30.12.14

2014: Around the Year in Twenty Books

My Varsovian Reading Corner. I won't fool you: I often  fall asleep on that armchair.

One year, one country, one home, one job, and some reviews later, here we are with the list of the best twenty books I read this year.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to write something on all of them on these columns: apologies. What strikes me the most is that I missed the best two books of my year out. Shame on me, lazybones!

Just like it happened on last year, I've therefore selected a pretty good review which I read online to match each of the titles - save one - that I forgot to rate and discuss down here.

01. Israel Joshua Singer - The Family Carnovski
Rise and fall of a Jewish family turned secularist through three generations and caught between two world wars superinflation, antisemitism. From Poland to Germany and to the US. Excellent stuff.  

02. Giorgy Faludy - My Happy Days in Hell
The picaresque and cosmpolitan adventures of a poet (and womanizer) in and out his native Hungary first to escape the invading Nazis and then torturing Commies. Better than a spy story. And real.

03. Victor Sebestyen - Twelve Days*
A fantastic, detailed and objective account of the 1956 Hungarian revolution/uprising written by a historian with Magyar roots. The perfect travel companion if you plan to visit stunning Budapest.

04. Witold Szabłowski - The Assassin from Apricot City
Excellent and up-to-date reportings from Turkey. A dozen dispatches either from famous or hidden corners of a dynamic but troubled country torn between East and West, religion and secularism.

05. Chil Rajchman - Treblinka
Not another book on Holocaust, you might say. And you would be wrong. For the recently discovered account of this survivor of the worst Nazi extermination camp is a testimony to courage like no other.

06. Jacek Hugo-Bader - White Fever
All aboard a crappy but sturdy Soviet jeep for a mesmerising tour through contemporary Russia and former USSR. The author will take you to hippie hangouts, Siberian Messiahs and  Geiger counters.

07. Kader Abdolah - The House of the Mosque
A richly-textured and exquisite family saga with turbulent Iran in the background. The transition from the elitist Shah to the grim Khomeini won't be smooth for those in charge of a rural beautiful mosque.

08. Stefan Zweig - The World of Yesterday
The director of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' claimed that his movie was inspired by this memoir. Don't believe him. And yet, this book is a gem and a wonderful guide through a bygone old Europe.

09. Boleslaw Prus - The Doll
Generations of Polish students hate this compulsory school reading. Don't be biased towards it. Sure, you have to be patient, but you'll be rewarded. Reads like Tolstoy or Chekhov stranded in Warsaw. 

10. Halik Kochanski - The Eagle Unbowed
The long and winding history of what Poles did during WWII. For Polonists or Polonophiles only? Not quite. Ms Kochanski draws an interesting picture of a country that paid a dear price to victory.

11. Isaac Bashevis Singer - Love and Exile
Or how a future Nobel Prize in Literature struggled to focus on his work and was often seduced by women during his youth in Poland. A very honest and humble memoir from a masterful storyteller.

12. Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex
You will either love or hate this bestseller of a few years ago. I liked it very much and found its author's writing style never annoying and always engaging. A lively introduction to LGBT issues. 

13. Isaac Babel - Tales of Odessa
Excellent short stories from the once multicultural hotspot of Odessa, Crimea. Mr Babel - who died far too young - had a knack for describing the vices and virtues of local gangsters and conmen.   

14. Stefan Grabinski - The Dark Domain
Spooky short stories from one century ago. The author is called the 'Polish Poe', but is much more modern and daring than Edgar Allan. These tales flirt with science, early technology and psychology. 

15. Marek Hłasko - The Eighth Day of the Week
Depressing, nihilist, if you like. And yet, this book takes a brilliant snapshot of many a disillusioned Varsovian in the 1950s. The author, a maudit, knew the blues he wrote about in this striking novella.

16. George Grossmith - The Diary of a Nobody
And now for something completely different, some pitch perfect bits of British humour old style. This fake diary, originally published in instalments, joins the same jolly club of Wodehouse and Jerome

17. Anna Swir - Talking to My Body
Poetry anyone? True, verses might not be your cup of tea (they aren't mine too), but this Polish author knew her business. Her brief, no-nonsense poems aren't any worse than Szymborska's ones.

18. Orlando Figes - Crimea
All that you need to know on the curr former Crimean War. The one fought in 1853-1856, I mean.  Just a remote bloodshed? Perhaps, but something worth to read on given the news from Sevastopol.

