modern polish literature

Humanity’s fortitude, existential threats, and journeys of self-exploration: What’s new in Polish prose

13.06.2024

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Why would a reader choose to page through a book by a renowned author versus an author they have just heard about? Or is it better to ask what they might find in each?

A reader of contemporary Polish literature will probably notice that these books have something in common. Many of these books will be imbued with a dense feeling of anxiety. Unknown threats seem to be waiting around the corner, and the protagonist is left alone with themselves and the notion of being human, which leads to a certain self-defining that is forced. Ecopoetics, which have an important role in the landscape of Polish literature, is now slowly being filled with premonitions. It is not surprising. The force of war is crashing its high waves on the friable shores of a world where people are still suffering from the wounds of the twentieth century. A brand new world with new trials and hardships that metaphorically appear through the texts fills the shelves of bookstores.

 

Grzegorz Bogdał, “Idzie Tu Wielki Chłopak”

Wydawnictwo Czarne, Gorlice, 2023, 200 pages

Contemporary Polish fiction doesn’t lack anxiety, and the proof lies in the books we’d like to discuss here. A collection of short stories by Grzegorz Bogdał serves as an example. The language of the book is frugal — which isn’t a rare instance — and purposeful, and at times it is even worn. It all is meant to create a psychological pressure and an irresistible feeling that we are waiting for something to happen. It is a notion of being human, a threat, and an opportunity to look yourself in the eyes at the same time. The stories flow together, and they have a common atmosphere and protagonists who speak extensively about Poland’s past and present. There’s also what we often unconsciously look for in literature. The text demonstrates the narrator’s struggle with themselves, their weaknesses, their inabilities, and an incomplete personal realization. Does this book bring an unknown to us as readers? It really does!

 

Marta Hermanowicz, “Koniec”

ArtRage, Warsaw, 2024, 334 pages

Among the bestsellers that have captivated the Polish publishing market, we found an abundance of fictional prose concerning the interwar period and World War II. The repetitiveness of this subject matter is the reason this theme becomes worn out, as if it has become a part of pop culture. Only the brave would tackle this stereotyped era, which is still not any less painful and traumatic, even with rounded corners and not so bumpy plot roads portraying the destinies of real people. Marta Hermanowicz creates a para-realistic world in which a person finally has the opportunity to look at after surviving the war. This world is traumatic and harsh, and the perspective of escaping its emotional labyrinth is palpable only several generations later. In fact, we do not know if it is the way out we are waiting for. The novella narrates the story of a girl who experiences the trauma of her grandmother, and her grandmother’s memories of pre-war Poland, Siberia, and the war come to life anew in a setting that reminds us of the unfortunate, but understandable world of our present day. If we are interested in a model of transferring experience through time, Hermanowicz’s book seems to be the best example of an experiment like this.

 

Zyta Rudzka, “Ten Się ´Smieje, Kto Ma Zęby”

W.A.B., Warsaw, 2022, 224 pages

The most recent 2023 Nika Prize was duly awarded to Zyta Rudzka for this novel. The author is labeled unconventional, and Rudzka works stubbornly and recklessly on a topic that shows a woman — a strong woman. This book is called “uncompromising” for a reason. A strong woman finds herself in a situation of insecurity; she has lost everything: her husband, money, job, and love. What is left then? She realizes that she is her greatest achievement, and suddenly awakening from a long catatonia, she understands that putting on the mask of a victim is not what she wants. She can live as she wishes, love the way she wants to, and love who she wishes. However, now she faces a simple problem: to find shoes in which she could bury her husband.

 

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Ishbel Szatrawska, “Żywot I ´Smierć Pana Hersha Libkina Z Sacramento W Stanie Kalifornia”

Cyranka, Warsaw, 2022, 203 pages

Polish readers now expect even better texts, including stories with more impressions and atmosphere from Ishbel Szatrawska. Szatrawska’s published books have established her as a writer associated with high-quality literature. This is a story about a Polish Jew who suddenly finds himself in the heart of the US film industry. He has no choice but to fulfill his dream in the post-apocalyptic world after 1945. In joining the American film industry but in the process, he meets a new obstacle. He, a person who has escaped from his obscured piece of Europe to the United States, is being investigated by the FBI. The critic and writer Jerzy Jarniewicz described the book as “a story about the price we pay for who we are, who we would like to be, and how others see us.”

