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A. M. Bakalar, guest editor of our Poland issue, opens the door for the uninitiated to what’s going on right now in Polish literature. From a Stanisław Lem classic to stunning new novels and innovative children’s picture books, if you’d like to know more about Polish writing in translation, this is where to start.
Snow White and Russian Red
Dorota Masłowska (2005), translated by Benjamin Paloff
Chaotic, surreal, vulgar, darkly comic, and breathtaking, Masłowska’s debut novel became a best-seller shortly after its publication in 2002. A monologue by a tracksuited slacker in search of the next girl and a line of speed while the Russians are taking over the local black market. Is the war coming or are these drug-fuelled delusions? Fiction like a roller coaster.
Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life
Artur Domosławski (2012), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
A fascinating and complex portrait of one of the most outstanding Polish journalists and author of The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and Imperium. Domosławski paints a picture of a flawed human being; Kapuściński was a brilliant journalist who had to make compromises with the authoritarian regime in order to write. Despite his writings sparking controversy by combining fact and fiction, his collaboration with the security services and his several affairs (one of the reasons why his wife tried to stop publication of the book in Poland), his books have been admired and loved by readers all around the world. A superb biography of a journalist’s life and times.\
Stanisław Lem (2008), translated by Michael Kandel
In 1974 Stanisław Lem was reported to the FBI by the legendary American science fiction author Phillip K. Dick, who believed (perhaps due to his schizophrenia) that Lem was in fact a pseudonym for a composite of Communist Party committee members: “he writes in several styles”, Dick said. But in fact, Lem was simply an incredibly imaginative and unique author, best known in the West for his novel Solaris. You don’t need to be a fan of science fiction to be blown away by his masterpiece The Cyberiad. In a robot dominated future, rival inventors and best friends Klaupacius and Trurl travel across the galaxy, creating ever more ridiculous and nonsensical inventions. Beneath this compelling collection of hilarious stories of two robots and their adventures Lem delves into the complexity of our own humanity.
Where the Devil Can’t Go
Anya Lipska (2013)
Though Anya is a British author, she did an amazing job with her debut crime novel about Janusz Kiszka, a fixer for the Polish community in East London. Kiszka is hired to solve the mysterious disappearance of a young Polish woman while detective Natalie Kershaw is faced with a dead body of another Pole. Things get complicated when Kershaw suspects Kiszka had something to do with the murder. If you’d like to find out about Polish communities in London you are in for a real treat. Insanely entertaining.
Our Class (Oberon Modern Plays)
Tadeusz Słobodzianek (2009), translated by Ryan Craig
Are humans born evil? When and why do we decide to do the unimaginable? Our Class is chilling drama which follows the lives of 10 members of a school class, from 1925 to the present. The starting point is the slaughter of over 1,000 Jews in a small Polish town of Jedwabne. Recent research attributes the killings to the local community. Despite its harrowing content, it is a remarkable text where religious tensions and political agenda influence childhood innocence, where fear drives young people to become informers, killers, and collaborators. Above all, Our Class asks the reader: What would you do if you were in this situation? What would you be willing to sacrifice to save yourself? What is the price of freedom?
Michał Witkowski (2010), translated by W. Martin
Hailed as the first Polish queer novel; queens Patricia and Lucretia grow up in the communist Poland of the 70s and 80s, seducing Soviet soldiers, and preying on drunks and heterosexual men in public toilets and parks. A visit from a young journalist prompts a dazzling journey into the dark and twisted stories of the gay underground. Lovetown is a tour-de-force of storytelling and inventive dialogue.
White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia
Jacek Hugo-Bader (2011), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
On his 50th birthday, Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader gives himself an unusual present – he decides to drive east to Siberia in the middle of winter. Along the way on his epic car journey, he encounters bandits, shamans and ageing hippies; he visits Mikhail Kalashnikov, the 88-year-old inventor of the famous gun, and Russia’s Miss HIV Positive. With great humour and sensitivity Hugo-Bader paints a nonetheless disturbing picture of the underbelly of Russia and its people. Unforgettable!
House of Day, House of Night
Olga Tokarczuk (2002), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Tokarczuk is considered by many to be one of the best Polish authors writing today. House of Day, House of Night is her sixth book, but the first to be translated into English. It is a collection of interlocked stories and observations set in and around the town of Nowa Ruda. “If death were nothing but bad, people would stop dying immediately,” says one of the neighbours, Marta. Past and present, dreams and reality, life and death, all merge in this delightfully inventive prose about ordinary human lives.
Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński (forthcoming in 2013), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I don’t have children but these so called “seeking” books blew my mind when I first read them and now all friends who have kids over a year old will be getting them from me. A cast of quirky characters, beautiful design, with intricate details that any child can follow and make up their own stories. Hugely creative, they will make your child fall in love with books. “My child is addicted to them” said one mother to me. I could not think of a better way to put it.
The Assassin from Apricot City
Witold Szabłowski (forthcoming in 2013), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I first read this book when it came out in Polish in 2010 and I could barely sleep afterwards. Szabłowski travels to the most remote Turkish towns and villages to meet women forced into prostitution, Kurdish freedom fighters, girls who run away from honour killings. A captivating book of reportage about contemporary Turkish society.
A. M. Bakalar
A. M. Bakalar was born and raised in Poland. She lived in Germany, France, Sicily and Canada before she moved to the UK in 2004. Her first novel, Madame Mephisto, was among readers’ recommendations for the Guardian First Book Award. She is the first Polish woman to publish a novel in English since Poland joined the EU in 2004. A. M. Bakalar lives with her partner—a drum and bass musician—in London. She is currently at work on her second novel.