19. George Saunders - Tenth of December
The 2013 sensation on many a 'books of the year' list. Not bad, not bad at all. Ok, perhaps not consistently good, but at least half of the short stories here are first class material. And it shows.  

20. Ben Lerner - Leaving the Atocha Station
Was going to forget this one as I read it in February. But come to think of it, it was good. Mr Lerner wrote an interesting and original novel on the ramblings of a young American poet in Madrid.

*Another book by Mr Sebestyen that I read this year, 'Revolution 1989', would have made it into my top 20, but I left it out on purpose. I didn't want to have two works written by the same author in the list. Sorry. Luckily, Kinga wrote a great review of the aforementioned book. 

21.12.14

Witold Szabłowski - The Assassin from Apricot City (Zabójca z miasta moreli)

Rating 8.5

A reportage book cannot get much better than this.

Believe me when I say that I'm actually lobbying for Witold Szabłowski to get translated into Italian as soon as possible. And I'd like all of my English reading friends to give The Assassin from Apricot City a well deserved chance. They might listen to me. Go and tell them if you happen to stand this review!

Mr Szabłowski himself, a Pole who got interested in Turkey and speaks flawless Turkish, is only 34 years old and I think that Zabójca z miasta moreli is his very first book. But I bet you won't notice that.

Now, you might not be familiar at all with Polish reportage and I won't annoy you here with its main authors and chief characteristics. Still, if you like well-written journalistic accounts on interesting aspects of foreign countries (think about your better than average New Yorker text), young Szabłowski is your man.

So, what do we know about Turkey?
Well, I guess the answer to this question depends on your whereabouts.

As a born and bred Italian who had the chance to travel and to live abroad for a number of years, I learnt something on this topic; first hand accounts, if you like. In fact, I met, befriended, worked with and even interviewed many a Turkish person in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. They were all cool (and pretty fashion conscious too) people who mostly disliked Mr Erdogan's doings, admired Mr Ataturk and knew a lot about basketball.
And yet, to be honest with you, I still don't know much about their fascinating and everchanging homecountry. I didn't have the chance to visit Turkey so far and - when I'll do that - I suppose I stick to Istanbul as there's quite enough to see and to grasp there.

Witold Szabłowski writes about Istanbul and does it beautifully. If you followed or heard what happened down there between Taksim Square and Gezi Park on 2013, this book will refresh your memories by taking you right on the spot. The author interviews plenty of the 'rioters' who are against Mr Erdogan's government, but gives voice to conservative and pro-Erdogan people too. Szabłowski  talks with students and clerks, journalists and shopkeepers, politicians and drag queens and this pot-pourri makes his Istanbul modern, dynamic (if troubled) and believable. There are a few hints here and there proving that the author of this book is all but a fan of Orhan Pamuk, the wordy bard of old Constantinople, and I get his point.  

What's more, Szabłowski travels around Turkey and, in doing so, he delivers excellent pieces of journalism. Whereas he writes about awful honour-induced women-slaughtering in remote provinces or he tells the poignant and dramatic stories of migrants trying to reach Greece and then Europe by sea, the author always does a great job. Even when Mr Szabłowski recounts the story of Ali Agca - the Turkish guy who attempted to kill the former Pope John Paul II -, a subject that has been covered for thirty years, he sounds refreshing in its observations.

The Assassin from Apricot City is right there in the footsteps of the best tradition of Pol...ehm actually world class reportage. If you want to know something about contemporary Turkey from the pen of a brilliant foreign reporter, this is the book you were looking for.

14.12.14

A.M. Bakalar - Madame Mephisto

Rating 6.8

I confess I had a lot of fun while reading this novel which is a fantastic page turner indeed.

I guess that living in Poland right now and having dealt with always smiling but often treacherous HR personnel in the UK for some years played a significant part in my enjoyment, though. Well done to A.M. Bakalar for having taken such a good snapshot of both aspects, then.

But wait a moment. Did she?
Well, yes and no.

To be honest, the author here indulges way too much on some stereotypes about Poland that you might have not expected to find in a book written (in English) by a born and bred Pole like she is.
This doesn't mean that reading 'Madame Mephisto' was not entertaining, but I'd daresay that A.M. Bakalar could have avoided a number of things which were not that necessary to her plot.

