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from the February 2017 issue

The Dynamism of Contemporary Polish Fiction

The authors who appear in this special Polish feature, prepared in the run-up to this year’s London Book Fair, at which Poland will be the “market focus” country, illustrate the diversity and dynamism of modern Polish fiction.

Julia Fiedorczuk is perhaps the best established of these names, with five volumes of poetry and four of fiction already published. Her poetry collection Oxygen, translated by Bill Johnston, will be out with Zephyr Press very soon. Strong themes in her work include how violence can suddenly encroach on human lives, and also how people don’t always fully understand their own physical place within the natural world. The story I chose for this feature, "War," is from her last book, a collection of short stories called Close Countries, in which, according to one reviewer, “Fiedorczuk exposes the sensitivity of creatures, finding that even dangerous tarantulas are delicate and fragile, their venom not as toxic as we imagine—as if we create most of our fears ourselves.”

I came across Maciej Miłkowski’s intense, powerful writing a couple of years ago, when I was asked to find a text by a writer under thirty-five for the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize. Maciej had just published his first collection of short stories, Whist, from which I chose The Tattoo for the competition, which was won by Tul’si Bhambry. She went on to translate more of his work, including Playground Archeology, which is from his second collection, Second Encounter. I was impressed by the precision of Maciej’s writing, and its sharp irony, which reminded me of Witold Gombrowicz—(no wonder Tul’si, who has studied Gombrowicz closely for some years, was able to hear the author’s voice so well). And by his excellent storytelling. "Playground Archeology" is a fine example of his ability to produce a seemingly innocent story that takes an alarming turn.

I’ve always mildly envied my colleagues who translate from French, Spanish, and Portuguese for being able to work on writers from countries in Africa and Latin America where those languages are spoken. So it was a pleasant surprise to come upon the work of Żanna Słoniowska, a Ukrainian who now writes in Polish; after growing up speaking Russian and Ukrainian, she fully acquired Polish as an adult, but as a native of Lviv she’s from a city that was once proudly Polish. And her Polish immediately enchanted me–it feels fresh and different, highly poetic. She’s capable of making the language perform extraordinary tricks, which enable her to bring realistic scenes more sharply into focus by gradually making them surreal, or to make various time scales overlap and blend. Her novel is about the painful relationships between the four women in a family where each is the only representative of her generation (we meet them in Doors, the extract you’ll find here), and also shows how in their part of the world lives are buffeted by historical fate. She is now close to completing her second novel, this time set in Kraków.

Jarek Westermark is a young writer and musician, whose first published work is Stories I’ve Written, the collection from which "Good Faith" is taken. I found it while browsing the Polish Book Institute’s Web site, and was intrigued by a short description that praised him for absorbing plots with a sense of humor and great powers of observation, somewhere on the border between popular and highbrow literature, but using the best elements of each. “He’s able to keep us in suspense, entertain us, and also, by breaking the conventions of various genres, prompts us to think more deeply about the world around us . . . ” I think "Good Faith" is the perfect illustration of his use of black comedy and fantasy to amuse and provoke all at once. I’m curious to know what he’ll produce next.

The feature also provides a great chance to showcase the work of three of the translators who have “graduated” from the UK and the US Emerging Mentorship Programs. Sean Bye and Tul’si Bhambry were both “mentees” of mine under the scheme run at the time by the British Centre for Literary Translation, and Anna Zaranko was mentored by Bill Johnston in the first year of ALTA’s program. To me, these programs represent the best move forward for Polish literature in translation in recent years, very quickly leading to an increased number of publications, and opportunities for new voices to be heard in English. 

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