Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Posts Tagged ‘Polish Literature’

Book Review – Swallowing Mercury

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

In Swallowing Mercury, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, Wioletta Greg explores the rite of passage of a young girl growing up in in communist Poland during the 1980s. Partly autobiographical, it is set in the Jurassic Upland, in the small fictional village of Hektary.

Wiola’s childhood experiences are related through a series of vignettes creating a vivid portrait of a rural community. Daily routines are punctuated by extraordinary events. When a rumour spreads that the Pope will drive past their village, the local women gather in Wiola’s home to make pennants for bunting from scraps of material, and toast the Holy Father’s health with homemade egg liqueur. Later, the bunting is destroyed by “the men whose task it was to destroy the decorations” (Wiola describes this matter-of-factly, not yet understanding the tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the communist state). While Wiola waited in the rain, the Pope flew elsewhere.

The villagers are as superstitious as they are religious. A red ribbon is tied around Wiola’s wrist as soon as she is born, “to ward off evil spells” and later, when Wiola faints in church, a red ribbon is tied in her hair “to break the spell.” Her mother tells her spiders are “sacred” and forbids her from killing them: “When the Holy family was fleeing from Jerusalem, spiders wove such a thick web around the road, that the swords of Herod’s soldiers couldn’t pierce it.”

The shadow of communism is ever present in the “piles of Breeze blocks” that lie beside “haystacks, apple and cherry trees” and the state-owned farms that blight the natural landscape. But government repression is brought home most forcefully when a local official interrogates Wiola at school, about her painting in a competition entitled Moscow in Your Eyes. Her ink pen had leaked over the painting, ruining it with “a viscous ocean of indigo.” The officer tries to bribe her with chocolate to tell him who had put her up to this: “Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?” Wiola, whether in fear or weary of the questions, vomits, and is finally left alone.

Greg is a poet, and there is a lyrical quality to her writing. She draws on all the senses, rendered in simple, childlike prose and deftly translated by Eliza Marciniak. Early on, Wiola describes the sun as “white and spotted like a goose egg.” As she gets older, her language and sensibility become more complex: “The air smelled of metal. An inaudible blues hummed in the web of the telegraph wires taut from frost.” The smells and taste of childhood are also brilliantly evoked though food, ranging from buckwheat blood pudding and beef roulade with cabbage to fried doughnuts and sour cherries.

The book’s anecdotal tone draws the reader in, but it is also deceptive. Take Wiola’s description of swallowing mercury, after a doctor had attempted to sexually molest her: “I put an immersion heater in a metal mug, boiled some water and dipped a thermometer into the liquid. The mercury container burst. Silver beads spilled onto the bedding. I gathered them up. I hesitated for an instant, but when I remembered Kwiecien’s face, I swallowed the balls like caplets and fell asleep.” It is an act of defiance that nearly kills her.

Swallowing Mercury is a multi-layered, prose poem of Poland’s chequered past, and Greg is unflinching in her gaze: Whether it is the family’s fortitude, the clash of church and state, or the beauty and brutality of rural life.

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Book Review – The Assassin From Apricot City

Posted by lucypopescu on February 18, 2014

the assassin from apricot cityIn The Assassin from Apricot City, Polish writer Witold Szablowski strikes an excellent balance between hard-hitting journalism, astute political analysis, and humorous observations. His reportage provides a fascinating insight into contemporary Turkey, its strengths and many contradictions.

Szablowski begins by exploring the diversity of opinion surrounding the demonstrations that took place in Taksim Square, Istanbul, in June 2013. Initially, aimed at preventing Gezi Park from being turned into a shopping mall, they became a direct action against Turkey’s authoritarian government. Through interviews with demonstrators, students and local businessmen Szablowski explores the increasing polarisation of Turkish society and heightened tension between Islam and secularism.