I lived in Krakow for a couple of months and the idea that many locals might insult a black person calling him 'monkey' while he's taking a stroll in daylight and in the beautiful Old Town is just absurd. I'm not denying that Polish society might be racist sometimes, but placing racist insults of that sort and in that place was just gratuitous and left a foul taste in my mouth.
You see, the author there was trying her best to stress out the differences between multicultural UK and a current almost monocultural Poland. But it didn't work well.
Another dumb note was the cannabis selling subplot. This stuff looked (and read) overimposed on the novel merely to make the point of Magda's double personality clear. I don't know anything about cannabis homegrowing and handshaking purchase, but my impression is that the author herself relied on information coming from some friend(s) of hers and magazine features to build up those junkie bits.

To counterbalance my criticism, I have to say that the pages focusing on Magda aka Madame Mephisto changing jobs in London were much better than those set in Warsaw.
I didn't live in London but spent four years working in the UK and most of the office dynamics described here were similar to those I experienced myself. The importance given to summer parties, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), silly Excel spreadsheets and involvement in charity events instead of to the quality of your work and the results you gain. That and the often disturbing interference of people working in Human Resources on your job and career were depicted perfectly here. I'd like to stress out that I'm not against HR (cannot guarantee for A.M. Bakalar, though), but more than once I had the impression that they struggle to legitimate their position within a company by making up the most absurd procedures and regulations. Smiling everyone?

The fact that Madgda/Madame Mephisto is a natural born troublemaker and a whistleblower displaying the occasional fits of rage certainly helped in having plenty a tragicomic job-related scene included in this novel.
And that I enjoyed a lot.

Perhaps the reason why I give this book a decent pass is that - for all its flaws - it was funny to read and with a first person narrator that didn't annoy me. The same fact that there are some interesting, if slightly clumsy, switches to a third person narrative whenever Magda looks at her other self Madame Mephisto, helped in alleviating the prose. Oh well, I don't really know.
What I can say is that if you had the chance to experience both, the UK and Poland you might like this book. And yet, if you hail from Poland, be prepared to stumble upon some cheesy scenes about your homecountry.

4.12.14

Zadie Smith - NW

Rating 5.8

Zadie, my Zadie!
What have you done?

If I had to put all of my money on just one young novelist from the UK you would have been that author. I liked the books you wrote as well as the odd feature you published on The Guardian and on The New Yorker. I admired you and highly-rated your intelligence.

And yet, this long-awaited NW of yours is - how to put that nicely? - a major disappointment. How came? How?

I remembered you as a talented, sophisticated novelist with a knack for accents and a real talent in building up believable, if sometimes disturbing, characters. What's more, your plots were always carefully handcrafted and were as pitch-perfect as a clockwork.

But here? Here, my Zadie we have none of that.
For reading NW was like skimming through the drafts of an unfinished novel - well, actually a couple of unfinished novels - with only a few disjointed moments of actual Smithesque brilliance.

Were you simply lazy in tying the threads you wrote down or - even worse - did you truly believed that this stuff was worth of publication?
Don't take me wrong. Had any other novelist written something like NW I would have at least appreciated the sheer ambitiousness of its syncopated structure and savoured those few good moments of literature in it.

But you're Zadie Smith, for goodness' sake!
And precisely because you're Zadie Smith, you cannot deliver something as clumsy as NW.

Listen, I appreciated the inclusion of The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks into this novel (?) and all that, but you fell short in pretty much everything else.

Shall we talk about characters? Let's do that.
What you gave us here is an unlikely bunch of individuals revolving around North West London with - I reckon - two strong leading roles: Leah and Keisha/Natalie. Not that they're perfect, but they sort of work. Unfortunately, all the other characters in NW are exaggerations, highly-stereotyped figurines which could be easily dismissed.

Enter. The poor former teenage mum begging for attention and a few quids who comes from a tough neighborhood. Check.
The half-Italian spoiled rich guy who lives in his own bubble and peppers his Oxbridge English with mamma and the likes. Check.
The French black hairdresser (oh my!) who never grew up and only looks for confrontation. Check.
The old hippie vegetating and getting stoned in a dirty messy council flat. Check.
The artsy cougar who happens to be a heiress and chases uncouth youngsters dispensing sex and grammar. Exeunt.

