, and how the Manx giant, the tallest man in the world, faked his own death to live a new life in America. Sturis’s stories of today’s ordinary local people may be more prosaic, but are just as human – about the lives of the women at the mussel-processing plant, about his Chinese landlady, and about the old lady who still burns a candle for her lost love – a Polish airman, whose fate Sturis traces for her. Finally, he also tells us the local legends – including how the Manx cat lost his tail.
I love lots of things about this book – first, it’s fascinating for me to read about a part of my own country that I don’t know at all. It makes me want to go to the Isle of Man and explore. Sturis portrays life there very vividly, and also evokes the landscape and feel of the place. His writing is unpretentious, but lyrical and highly atmospheric, and his form of travelogue reminds me of some of the very best British travel writing. Most of all, it’s a book that breaks down cultural borders and shows how we all have the same concerns and are very much the same at heart.
5. A prize-winning fantasy-adventure novel for young adults: Marcin Szczygielski, The Invisible Children's Theatre (Latarnik, 2016)
Marcin Szczygielski is a prolific and highly imaginative author. The Invisible Children’s Theatre is his latest book, which came out in late October 2016, and has already won the Astrid Lindgren prize and been longlisted for an IBBY award. Unlike his previous works, this one is firmly set in reality – the real Poland of the early 1980s, when the Solidarity trade union changed the face of the country by bargaining with the communist authorities for greater freedom. When in December 1981 the backlash came, martial law was imposed, and many Solidarity activists were arrested.
Set at this time, this is the story of Michał, an orphaned boy of ten who has grown up in children’s homes. He has a miserable life, all told, but an optimistic nature. At the start of the book he’s in a large, austere children’s home, but after a psychological crisis he is moved to a much smaller one for children with a traumatic past. There, he helps a spirited girl of 14, whose name is Sylwia, to set up a theatre group and write a play. When martial law is imposed, it has tragic consequences.
The author has a lively imagination, a talent for detail, and a knack for composing credible portraits of children. He writes about weighty topics with a light touch.
6. The world in a grain of sand – a strong voice in contemporary Polish poetry: Krystyna Dąbrowska, Time and Aperture (Znak, 2014)
Krystyna Dąbrowska is a young poet. Polish literature is of course very rich in poets – Czesław Milosz and Wisława Szymborska are world famous – and there’s a strong and lasting tradition that keeps producing new, unforgettable voices.
Her view of the world involves not just unusual sensitivity to its colours, scents and variety, but above all affection and empathy towards the people she encounters.
So what is it about Dąbrowska that stands out? Several things do: her honesty about life, at the personal level, her ability to confront her deep emotions and to encapsulate them in a way that helps us to understand our own; her curiosity about the world, and the variety of her poetry, in terms of settings and topics, inspired by her travels, and by her empathy for people wherever or whoever they are; her wry humour and ability to see the comical side of life; and finally, her incredible mastery of language.
Her poems are vivid and unforgettable, micro-worlds in short verses.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a translator of Polish Literature and twice winner of the Found in Translation Award. She has translated works by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists.
The London Book Fair 2017 is a unique opportunity to see a selection of the best contemporary writers from Poland in conversation with UK writers and publishers. It runs from 14 to 16 March 2017. Find out more, including about upcoming events.