Marek Hlasko, known as the Polish James Dean, made his literary debut in 1956 with a short story collection. Born in 1934, Hlasko was a representative of the first generation to come of age after World War II, and he was known for his brutal prose style and his unflinching eye toward his surroundings. In 1956, Hlasko went to France; while there, he fell out of favor with the Polish communist authorities, and was given a choice of returning home and renouncing some of his work, or staying abroad forever. He chose the latter, and spent the next decade living and writing in many countries, from France to West Germany to the United States to Israel. Hlasko died in 1969 of a fatal mixture of alcohol and sleeping pills in Wiesbaden, West Germany, preparing for another sojourn in Israel. His memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings, was published for the first time in English in 2013, translated by Ross Ufberg; his novels Killing the Second Dog and All Backs Were Turned were recently published by New Vessel Press.
InTranslation is pleased to be collaborating for the fifth time with the New Literature from Europe (NLE) Festival, which took place November 6-9 in New York. Our November issues in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 were likewise dedicated to the festival and its participating authors.
Our current issue features translations of fiction and nonfiction prose by this year’s authors from Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and Romania.
For more information about the festival, its events, and its partners, visit: http://newlitfromeurope.org.
Wojciech Jagielski spent over thirty years working as a war correspondent, reporting from more than fifty different wars. His firsthand knowledge of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and a number of African countries has led to books that have been translated and published around the world.
His English-language publications include Towers of Stone, a fascinating portrayal of the two Russian-Chechen wars, partly through Jagielski’s own experience of hiding in a Chechen village in an attempt to interview the commanders-in-chief, thus exposing himself to the risk of becoming a hostage, and The Night Wanderers, a harrowing account of the experiences of children kidnapped and forced to join the sinister Lord’s Resistance Army. In each book, while focusing on real, ordinary people whose lives are affected by global or national events, Jagielski indirectly tells us the entire history of the country concerned, placing modern-day events in their historical and political contexts. His books are gripping and fascinating, making us painfully but enthrallingly aware of unfamiliar countries.
Jagielski’s latest book to appear in English translation is Burning the Grass (forthcoming from Seven Stories Press), which portrays the legacy of the apartheid system in South Africa through the lives of people whose experiences of it are very different. Focusing on a small town in the Boer heartland, his main characters are: the firebrand leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement who, despite an aggressive presence, is heading a redundant force; a black town counselor who fought against apartheid as a dissident, but though now in power, has no power at all; and a white farmer of British descent, whose attempts to act fairly toward his black farm workers as well as the local Boers are destined to fail.
In the related article featured here, Jagielski finds a Polish connection with the struggle against apartheid, in the form of a sinister assassin.
– Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Do others sneak their words to our lips? Is it confiscated at customs, or will it suit our own angles of approach? These questions of language are ones that Uljana Wolf never poses directly in her debut collection kochanie i bought bread, published by kookbooks in 2005. Wolf’s ear is tuned to what happens at the porous borders between literary cultures, everyday experience, and national history, engaging a poetics in which this dissonance is galvanized into a vibration that rattles us. That we feel unsettled and seduced in this border dance, where “strophe by strophe / the guest is better versed,” alerts us to how we incessantly draw and contest borders through the particularities of language. For Wolf, born in East Berlin in 1979, the complex historical strata of Germany–the ineradicable shadow of the war, the East-West dissonance, the multilingual melting pot of Berlin–offer a site of intercultural contact, her poems brimming with multilingual and historical variances that provoke and kaleidoscope her homeland’s murky inheritance.
Wolf is equal parts inventor and dementor of language, and each poem shimmers with the possibility of what ordinary object or utterance might undergo metamorphosis. A phrase in “postscript to the dogs of kreisau” describes much of Wolf’s wordplay and my approach as a translator: “lautrausch,” or “sonic intoxication.” The semantic and aural qualities of words are not distinct categories in kochanie, but ones that infect each other.
– Greg Nissan
“The Most Beautiful Girl” by Marek Hlasko contains all the hallmarks of this legendary writer’s prose–the ugliness found beneath sparkling surfaces, the brutalities of life, the human capacity for lying and cruelty, sharp dialogue, and a hardboiled pace–that made him so famous in his day. The mood is immediately set by a beautiful girl sitting on a bench next to a handsome boy in a picturesque park. Then, just as quickly, that mood is shattered. If there’s a theme that runs through all of Hlasko’s work, it’s that there is no place on this earth for lovers, and this story illustrates that idea quite brilliantly. Jealousy, pettiness, money, misperceptions–all these factors come in between what might have been a great romance. Indeed, with the perspectives of the passersby, we get the idea that everybody else takes the scene that’s unfolding on a park bench to be something out of a fairy tale. The two main characters in “The Most Beautiful Girl” are beautiful people who stir up feelings of regret, discontent, and in one case, creativity in others, just by being so damn beautiful. It is only the reader who has the privilege of knowing just how wrong the other visitors to the park are. Of course, the setting is Warsaw under communist rule, but the system of government is hardly the point. One of the reasons Hlasko remains so relevant today (and indeed, with three books published in the last six months, he is quite relevant) is that his stories could, and indeed do, take place anywhere and everywhere. That men and women are ugly to each other no matter who is president or dictator or shah is a difficult truth to stare in the face, but that only makes it a more worthwhile thing to do.