Szablowski is eloquent on Turkey’s conflicting aspirations towards and distrust of the West as represented by the main political parties. In one hilarious passage, he uses the length of politicians’ moustaches to differentiate between them: “The nationalists have the longest ones…well groomed, trimmed along the upper lip….The socialists have a small feather-bed under their noses, which comes right down to their teeth…the ones who take the greatest care of their moustaches are the Islamists. Theirs are exactly the same size as the space provided for them by nature, and they keep them trimmed to a length of no more than five millimetres.”

Interviewing ordinary Turks, journalists, academics and other experts, Szablowski traces Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power. The picture he draws is of a savvy operator who carefully repositioned himself politically in order to win votes. Once “a diehard Muslim” he has tempered his outward behaviour in recent years: “Erdogan now offers his hand to women without feeling that he is sinning. But privately he will never offer his hand to any woman, except for his wife.” His authoritarian stance may yet be his undoing as he is increasingly battered by protests and political resignations.

In the east of the country Szablowski discovers that “[n]owhere in the world does a brother love his sister as much, nowhere do the children love their parents as much, or the parents their children.” But in this close-knit community, where family honour is everything, this can become a deadly love. Women are routinely murdered after falling for the wrong person, for having a high school sweetheart or for being raped.

For anyone interested in this rich, varied, frustrating country, The Assassin from Apricot City is essential reading, seamlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Szablowski’s combination of literary reportage and personal reflections are reminiscent of the late Ryszard Kapuściński’s dispatches from foreign parts. The book ends with an image which perfectly summarises the country’s competing influences: “a picture of two women standing side by side, up to their waists in water. One was in a Muslim costume, covering everything except her eyes. The other was topless.”

Originally published in the


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Book Review – Sefer

Posted by lucypopescu on September 24, 2013

SeferEwa Lipska is an acclaimed Polish poet and a major figure in European literature. Hopefully, this new translation of her complex, haunting novella, Sefer, will widen her English readership.

Lipska’s main protagonist is Jan Sefer, a psychotherapist, who enjoys a comfortable existence in Vienna attending concerts, dining with friends and colleagues and browsing bookshops. An only child, Sefer had “a remarkably original father”, whose publishing house “helped him cope with his fear of depressive memories and with claustrophobia.”

Sefer’s father narrowly escaped death under the Nazis but repressed his memories, offering his son only snapshots of his experiences: the smell of mothballs that overpowered his senses as he hid from the Germans in a wardrobe or the sound of a soldier firing into a rucksack when a baby starts crying. By contrast, because of his profession, Sefer finds himself “linked forever with the demons of our time.”

After receiving a package from Argentina containing a manuscript addressed to his dead parent, Sefer’s curiosity is piqued. His father appears to have been connected to fellow Poles in Argentina involved in the tracking down of Nazi criminals. It prompts Sefer to visit Kraków, his father’s birthplace and the town where his first sweetheart lived.

The sombre tone is leavened with Sefer’s recollections of his dead aunt and her hilarious pronouncements, such as “Wine at noon is one of the things that expel man from this world.” After Sefer decides to travel to Poland she begins to appear more often in his imagination, popping up in a hat shop or at a concert to urge him on his journey. In his bedroom, as he reaches for his sleeping pills: “‘Why don’t you marry her,’ said my aunt, the enemy of all medicines: ‘Noone else has married a tranquilizer yet. A wife like that’s a treasure. Every night you just swallow her and that’s it. Marry her!'”

When Sefer arrives in Kraków he meets and enjoys a romantic dalliance with the grand-daughter of his father’s old flame. They pore over a faded album, “photographs guard the past”, and she introduces him to an affluent crowd similar to the one he mixes with in Vienna. After all, as Sefer notes, the European Union is “a multi-narrative novel.”

Lipska is strong on mood and Sefer is peopled with an array of interesting characters. Her lyrical passages are beautifully translated by Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard. Vienna is described as the land “where Mozart melts in chocolate and the Sonata No. 10 in C Major resounds inside every praline.” References to music, literature and art abound, although some may prove obscure for English readers. Just as Sefer fails to truly understand his father’s past, I couldn’t help but feel that there are strands of this fiction that remain tantalisingly just out of reach.

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