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From the Translator: Lauren Dubowski on Translating Ewa Schilling’s “The Fool”

By Lauren Dubowski

I found The Fool on a cluttered table in Korporacja Ha!art's bookstore in Kraków, a cozy, smart, artfully cluttered space above a contemporary art gallery, Bunkier Sztuki. Among its idiosyncratic books, magazines, and journals, some are especially . . . unconventional for Polish bookstores (Kiedy kobieta kocha kobietę  [When a Woman Loves a Woman], by Alicja Długołęcka, Agata Engel-Bernatowicz, Agnieszka Kramm, and Agnieszka Weseli, from Fundacja Anka Zet Studio for example, replete with how-tos).

I turned the novel's first page, and I couldn't turn away.

Schilling's words grabbed me first. They lie in wait on the pages like stones—simple, stark, and almost stocky (especially in the stylized sans-serif of the Ha!art edition). There's something hermetic about them: I knew, from first glance, that something was inside. I wanted to peel each word up off the page, shake it gently, and listen.

The more I read, though, the less I wondered about the words, because their structure compelled me to play with them. Schilling lets go of conventional narrative guidelines—because of the airtight nature of her words, she can—and as the story reeled over time and space, from café to classroom through Alina's eyes (stopping to dance, from time to time, with literary and religious references, reminders of her background), I scrambled for the words like footholds. Stop! I thought, as worlds flew by. I think I saw something there . . .

Without chapters, commas, or capital letters, the typical guides—the typical commands—I not only could stop of my own accord, I had to . . . lest I tumble into the abyss, like the Fool himself. Where to place a bookmark, what to cling to as one scene swirled into the next? What to call a "passage"?

I began to make choices—that something that was became something that might be, that could, that I wanted it to be—and with each new choice, the story became not just Alina's, but my own. I moved forward in the story, empowered by a subtle intimacy I'd somehow slipped into. For I knew the classroom, the graffiti in the elevator, the hollows between letters I stopped to linger in: A description of Anka's eyes. . .

In this way, Schilling's writing in The Fool is not only a gift to her reader but fit for her tale: The kind that would be—has been, and still is—snuffed out in Poland. (And perhaps elsewhere, given that Anka is Alina's student.) The transmission is simple and powerful, but the structure defies explanation or judgment—that's for the outside world (a fact sometimes echoed in Alina's “outside world” of friends and colleagues). Here, inside, where we are invited, where we are, the story is only told—and experienced, however the reader may choose.

Schilling's choice to relate the action of the story exclusively in the present tense only amplifies this effect. Polish is a highly gendered language, linguistically and culturally. (An illustration of the latter: "To get married," when the subject is a woman, is generally expressed as "wyjść za mąż," to "go off with a husband.") The past tense formation of verbs agrees with the subject performing them.  ("She opened the door,” in the past, is literally: “She opened [in the female form of 'opened'] the door.") Thus, in Polish past action, gender is multiply performed.

The Polish present tense though, doesn't indicate gender—especially when you don't use pronouns, which aren't required when the subject is clear from context. Not only does Schilling's narrative choice pull us even deeper into The Fool—it's happening now—but, in Polish, it heightens the story's universality, all the while diminishing the "exceptional," "unusual,"—to some, "reproachable"—nature of its lesbian content.

For example, a sentence like "they fell in love" or "they slept together" with the verb in the female plural past raises eyebrows a bit in Polish. The all-female nature of the act is reconstructed in the grammar: Two women, and then slept, as women do (but in Poland, supposedly, they don't!). But "they fall in love," "they sleep together?" OK, that's what's happening. We remember that it's two women, but what matters is the action, the story, in real-time. Again, we're there. It simply is.

In the excerpt published in WWB, Alina thinks to herself: "admittedly, there is no female form for 'fool' in polish." Fine, she goes on, but who cares? (Until the phone—the outside world—interrupts.) Women loving women is unusual, hidden, forbidden in Poland? All right, but not in Alina's world, where it's the norm, plain and simple. Presently. (Interestingly, the only instances the past is used to describe Alina's, or anyone else’s actions, are when other characters, for example, an ex-boyfriend, relate—interpret—them.)

Schilling's Fool is an affirmation of Polish lesbian existence not because of any complications or arguments, subtleties or subtexts, but simply because it is a lesbian story that is told. Because it may be experienced, publicly, in a time and place where stories like it generally have not been, especially in so direct a manner. It is a calm, composed victory, whose sealed-up secrets and narrative tumble emphasize: There's much to tell.

At the end of the novel, while they're looking for stones on the beach, Alina asks Anka: "who will write about us?"

Though she wonders who cares about requited love stories, "someone will," Anka replies.

Someone did. And because she did, we think of others, waiting....

Published Jun 11, 2010   Copyright 2010 Lauren Dubowski

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