Calling this book "The Polish Persepolis" as many did would not be fair.
What I like, apart from the book, is the story behind its genesis. Let's take a...moreCalling this book "The Polish Persepolis" as many did would not be fair.
What I like, apart from the book, is the story behind its genesis. Let's take a French illustrator and a Polish woman with some writing skills. Let's call them Sylvain and Marzena. Then let these two fall in love with each other.
Visiting Marzena's country, Sylvain got interested in the childhood of his girlfriend and he asked her to remember those days. Marzena did it beginning with some apparently minor details related with daily life during the communist age. Sylvain found those details inspiring and began drawing some sketches of a carp in a bathtub.
Well, according to Sylvain and Marzena this is how red-haired intrepid "Marzi" was born on paper. And I trust them.
This book collects the very first stories coming out from Marzena's childhood. The drawings are beautiful, the storyboard is pretty good and the whole operation is deserving. Maybe "Marzi" is not a masterpiece but having been in Poland recently I found her 1980s adventures as a good guide for understanding in a better and not pedant way the country nowadays.(less)
"The Elephant" is a book collecting of forty-two short stories where Slawomir Mrożek pokes fun at politics, bureaucracy and social life of Poland in t...more"The Elephant" is a book collecting of forty-two short stories where Slawomir Mrożek pokes fun at politics, bureaucracy and social life of Poland in the 1950s. Although Poland is never named here what the author wrote had a very clear goal: hitting the daily comedy of a life ruled by what the Party and its hyerarchies said.
It's a fact that most Polish people at that time had to follow the line (or at least pretend to do it for their own sake). And that Party line was far from being straight and drawn after logic, but rather bent to the left with the final result of blazing a turning spiral into either sad or ridicolous endings for those who walked along it.
Mrożek understood this and decided to amplify and enhance the spiralling process to its extreme consequences. Therefore, the style he chose here is sober and precise miracolously suspended in midair between fairytale telling and a political statement with punchlines delivered just at the right time and with a flawless aplomb.
The comparison with Kafka chosen by the British editors of the English translation of this book is a bit simplistic. First of all the short stories written by Kafka have very little humour in them and secondly, Mrożek is way more direct and concise than the Czech master. Moreover, unlike Kafka, the Polish author employs a first person narrative with sparingness and doesn't investigate over the moral dilemmas, psychologic idiosyncrasies or overwhelming victimism of his characters.
Mrożek is what I may call a clever situationist or better an artist of witty situationism while Kafka joined a very different club and the complexity of his conclusions are by far harder to grasp in a single draught.
If Kafka is a strong drink, not a schnapps but a fruity liquor, to sip and taste thoughtfully, Mrożek is prosecco, dry white wine with sparkling on the top you can freely indulge yourself with.
It looks like this sparkling Mrożek believes that human beings, after all, are not complicated but predictable creatures and it's rather the situations they deal with which transcend into extraordinariness. In fact, the short stories collected into "The Elephant" are populated by common people and mostly revolve around plausible situations with some unexpected twist or decision turning on the table into absurd realism. This technique makes the subtle but strong message delivered by Mrożek even more powerful leaving a pleasant taste in the readers' mouth.
My favourite toasts here? "The Elephant", "The Swan", "The Co-operative", "A Citizen's Fate" and "In the Drawer" with the last one reminding me the idea behind a little gem of a Polish movie of some 25 years ago, "Kingsajz". Na zdrowie!
PS: A final special mention goes to the few but carefully chosen illustrations by Daniel Mroz here. These drawings perfectly fit and add up something magic to what Slawomir Mrożek wrote.(less)
Now, this one was extremely good. And it's hard to believe how "Story of a Secret State" had to wait for so long before being re-published.
Jan Karski -...moreNow, this one was extremely good. And it's hard to believe how "Story of a Secret State" had to wait for so long before being re-published.
Jan Karski - a nom de plume, pardon d'action - wrote this book with the extreme urgency of a man who has just managed to get through four years of war, starvation, captivity and, on the top of it, a dangerous clandestine patriotic activity. A brilliant combination, isn't it?
Nevertheless, "Story of a Secret State" is written very well with its author never claiming to be the best one among those around him or stressing out his bravery and determination. In fact quite the opposite; Karski admits his human fragility while being tortured, his fear of being captured while crossing borders and reckons how some people did heroic actions in Nazi/Soviet occupied Poland without getting the honour they would have deserved at the end of the war.
