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History, War, and Writing: Notes from the Conrad Festival in Krakow

By Tynan Kogane

Photo: Thomasz Wiech / the Conrad Festival
Photo: Thomasz Wiech / the Conrad Festival

The first day of my one-week trip to Krakow, during which I planned to learn more about Polish literature by attending the seventh annual Conrad Festival, spending time at the Krakow Book Fair, touring the city, and meeting with authors, agents, translators, and publishers, began with a long red-eye flight from New York City, which was sleepless enough to make everything that day seem fuzzy and slightly surreal. In the early afternoon, I dropped off my luggage at the hotel located just outside the center of Krakow, a city I knew very little about, except for tidbits gathered from Wikipedia in the days leading up to the trip, and a vague notion of its rich literary history: a few of the Polish writers I’d read had made their temporary or permanent home there, including Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymorska, Adam Zagajewski (whose memoir, Another Beauty, I’d started to read on the flight over), and Joseph Conrad. Lauren Hook from the Feminist Press and I were greeted in the hotel lobby by the wonderful translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Polish literature made her a perfect navigator (Scott Esposito from the Quarterly Conversation was part of our little junket trip too, but he arrived the following morning). From there we headed into the streets of Krakow, walking toward the historic city center (Zagajewski says the town center, surrounded by a long, thin park on all sides, “resembles a gigantic keyhole”), through an underpass with vendors selling shoes and vegetables, past a department store, cafés, faded yellow and gray apartment buildings, the concert hall, finally arriving in the vast and picturesque main market square, edged with palaces and, in the center, the Cloth Hall—a massive Renaissance-era building that was once a center for international trade. The two irregular towers of St. Mary’s Basilica stood on the opposite side of the square, and every hour, from the top of one of the towers, a trumpeter would hit a few notes, following an old tradition that was explained to me several times—but since then I’ve forgotten the explanation, or maybe I never quite understood it in the first place.

We found a café on the edge of the square, drank coffee, chatted, looked over our packed itinerary, and I learned my first two words of Polish by using goofy English mnemonics—“gin-cool-yeah” for dziękuję (thank you), and “raccoon-neck” for rachunek (the bill). After sitting for a few minutes, soaking in the mood of the square—a beautiful, expansive space with the slightly uncanny splendor of a Disneyland set, while the Game of Thrones theme-song played on a piano somewhere in the distance (no, I’m not making this up)—we continued walking for about an hour, zigzagging through the old streets, as everything, in my exhausted state, began to seem more and more dreamlike, until soon it was time to see the headliner of the Conrad Festival, the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, in the Jagiellonian University’s auditorium. On the way, we met up with Sean Bye, our guide from the Polish Cultural Institute New York, and Tuesday Bhambry, a Polish translator. As a small gang now, we walked past the National Museum of Krakow, the Jagiellonian University Library, and the Geological Museum—Tuesday pointed out that this massive building used to be a school for miners and engineers during the communist era—and arrived at the packed auditorium, where roughly a thousand people had gathered to listen to Alexievich, who had won the Nobel Prize for literature about a week earlier. We made our way through the crowd, finding seats near the back, somewhere out of the way, because Sean and Antonia were going to interpret the event for Lauren and me. As we settled in, waiting for the event to begin, Sean explained that Alexievich was already very popular in Poland, long before winning the Nobel Prize. In the United States, where her work is still vaguely unclassifiable, she hasn’t had the same mainstream success. However, in Poland, which has a long tradition of reportage, a genre called literatura faktu or “factual literature,” she’s already canonical. At the event, Alexievich expressed gratitude for two of the major Polish reportage writers, Ryszard Kapuściński and Hanna Krall, both of whom developed and perpetuated the genre of literary reportage: a mixture of storytelling, history, autobiography, and journalism, offering personal accounts of larger historical forces. In the week leading up to the trip, as everyone had been talking about Alexievich, I had heard the best place to start with her work is Voices from Chernobyl, made up of powerful and devastating monologues shaped from interviews with survivors of the nuclear disaster.

Svetlana Alexievich. Photo: Thomasz Wiech / the Conrad Festival

Alexievich entered the stage to a huge roar of applause. With prompts in Polish from Wacław Radziwinowicz, the moderator of the event, Alexievich answered in Russian, and her speech was simultaneously translated into Polish in a sound booth, and then broadcast into headphones, which about half the members of the audience were wearing. Sean listened to the Polish in his headphones, then translated what she was saying into English, whispering quietly in my ear. It was a strange linguistic experiment, being twice removed from the source language, or, in a way, three times, since she began by talking about Belarusians—a version of telephone (I thought of the wonderful scene in Javier Marias’s A Heart So White, the quiet drama unfolding between two interpreters), and certainly not the ideal way of trying to understand Alexievich’s work. However, as I listened to Sean, there seemed to be something direct and essential in what Alexievich was saying. I took notes, and despite the linguistic difficulties, despite the sheer exhaustion of the long sleepless flight, I still think I understood the broad arc of her message. She spoke about Belarus, Russia, War, journalism, and a personal responsibility to engage with the world, a message akin to Kapuściński and Hannah Arendt—whose name she also mentioned—with something of the same humanistic values: of listening to the Other, of responding, of understanding, and that this process, this undertaking—of thinking in general, but particularly of putting it to paper—requires constant effort. Later, back in New York, as I was looking over my notes, I also decided to reread the ending of Kapuściński’s The Other, a book that resonated similar undertones. On the very last page, the author quoted Joseph Conrad (serendipitously, I think, because he was the namesake of the festival), who wrote that the encounter with the Other “speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.” And this, from what I could understand during the event, is also at the core of Alexievich’s work.

