Abortion, Andrzej Bursa, Book review., Books, Concentration Camp, Dedalus Books, Fantasy, Hell, Jacek Dukaj, Literary criticism, Literature, Marek S Huberath, Poland, Polish Literature, Slawomir Mrozek, Stefan Grabinski, The Devil, The Greater Punishment, Wiesiek Powaga, Witold Gombrowicz
I had never read any Polish fiction before beginning The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy (1996) and I somewhat unfairly expected this anthology to provide a crash course in Polish literature. Yet the contents and character of the book may rather epitomize what Dedalus Books terms its “own distinctive genre, which we term distorted reality, where the bizarre, the unusual and the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European.” However eruditely it cites European fiction, this aesthetic roosts firmly in the Midlands: Dedalus are based in Cambridgeshire, Wiesiek Powaga edited and translated the anthology at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and the book’s production was largely funded by the Arts Council England.
If this book review constitutes a sort of literary tourism, then Powaga is our tour guide and we are totally in his hands. He has selected the authors and translated each of their selected works. As nobody can be said to have read the entire literature of their home nation – not least because literature is generally read in accordance with personal taste, rather than objectively and indiscriminately – then Powaga’s account of Polish fantasy can only be considered subjective and, consequently, incomplete. He notably excludes the Solaris author, Stanislaw Lem, and this commentator notes that he also overlooks the creator of The Witcher franchise, Andrzej Sapkowski; and the fantasy writers Felix W. Kres and Andrzej Ziemianski.
A compilation of fantasy from “English Literature” would potentially include everyone from Shakespeare to Coleridge, and Lewis Carroll to Samuel Beckett; although the books which are often found under the Fantasy subsection at Waterstones resemble a property of only vaguely-literary little clubs, the presses and printing houses of those who meet in parlours to paint figurines and play board games. Disregarding the fact that all fiction is fantasy, one cannot adequately isolate the various genres of literary fantasy. Surrealism, Weird Fiction, Science Fiction, the Gothic, Horror, and Magic-Realism are often in practice affiliations, or corners where certain styles and ideas have collected, rather than distinctive genres, although all essentially posit an antithesis to a dreary, modern reality (which is often itself a sort of fantasy).
The works which are cited by Powaga may seem innocent of the discernible historical literary periods, the movements and attachments, and the influences and interpretations which shape the terrain of any modern English Literature. Stefan Grabinski, for example, is frequently identified as the “Polish Poe,” but Poe’s corpus of writing was interpreted very differently in America and France, and one cannot be quite certain how it went down in Poland. In truth, the most Poe-like contribution to this anthology is Witold Gombrowicz’s Dinner at Countess Kotlubay’s (1933), the narrative histrionics and madcap wordplay of which are reminiscent of Poe’s own “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” Yet here we find a different sort of problem: one fears that Gombrowicz’s tale features all sorts of puns and allusions which are lost or impaired in translation. One sometimes wishes that Powaga had addressed his anthology to the scholar rather than the general reader. All of the stories and extracts are undated, for example, and one imagines that some of them would be better served by explanatory footnotes which put them in a greater historical and literary context (although the “About the Authors” section provides a little of this information).
Despite the absence of familiar literary markers, Powaga foremostly offers an interpretation of the Polish canon. Rather than identifying Poland as the Christ of Nations or judging how the Polish writer fares as the leader of a suppressed people, Powaga’s anthology distinguishes the figure of the Devil at the heart of Polish fantasy. He endeavours to “present the English language reader with some of the historical and cultural background of [the Devil’s] exploits in a repertoire of roles and guises in which he is familiar to the Poles…” The sits uneasily with the concept of Fantasy, however, as rather than serving the cause of escapism, the Devil so often shepherds the miseries of grim, awful reality.