The way Karski tells us about the Polish Underground organization between 1939 and 1943 is amazing and very detailed. There are interesting insights on the way clandestine press worked and how boys, girls and women helped the Underground in many ways from carrying vital information to hosting its members.
Then there are the missions Karski himself took part in. These adventures are described in a detailed and precise way here, without forgetting a touch of irony when needed and not stepping back towards human tragedy.
This is the same free man who went to a concentration camp in incognito and later tried to convince Roosevelt and Churchill to speed up their intervention in continental Europe informing them about the horrors he witnessed in first person. This is the man who entered the Warsaw Jewish ghetto while the Nazi were sending off its whole population to be exterminated and just before its fearless but unsuccessful insurrection.
And there's much more to be found here.
As for me, "Story of a Secret State" has a lot of extra meanings and personal links. I had the chance to visit most of the places Jan Karski wrote about from Radom (!) to the Tatra mountains around Zakopane and always wanted to see Lvov where he was born.
And of course there is Warsaw with its recent history, its uprising, its destruction, its cultural vitality despite communism and its current redevelopment (although not always fulfilled in a proper way).
I visited the modern but rather messy Warsaw Uprising Museum and don't remember any mention to Karski there. I walked in the area where the Ghetto used to be and below the massive socialist residential blocs known as the mammoth's wardrobes it was hard to picture how all it looked before. I slept in that same Praga district of Warsaw which doesn't look very different today from how Karski portrayed it in the 1940s.
Even if you never visited Poland and have no intention to, this book has to read, if only to get a glimpse of how a whole nation managed to build up a parallel State hidden under the rubble of bombarded Warsaw and how the majority of Poles were not passive at all during World War II.
Behold! This book has nothing to do with nationalism etc. This is an engrossing reading where history gets human features and feelings and doubts and despair and joy while it happens.
There is no fictional spy story (sorry Graham) which could be that good. And true.(less)
There are 167 stamps on Andrzej Stasiuk's passport. Or, at least, there were so many when this book was published. Probably Mr Stasiuk hit 200 stamps...moreThere are 167 stamps on Andrzej Stasiuk's passport. Or, at least, there were so many when this book was published. Probably Mr Stasiuk hit 200 stamps in the meantime. And I would be glad if he did, for each of these stamps has a story to tell and the author of "On the Road to Babadag" is the right person to do that.
What you will find here is the perfect combination of the celebrated "Danube" by Claudio Magris with the Eastern Europe travels of "Michael Palin's Europe" recently televised by the BBC. And yet, in Michael Palin's words, Stasiuk is "less fucking pompous" than the Italian writer, while Claudio Magris would find Babadag more "Hapsburg influenced and quintessentially Central-European" than the ex-Python's travelogues.
What Stasiuk managed to accomplish here is stunning. This book is an act of love for those wide lands between the Carpathian mountains and the Black Sea spanning over 5 official countries (Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Moldova) a self-proclaimed one (Transnistria) and a Gypsy stateless but very evident community. There are also a couple of detours, when Stasiuk drove through Slovenia and visited Albania but in both cases they seem linked to the road which leads to Babadag as to prove a common Eastern ground made of dilapidated bunkers, rented rooms, watermelons and beer for chasing liquor.
Stasiuk managed to map a land where melancholy and initiative, bribing and altruism, alcoholics and essayist come with hands clasped sometimes being the right and back of the same hand. A land which is crisscrossed by solemn rivers, bumpy roads and where half-dismantled borders pop up in the corn fields. There where the likes of Emil Cioran and Danilo Kiš were born.
What the author seeks for are places where time is "just a piece of eternity you cut out for your own consumption". As Stasiuk puts it, the heart of his Europe doesn't beat in Vienna, or Budapest, or Krakow. And this heartbeat cannot be found even in Ljubljana, Chisinau or Bratislava, but it rather pulses in Husi, Sulina, Szolnok. Or Dukla. Or Babadag. Only driving to and through this immemorial and yet vaguely known cut-out Europe avoiding any large town on his sight, Andrzej Stasiuk can find what he is looking for.
"On the Road to Babadag" is the written proof of a world that will always be torn apart and yet somehow cohesive, with ferries travelling back and forth the Danube banks or connecting Constanța with Istanbul. I went aboard and let the time flow. For my own delighted consumption.(less)