 

Katarzyna Pochmara-Balcer, “Swobodne Wpadanie”

Cyranka, Warsaw, 2024, 160 pages

She had not seen her father since she was a child, and he only existed in her imagination or vague memory. Suddenly, he appears on the doorstep. A place-hunter and temporizer, he tries to fit into the system of communist Poland, but then changes his “political colors” at the demand of the historical situation. Sound familiar? Her emotional background causes her to play the victim in her own play, but with the reappearance of her previously absent father, her psyche slowly melts away. Her alien father brings a secret that creates a gloomy atmosphere in the small apartment that can only lead to an explosion.

 

Jaga Słowińska, “Siostro”

Ha!art, Kraków, 2024, 88 pages

What is the best way to describe the genre of this small book? A brutal fairy tale. After all, were not the so-called “children’s” fairy tales we knew now in their archaic forms as cruel thrillers that seemed to have been created to keep the listener’s attention in suspense until the end, remaining in the memory of generations thereafter? The roamings of the girlie lead to a search for herself and a hide-and-seek game within her own life, which without a natural search for play turns out to be tragically broken. This story flashes before your eyes so fast, but it remains in your mind indefinitely, just like a real medieval thriller tale in a modernized scenography.

 

Urszula Honek, “Białe Noce”

Czarne, Gorlice, 2023, 160 pages

Urszula Honeck offers her debut collection of short stories, and if you look closer it turns out to be parts of a larger story. Critics kept noticing this, and more than one reader has been captivated by the fluid existence of everything and everyone that dwells in the world of Honeck’s book. This text impressed readers, and we are not surprised that the author received high awards. The fluid beauty of horror and the horror of beauty in the landscapes of the foothills could be called the main motif of the collection. The book evokes painful feelings of being lost in time in everyday life and a limited environment, which imbues the reader with feelings of anxiety that continue through its final pages. In it, we find something extremely necessary – something hidden behind the text about accepting a person as they are, perhaps – in accepting the person we often don’t want to accept.

 

Mateusz Górniak, “Trash Story”

Ha!art, Kraków, 2022, 120 pages

The feeling often haunts us that it will be impossible to tell our story, that words will not be able to capture the main essence of this era, since total, cynical recklessness has become a survival technology. Mateusz Górniak has managed to write a text that seems to draw a counterpart to our reality: as if it were our unlikely world that we are looking at through the screen of an even more unlikely TV set. It seems that this book, in its own way, celebrates the birth of a society of catastrophe, a society that feels and prepares itself for something that can devour it (a kind of imaginary “Mordor” from the famous book by Ziemowit Szczerek). Górniak invents a special narrative uncertainty: The protagonist seems to give voice to a sheet, a toaster, and random characters in fragments. The change of perspective turns out to be the fundamental problem and the main lure of this book.

 

Małgorzata Lebda, “Łakome”

Znak, Kraków, 2023, 304 pages

The Polish reader is fascinated by the growth of Małgorzata Lebda’s talent. Her poetic method seemed exhaustive until she published “Mer de Glace,” a striking book in terms of form and style. It is no coincidence that the author was awarded the Wisława Szymborska Prize for this text. Its prose is poetic while containing a powerfully tangible story of loss. Like Lebda’s poetry books, Łakome” delves into the family in individual phrases, movements, feelings, and understatements. The partially continuous narrative forces the reader to cooperate: He or she must find hidden voices and identify hidden characters. Meanwhile, on the text’s surface, there are psychologized images of animals, next to which the narrator lives and functions. Somewhere in the reader’s perception an image of catastrophe and — sic! — the finitude of this world that exists here and now may arise. However, we are not ready to realize this possibility — at least that’s what the publisher promises, and we will have the opportunity to see for ourselves if the book is published in translations.

 

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Translation: Iryna Saviuk

Copy editing: Nicole Yurcaba, Terra Friedman King

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