As soon as Alexievich left the stage, we rushed out of the auditorium, trying to dodge the crowd and to make it to our next event on time. We shuffled back to the main market square, to the Pałac Pod Baranami, a beige-colored palace with a storied past of housing (during different time periods) both sheep and Nazis. A Starbucks had recently opened on the ground floor. We climbed the stairs to the second floor, and walked into a high-ceilinged cluster of rooms where most of the events of the Conrad Festival were to be held. Several hundred more people had already gathered here to see Wiesław Myśliwski, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Polish novelists. Myśliwski writes as well as the best of them: his work—vivid, pastoral, flowing prose—has been published in the United States by Archipelago Books, in Bill Johnston’s beautiful, award-winning translations.

Wiesław Myśliwski. Photo: Michal Ramus / the Conrad Festival

We were led into the back room, connected to the main seating area by an open doorframe. Here, a few dozen people who couldn’t fit into the main room were loitering about. A table was set up on one side for selling coffee and books, and on the opposite wall, a TV screen played a recording from last year’s festival: Paul Auster on mute, with Polish subtitles. The plan was to have the interpreter sit with us: he would listen to a broadcast of the event in his headphones and then translate what Myśliwski was saying, but very quietly, so we wouldn't disturb the rest of the audience. I took notes on a scrap of paper, which I lost at some point. Exhausted from the long day, I had trouble following the interpretation, partly because I couldn’t see Myśliwski, but also because of the interpreter’s voice—even though he was, as far as I could tell, doing a great job, especially since he couldn’t see the speaker, which, I’ve heard, makes interpretation much more difficult. Yet, the trouble for me was that his voice sounded a lot like Bane’s, the villain from the Batman movie I’d watched several hours ago on the flight over, a part that was played by Tom Hardy. Myśliwski, from what I can remember, spoke about the rural settings of his books, the role that history has played in his writing, and how history warped and influenced the memories of his characters. After Myśliwski finished, there was a loud applause for this magisterial European writer, and, more asleep than awake, we left the crowded palace. It was late in the evening now, and numbed by jetlag, the autumn air was a chilly alarm clock. The main square was filled with the din of clusters of people chatting and drinking beer in the outdoor seating areas of the cafes. Looking up at the sky, I was reminded of one of Myśliwski’s metaphors, which I’d seen quoted in Benjamin Paloff’s review of Stone Upon Stone in the Times Literary Supplement, and, practically sleepwalking, it seemed to make perfect sense to me: “the moon was like a cow’s udder, if you’d pull its teats we’d have been covered in streams of moonlight.”

Now, when I reflect upon the week I spent in Krakow, I could keep writing and writing—my swift indoctrination to Polish literature, generously funded and arranged by the Polish Cultural Institute New York, the Polish Book Institute, and the Krakow Festival Office, had me gladly drinking their Kool-Aid over and over again. The rest of the week brought new surprises, each day full of new discoveries and stimulations, new clarifications and must-read Polish authors, and obviously—after hearing from agents, translators, publishers, and the Polish Book Institute—a much better understanding of Polish literature. We traveled back and forth from the hotel to the Pałac Pod Baranami for author events, making detours around the city, to the old Jewish quarters of Kazimierz and the Gothic Wawel Castle, to fancy lunches and dinners, to the English bookstore Massolit—a Shakespeare & Co.-style ex-pat hangout—and stopping, as often as possible, at Nowa Prowincja, the famous bohemian café with framed pictures of Wislawa Szymorska decorating the walls, a hidden back room with loud birds, thick hot chocolate, and most importantly, free Wi-Fi; we met for brunch with the prominent, Nike-prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk (she’s popular enough to draw enormous crowds for her readings, as well as receive death threats from conservative extremists for The Books of Jacob, a work of revisionist historical fiction); we attended a press briefing with Jonathan Franzen, whose appearance at the Conrad Festival was slightly overshadowed by Svetlana Alexievich; we went to the fancy, nationally-televised ceremony of the Wislawa Szymorska Award for poetry; and I was fortunate enough to sit down for an espresso with the poet Ryszard Krynicki (Clare Cavanagh’s translation of his poetry is forthcoming with New Directions). After a week in Krakow, I needed more time to recover from the exciting, immersive whirlwind trip, to process all of the information, and start reading some of the numerous English samples of Polish writing I’d received: Olga Tokarczuk, Pawel Heulle, Andrzej Stasiuk, Tomasz Mirkowicz—some of whose novels and stories aren’t available in English yet, but surely deserve to be.

On the flight back to New York, I started reading Gombrowicz’s Diary, the massive eight-hundred-page book that Yale University Press published a couple of years ago, because I needed to at least crack the spine, to justify carrying this weighty thing all that way to Poland and back. In one of his early diary entries, Gombrowicz rants about Poland’s reception of its own literature, its provincial outlook and weakness for martyrdom, perpetuated by a desire for external validation, which ended up hurting the individual artists and writers: “We are not, I said, the direct heirs of past greatness or insignificance, intelligence or stupidity, virtue or sin and each person is responsible only for himself. Each is himself.” Of course, Gombrowicz wrote this in 1953, and things have changed since then, but in light of his complicated stance on writers in Poland, which I’ve been thinking about again for the past few days, I’m not sure what kind of sweeping statement I could make about my experience with Polish literature in Krakow, except that we encountered some very interesting writers, first, in a sleep deprived haze, and then with more lucidity, and some of these writers were—at least in my naïve opinion—both Polish and individual, which, in Gombrowicz’s terms, would be the highest possible praise.

Published Dec 10, 2015   Copyright 2015 Tynan Kogane

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