– Ross Ufberg
Apotheosis of the Dance is a six-part surrealist verse cycle, originally composed in 1973, which attacks totalitarianism and government-sanctioned violence through absurd humor. This can be best seen in the second poem, “Stalin at the Crossroads,” where the tyrant is declawed through his absurd presentation as a sentimental poet, and later as a prima ballerina. The absurdly comical situations imagined by Wirpsza in his cycle highlight the tragic absurdities of the systems of totalitarian repression, the unnaturalness of which is underscored in verse five, “Dante Apprenticed.” There, the man who was able to imagine the torments of Hell turns out to be a bad fit for a torturer’s academy, as “what was to be painless […] was torture at his hands, and what was to be painful / […] was, on the contrary, / ineffective.” Like the “idiot” in verse three, “Knights at an Assumption,” Dante escapes the organs of the state, who pursue him in a vain attempt to remake the human individual into a cog in the machine of judicial murder. The cycle comes to an end in poem six, “Can-can,” in which the bloody, yet bewilderingly comical, world resolves in an apokatastasis, which may be unsatisfying–although it cannot be said that the guilty get off totally scot-free in Wirpsza’s agnostic Comedy.
The new poems featured here contain the characteristic features of Wróblewski’s verse: urban context, surreal perspective, expressionistic intensity, epigrammatic concision. They highlight his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and culture (with which they remain in dialogue), his fascination with science, technology, and new modes of communication, and his profound understanding of contemporary politics. In his preface to Dwie Kobiety nad Atlantykiem, Polish literary scholar Krzysztof Hoffman establishes Wróblewski’s two current preoccupations: the idea of “planetary power” (as in the poem “Tests on Monkeys”) and “the condition of everyday life.” But these poems also announce the presence of a new element in Wróblewski’s work: a more extensive than ever before use of borrowed material (as demonstrated here by poems like “Renoir and Van Gogh” and “Makamba”). A major technique of conceptual writing, especially as practiced by today’s North American writers like Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith, here the use of appropriated language acquires a distinctly European flavor.
– Piotr Gwiazda
Witold Szabłowski is now working on a book about people who saved each other’s lives in Volhynia during the Second World War. Then part of Nazi-occupied eastern Poland (and now in western Ukraine), Volhynia was the scene of some of the bloodiest events in the entire course of the war. The report featured here was published in Gazeta Wyborcza‘s “Duży Format” reportage supplement on June 18, 2013, and will feature in the book.
Sylwia Siedlecka teaches at the University of Warsaw and in the Collegium Civitas. Trained as a Czech and Bulgarian scholar, she knows seven living languages and three dead ones. “Children” is taken from her debut book of fiction, Szczeniaki (Puppies), which appeared in 2010. A recurring motif in the collection is death; Siedlecka is interested in particular in exploring the feelings of the bereaved in her work.
N.N. (the truly “gray,” anonymous John Doe of the Communist Polish People’s Republic), awakes one day in a dingy hotel room with a nagging question: Who am I? Having existed (“lived” would be an exaggeration) through thirty-three years, N.N. faces an ontological crisis of such dimensions, that he finds himself unable even to go outside, to enter the quotidian reality of the drab rounds of totalitarian oppression, which kills not by showy, dramatic thrusts, but by grinding down the souls of its citizens under the slow, inexorable mill wheels of conformity. N.N. spends his day not only reflecting on his own life, but also on the reality of his nation, and how that reality is packaged for consumption via the state-controlled media. In the bitterly punning verses that make up Artificial Respiration, Stanisław Barańczak creates a critique of propaganda that lays bare the totalitarian deconstruction of meaning. Words cease to have any referent to objective significance, and mean only what the people in power want them to mean, for their own advantage.
As evening falls, N.N. makes a dramatic decision: life is not worth living in this humid, unhealthy bell-jar. He climbs out on the ledge, and spreads wide his arms in an image that suggests the Crucifixion. To Polish readers, his decision also alludes to another “great soul”: Konrad, from Adam Mickiewicz’s Romantic drama Forefathers’ Eve. That great Messianic character wishes to embody his entire nation, and lead it to a happiness greater than what God provided it with. But here N.N. embodies his Communist society all too well: deprived of a voice, deprived of an individual existence, the suicide of such a man would have no salvific sense for anyone who witnessed it; indeed, no one would even hear about it; it would be quietly swept under the rug, like all other attempts at protesting the totalitarian Moloch. In the end, N.N. cannot even “save” himself. He breaks down in tears, returns to his room, falls crosswise on his bed and sobs. Initially circulated in Poland in samizdat, Artificial Respiration was first published in book form in 1978, in London. One of the most stirring texts of modern Polish literature, it is the (anti-)epic of Solidarity.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).