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.
“Anyone who hasn’t got a mother hasn’t got a mother tongue either.” The itinerant circus impresario who narrates this misshapen love story comes across as something of a freak and a misfit himself. So when he recruits a grotesque-looking lady as a lucrative sideshow, the stage is set for a tragicomedy of mishandled passions and mistaken identities. Through her, he discovers “a secret – that everyone is in disguise”. Quieter, perhaps quirkier, than Angela Carter, though rich in comparable neo-Gothic tropes, Tokarczuk’s story investigates her abiding theme of our inherent strangeness – not only to foreign persons and other cultures, but to our very selves.
Published in Best European Fiction 2011, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, Dalkey Archive Press
‘The Mask’ stands out for its eerie prescience, even among the plentiful parables of artificial intelligence and its relation to our fractured human consciousness composed by Poland’s science-fiction maestro. The inorganic “female” entity who narrates the story wrestles with the puzzles of her origin and destiny, and of her possible relations with another kind of being. As so often in Lem, scientific advance coexists with a feudal, backward social order. A fantastic or futuristic scenario enables him to delve deep into our present dilemmas of autonomy, freedom, conditioning and choice.
First published 1976; collected in Mortal Engines, Penguin Modern Classics, 2016
A threadbare cousin to Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’, this Warsaw waistcoat circulates among shivering hands in the courtyard of a tenement building. The narrator, observing his neighbours like James Stewart through Hitchcock’s Rear Window, pieces together its heart-rending back-story. Prus’s social-realist tendencies collide with a more speculative and visionary mode of writing. The result blends the gritty and the ghostly: compassion for the poor and their burdens, combined with an unearthly sense of the inanimate existence that underpins, and outlasts, our frail human striving.
First published 1882; collected in The Sins of Childhood, and Other Stories, Northwestern University Press, 1997
Why has modern Polish literature made such a speciality of liminal forms in which humans and machines, consciousness and object, uneasily meet? Jewish mysticism and its secular branches surely supply part of the answer. The alchemical and Kabbalistic life of things pervades the stories of small-town surrealism in Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, dominated as they are by the mysterious father-figure who acts like a heretically creative demiurge. Here, inanimate objects strut and glow with an existential confidence denied to cowed humanity. The father’s “treatise” on mannequins tells us that “lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life”.
First published 1934; collected in The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2008
The post-Communist Galicia where Stasiuk’s sequence of braided stories unfolds is another liminal location. Here, boundaries fray, matter dissolves and epochs shift. A new age of “market forces” runs messily into the mud of tradition, habit and sheer weirdness in this liquid backwater. Amid this existential fog, the ideological fantasies of today – like those of yesterday – will soon rust and crumble. In ‘Place’, the attempt to transplant a church from its original site to a museum prompts the understanding that “a place cannot be carried off”. Not surprisingly, it’s a stubbornly rooted ghost (of a wife-murderer) who anchors these hauntingly stick-in-the-mud tales.
First published 1995; collected in Tales of Galicia, Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2003
Consumptive Staś returns to die on the remote woodland estate of his widowed brother Bolesław. In this rain-soaked hideaway, elements and states mingle: love and hate; air, earth and water; life and death. This is a long, seemingly naturalistic story, with all the textured heft and grip of a compact novel. But it enters a sort of fairy-tale forest in which nothing about our senses, or our selves, stays solid. These “modern” Poles with their “European” affinities may scoff at peasant superstitions. No matter: the “warm incessant rain” will erase distinctions and identities, so that the brothers merge into a “deep, dark and impenetrable” world beyond their rational understanding.
Written 1932; collected in Found in Translation, edited by Frank Wynne, Head of Zeus, 2018
Mrożek’s compact fables turn the bureaucratic illogic and rigidity of life in the Stalinist Poland of the 1950s into deadpan satirical vignettes. The pieces find “absurdity” not in some abstruse realm of avant-garde ideas, but in the frustrations and deceptions of everyday life. In the title-story to this collection, the “elephant” allocated to a cash-starved zoo turns out to be ersatz: a rubber surrogate that modestly refuses to waste the precious hard currency that a real beast would cost. But even simulacra (that inescapable Polish motif again) may acquire a transformative life of their own…
First published 1957; collected in The Elephant, Penguin Central Europe Classics, 2010
Polish authors cross physical borders as their work does genres. The full surname of Wioletta “Greg” is Grzegorzewska and she lives in Essex – a county, at least in its rural reaches, maybe not so distant in spirit from the countryside in which the young narrator of Swallowing Mercurygrows up. The sly and elusive stories that make up this patchwork novel depict a rustic Poland still becalmed, while remote great events shake and topple the post-war Communist regime. For Wiola in ‘The Little Paint Girl’, elsewhere consists of the fantasy Moscow she paints to win a prize – a childish triumph whose glamour fades along with the allure of the Soviet empire itself.
