Some Thoughts on Polish Literature [2]

Following up on last week’s post, I’d like to take a moment here to write a little more about the literary reportage work that’s happening in Poland. To my mind, Poland is a nation that has not lacked for interesting world lit, and I think that the reportage happening there is one of the most interesting things going on.

First, a really quick review of just what reportage is. The best-known author by far is Ryszard Kapuściński, frequent Nobel candidate, author of some verified classics of Polish literature (and someone who is not even close to being translated in full).

For those who think reportage might be a tough sell in the U.S., let me point you to a more recent example of the genre: Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones), published in 2013 by Melville House. Despite being about the (some might say) obscure subject of “the Czech half of the former Czechoslovakia”, Gottland received to raves from the likes of The New York Times, NPR, and Julian Barnes. Apparently it sold out quick, as it is no longer available and copies now go on Amazon for $60.00 (I hope Melville House reprints it soon).

One of the publishers that I found there was Dowody na Istnienie (“Evidence of Existence”), which is affiliated with the Reportage Institute that I mentioned in my Lit Hub piece. To be perfectly clear about it, the Reportage Institute is an umbrella organization that oversees the Polish Reportage School, the Wrzenie Świata Bookstore, and the Dowody na Istnienie publishing house. It is run run by the legendary reportage authors Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Tochman. At the book expo that ran concurrent to the Conrad Festival in Kraków I met Kamil Bałuk, who was a former student at the School and a reportage writer, and is the coordinator of the School of Reportage and an editor with the press. He was manning the booth behind a bunch of very intriguing books of reportage that I lamented that I could not read. Among the authors here were the legendary Hanna Krall, as well as Aleksandar Hemon.

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Kamil is a young, hip guy with a beard and glasses, and during one of our conversations he told me about an amazing, multi-week road trip he and his wife recently took across the United States. Said trip involved some couch surfing, including one overnight stay in the house of a certified gun nut who owned multiple guns and slept with a loaded one clenched in his hand. If I had overnighted it in the Polish countryside with some guy clutching a shotgun, I would have been terrified.

This is what Sean Bye, a Polish translator with two books forthcoming and an employee of Polish Cultural Institute New York (as well as my guide around Kraków and all-around amazing human being), told me about Dowody na Istnienie publisher:

Dowody na Istnienie has two main series they’re doing: Faktyczny Dom Kultury (which would translate as something like “Factual Cultural Center”), which is their series of rediscovered classics of reportage, and the Reporter’s Series, contemporary writing.

From the Classic series, I think the most interesting book is Wiesław Łuka’s “I Won’t Swear Myself.” A family feud in small-town Poland, set off by some sausage stolen at a wedding, culminates in three people being deliberately run over by a hijacked bus full of terrified locals. At the trial, the perpetrators refuse to testify, instead repeating an odd, ungrammatical Polish phrase translating roughly as ‘I won’t swear myself.’ The witnesses also refuse to testify, and the whole town basically ends up on trial. The book was first published in the 70s and was basically forgotten about until Mariusz rediscovered the author a few years ago.

[Note: I kept hearing about this one while in Poland, and it sounds absolutely like a Polish In True Blood. I would really like to read this book one day.]

From the contemporary series, Robert Rient’s book “Witness” is about a young man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness who leaves the church and is cut off by his friends and family. I haven’t read it, but it’s purported to be great.

While I was in Kraków I also met with the head of the publishing house Znak, which does a broad range of titles, including some of the leading reportage work. Znak was founded in 1959, and it has the distinction of remaining independent during the Communist era (during which many publishers were taken over by the state). I met Znak’s avuncular publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose office is adorned with a poster of two rhinos fucking (captioned “make love not war”) and memorabilia from Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who lived for a spell in Kraków and was a personal friend of Illg’s. In Polish Znak is the publisher of authors including Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, Szymborska, and, of course, Miłosz.

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One of the best authors in their catalog is Małgorzata Szejnert, who is an acknowledged master of reportage but has never been translated into English. She’s written books on Zanzibar, Ellis Island, Poland in World War II, and most recently, one about Belarus called Usypać Góry (“Raising Mountains”). I happened to look through the one on Ellis Island while in Znak’s offices, and it sounds like an amazing book—basically all of these stories of people who passed through the Island on their way to America. Sort of an outsider’s/immigrant’s view of one of the most hallowed pieces of this nation’s myth and history. Below, in a spread from Usypać Góry, you can see the time-honored usage of images in reportage titles.

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Znak also publishes Grazyna Jagielska, who is the wife of the noted reportage author Wojciech Jagielski, an author known for risking his life in war zones (and whose Burning the Grass was just published by Seven Stories Press in Antonia Lloyd-Janes’s translation). Jagielska has written a reportage book about the immense mental pressures involved in being the wife of a man who regularly leaves home for months at a time and puts his life in peril. She also published an amazing-sounding book called “Angels Eat Three Times a Day” about her time in a mental hospital. I really wish her books were available in English.

I also saw some very fascinating works by an author named Andrzej Szczeklik, who seemed to write books roughly comparable to Roberto Calasso’s. In particular, I flipped through the Polish edition of his amazing, genre-bending Kore: On Sickness, the Sick, and the Search for the Soul of Medicine, published in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation by Counterpoint in 2012. To give an idea of this book’s range, it included a series of full-color reproductions of works of art from various eras, which are integrate into Szczeklik’s rather wide-ranging meditation on illness and medicine. This is one I’m glad I can read right this second.

Lastly I should mention Sean Bye’s two forthcoming reportage translations. The first is Watercolors by Lidia Ostałowska (forthcoming from Zubaan Books), about the Czech Jewish artist Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt who survived Auschwitz (forthcoming from Zubaan Books). During my trip to Kraków I was able to travel to Auschwitz, and they actually had some of Gottliebova-Babbitt’s watercolors on display, which she made at the request of Josef Mengele, and through which she was able to save the lives of herself and her mother. The second title is “Remember the People of Kupferberg” (working title) by Filip Springer, about the German mining town of Kupferberg, which was handed over to Poland after World War II and had its population evicted and replaced by Poles from the east, before finally being abandoned as the mines closed in the ’60s and ’70s (forthcoming from Restless Books). They both sound like hugely worthwhile books that speak to the history that is still playing itself out in Europe, and I will be keeping my eyes peeled for their eventual release.



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I’m currently translating Robert Rient’s Witness. Gazeta Wyborcza published an excerpt of the book entitled “No Blood” in September 2014; the journal Bahamut will publish my translation of that excerpt in spring 2016.

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