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.

‘The Ugliest Woman in the World’ by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

“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’ by Stanisław Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

‘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

‘The Waistcoat’ by Bolesław Prus, translated by Bill Johnston

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

‘Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies, or the Second Book of Genesis’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celina Wieniewska

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

‘Place’ by Andrzej Stasiuk, translated by Margarita Nafpaktitis

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