First published 2014; in Swallowing Mercury, Portobello Books, 2017
Pitched in period and mood between Kafka and Orwell, Gombrowicz’s stories of the Twenties and Thirties filter contemporary horrors through his macabre and surreal imagination. They can still shake readers who succumb to its power. In ‘The Rat’, a fearsome brigand named only “Hooligan” falls into the clutches of a torturing judge, Skorabkowski. How can this vengeful enforcer of the law “transform the bandit’s nature” when the impenitent Hooligan mocks every physical torment? The titular rat alone – first a rodent, then a kind of absolute Platonic idea of terror – can gnaw into his soul. As in Kafka (and Orwell?), order needs transgression; but does crime also crave punishment?
First published 1937; collected in Bacacay, Archipelago Books, 2010
Born in 1930s Poland to a Jewish family, Hanna Krall survived the Holocaust by “passing” as a child in a gentile family. The trauma of survival, as well as mourning for the victims, propels her later work in journalism and non-fiction narrative. She gathers and weaves true tales of the genocide and its aftermath in The Woman from Hamburg, but narrates them with all the shaping and subtlety of fiction. ‘Hamlet’ traces the unlikely career of the gay, Jewish pianist Andrzej Czajkowski. He too survived the war – dyed blond – “on the Aryan side”. Around his fantastic, melancholy voyage, Krall knots other unsettling strands of the post-war Polish-Jewish story. Settled in England, Czajkowski eventually bequeathed his skull to the RSC. David Tennant wielded it, and addressed it, in his Hamlet.
Collected in The Woman from Hamburg, and Other True Stories, Other Press, 2005
Chilly and lonely, the Baltic shores that inspire the Gdansk-born writer Pawel Huelle may feel far from the centre of things. In all his work, however, history rudely intrudes on isolation as the mainstream floods the margins – often tragically, sometimes hopefully (as in the Solidarity movement, for which Huelle worked). The Dutch Mennonite sect in ‘Mimesis’ have found a Polish refuge from persecution. Then both Nazi and Communist takeovers smash their peace and wreck their village idyll. What remains, as often with Huelle, are ruins, fragments, memories: history as a parade of ghosts and dreams.
First published 2008; collected in Cold Sea Stories, Comma Press, 2012
Even though he left Poland for the US in 1935, the close-knit, myth-haunted life of the Jewish shtetl fired Singer’s imagination for the rest of his career. As did the Yiddish language of his youth, with its inalienable cargo of memories, which he never abandoned. ‘Gimpel the Fool’ – its fame, and Singer’s, accelerated by Saul Bellow’s translation – tells of a pitiable village shlemiel. The cuckold baker Gimpel serves as an archetype of hapless gullibility as his adored wife bears children to one lover after another. Yet the fool becomes a saint as well. Singer grants him transcendence as he looks forward to reward in another life, “without complication, without ridicule, without deception”.
First published 1957; in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2011
Replicants and doubles, impostures and facsimiles, seem to have swarmed through this selection. So why not close with that double man Konrad Korzeniowski: the dispossessed Polish exile who, via the British merchant marine, became an English literary gent? In ‘The Secret Sharer’, we will never know the exact status of Leggatt: the fugitive first-mate who rises from the waters of the Gulf of Thailand to plague, and partner, the baffled captain who gives him shelter. “Can it be, I asked myself, that he is not visible to other eyes than mine? It was like being haunted.” That sense of haunting lingers long after Leggatt, the captain’s “second self”, plunges back into the waves: an outcast symbol of unbelonging, “a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth”.
First published 1910; collected in The Secret Sharer and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2014