Powaga presents many excellent tales: Slawomir Mrozek’s Co-Existence is not so much a short-story as a well-told joke; Andrzej Bursa’s Dragon provides a brief, neat, and brutal allegory; whilst Franciszek Mirandola’s Strange Street, Stefan Grabinski’s The Grey Room and Wiktor Woroszylski’s The White Worms are particularly haunting and eloquent. I confess, however, that I find Jacek Dukaj’s frequently celebrated The Golden Galley – which is perhaps most recognisably a work of literary “Fantasy”- to be not very interesting or good.
One of the best contributions to the anthology is Marek S. Huberath’s The Greater Punishment (1991), which opens with a description of the protagonist’s bodily obliteration at the hands of unidentified “interrogators”. We may initially conclude that this is hardcore realism – an account of the tortures meted out by a totalitarian regime – but it soon transpires that the torture scene introduces a fantastic and vaguely comic account of the Christian Hell. Whilst this may seem an unoriginal premise for a short story, Huberath’s fantasy offers a radical revision of the Christian Hell as, amongst other things, a Nazi concentration camp:
“They used to come in herds, in stripy pyjamas,” he said, reminiscing. “Once, one of them, skinny as a coat-hanger, with sunken, burning eyes, stops in front of me, fixes those flaming peepers on me and he says: “There was a ramp there and here is a ramp.” He sniffs the air, and he sighs: “Eli, Eli, and the smoke stinks just the same. Isn’t it ironic brother?”
This may be construed as a joke which highlights a certain anti-Semitism at Christianity’s heart, and yet the Jew of this anecdote is never seen again, perhaps indicating that he has proceeded straight to Heaven. Unlike Auschwitz, Huberath’s Hell does not offer a swift extermination but an eternity of abandonment: the inmates are as subdued as passengers on trains and buses, dulled by the camp’s weary routine and mislaid within its gigantic, paralysed bureaucracy; most of them were castrated during their tortures and they fuss over their substitute “little pipes,” which are frequently leaky; the Devil of the story, Neuheufel, is ungainly and middle-aged, a little sentimental, and not very interested in his work. This is a hell of fathomless despair, and yet Rud is oblivious to its hopelessness. He collaborates with the camp regime to obtain privileges such as coffee and smarter clothes, rather like a lab rat working his way around a maze, unaware that there is no escape.
Amid its hazy allusions to Poland’s former Nazi and Communist occupations, Huberath’s fantasy articulates the old Catholic concern about abortion. In Hell, the dead encounter the souls whom they had aborted, and despite the comic incongruity of these humanised foetuses (“The Un-born toddled past him in mincing little steps with faint thumps of his wooden heels”), there are strikingly poignant pictures of the encounters between the Un-born and their murdering parents:
“I want to see my… those two who didn’t want to be my parents… I heard they’re still here.”
“Do you really want to see them?”
“All the Un-born say that they don’t, they swear they’d never see them. But towards the end almost everyone goes to see them… Somehow… they want to know… to see them. Both.”
“Will you speak to them?”
“A few words, casually,” she shrugged. “I don’t want them to guess.”
Rud’s own aborted child, departing for Heaven with a splendid new body, pops in to pay his regards to his father:
One day a young man came up to him, who reminded him of someone; he was only a bit shorter than Rud, and thinner.
“Hi Ruder, I’m leaving here. I’ve come to see you and say goodbye,” he said.
“Have we met? Remind me.” Rud half shut his eyes to see better and to help his memory.
“Never mind, I know you. You didn’t want to teach me fishing. You were a good angler and I could be one too”…
… “What’s your name?” Rud shouted after him.
“Rolf. It won’t mean anything to you, I chose the name myself.”
The tortures of the Greater Punishment emerge from these confrontations as a sort of formality, or even an irrelevance. Neuheufel justifies Rud’s return to the Greater Punishment with the observation that “the moment the pain was gone you went back to your old wheeling and dealing and skirt-chasing.” When Rud wonders if he will ever leave Hell, Neuheufel tells him to “look for the answer in your own heart!” The Greater Punishment is the equivalent of beating at a locked door, a door which can only be opened from within.