Introduction

This is part of a series of special Personal Anthologies celebrating the literature of the 27 other member states of the European Union, alongside the UK.

In British political discourse today, the hundreds of thousands of Poles who have lived and settled in the UK since 2004 figure – along with all other incomers from nations east of the Oder-Neisse Line – largely as ghosts or ciphers. They serve as silent marionettes, abstractions summoned as spectral cannon-fodder to support one domestic argument or another. Thus real people become shadow-puppets recruited into a war of ideas waged by fantasists and narcissists.

On the one hand, this disembodied rhetoric fits all too neatly with the dehumanising politics of Brexit. Yet, poignantly, classic Polish fiction since the late 19th Century itself abounds with characters and entities who doubt their identity, question their status, and hover on the brink of non-being. Poland itself was, in geopolitical terms, no more than phantom between the country’s Third Partition (among Russia, Prussia and Austria) in 1795 and the restoration of autonomous nationhood in November 1918.

Explore Polish writing and you frequently traverse a borderland where shapes change and outlines blur; where the boundaries of selfhood, or perception, or genre, may change at any time. My selection, a baker’s dozen of stories by Polish and Polish-born writers, tramples formal fences in itself. I have chosen some self-contained sections from mosaics of linked tales that have been published as “novels”. One story comes from a work of documentary reportage but deploys all the stylistic armoury of fiction. And one of my Polish writers is a long-term UK resident. Two others grew up in historical Poland but made their literary names as migrants who wrote in other languages: Yiddish and English. Pay attention to the alien, the freak, the outsider: you never know what outlandish form your own secret sharer may adopt.

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