Come on! Each one of the people in this parade is just a spoof. And you know that!
Plus, some of them are shown to the reader and then promptly left behind. For good, I guess.
But still...

To be honest with you, Zadie, the most touching and authentic moment of the whole NW - The Kinks aside - was the sudden death of a beloved dog and the grief that follows it.
I know, I know that some reviewers in the UK compared this novel to Dickens (of all things!) and I'm sure that thousands of readers worldwide found it sharp and loved its original structure, but to me it didn't work. And I'm genuinely sorry for that.

I look forward to liking your next novel.

22.10.14

Wojciech Jagielski - Towers of Stone (Wieże z kamienia)

Rating 7.0

This book begs for patient readers and plenty of spare time.
True, I have much of the latter at the moment, but lately I'm not focused enough on my reading to appreciate such a complex and in-depth narration of the Chechen wars.

The point is that Wojciech Jagielski turned out to be very demanding with his readers here. You cannot simply leaf through Towers of Stone casually with your pencil underlining selected passages as if you're reading your average good Polish reportage.
Unlike most of the Polish reporters I read so far, Mr Jagielski doesn't just provide short but significant episodes written in a sparse but brilliant language. No. He deals with a complex and ever detailed narration which gives you no time at all to take a breather.
Don't even think to read this book taking long intervals inbetween (as I did) for you will soon lose your track.

Let's examine the structure of Towers of Stone. Three-hundred and ten pages subdivided into merely four chapters each one named after a season. This means that each proper chapter is around 75 pages long. In my humble opinion, it would be hard to read your way safely through such a bundle in a novel. Not to mention facing chapters of 75 pages each in a reportage book due to the readers being accustomed to the nifty format provided by journalistic accounts on websites and magazines.

All this preamble to say that - to be completely honest with you - I struggled to finish Towers of Stone. Suffice is to say that it took me nearly one month. True, I reckon how Wojciech Jagielski did his reporting job quite well never leaving the reader in the dark and explaining all that needed to be clarified. Nonetheless, now that I'm done with this book I cannot really say that the whole Chechen mess is much clearer into my mind than it previously was.

You'll find great and insightful interviews with Chechen leaders whose beliefs and behaviors are masterly portrayed by the author. But instead of being given the precious room of their own they deserve, these gems are all semi-hidden here and there in the monster-sized chapters and thick narrative of this book. And that's a pity.

The fact that the American publisher Seven Stories Press which translated Wieże z kamienia into English - to their merit - left out any relevant maps or timeline to contextualize this book didn't help either. All that you'll find to guide you through is just a tiny glossary with a few dozen brief bios of the main characters and a page which seems ripped off from an old school atlas.
But Mr Jagielski writes about so many events, places, people, political and military leaders - often related with one another - that I challenge you not to lose your compass more than once.

I admit my defeat here.
I should have read Towers of Stone with less superficiality and less distractions around me. Now that I know what to expect from Mr Jagielski, I will give his book on Uganda a chance only when I'm confident I can read it all in one go.

10.10.14

Artur Domosławski - Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life (Kapuściński non-fiction)

Rating 7.6

Role-playing anyone?

Suppose you are a young journalist hired by the best newspaper of your homecountry. You're talented and ambitious, but not that experienced. Among your colleagues in the newsroom there's a middle aged and well read reporter who everyone looks at in awe. Not only this guy travelled and reported from four continents. This guy is unanimously considered the dean of reporters nationwide and even gained recognition abroad.

Step by step you get to know the great reporter.
He's getting bald, but is still athletic. He's charming, polite and considerate: no wonder women adore him. He smiles to everyone and dishes out compliments and tips to the younger journalists, including you. It doesn't matter that most of those tips are rather generic as they come from Him, the Maestro.

In the meantime you write and publish your own stuff, you get experience and gain some credit into the journalism circles. Now the Maestro pops up very rarely in the newsroom. After all, he has a score of prestigious invitations to oblige. He's often abroad leading seminars, workshops, collecting prizes and meeting his evergrowing readers.
And yet, the Dean of Reporters does spend some of his precious time with you. He invites you at his home. He calls you. He talks politics with you. You two even argue sometimes. That's a privilege and you know it.

Do you know Him well? Not that much. True, you'd like to know the Maestro better, but he doesn't like private questions and always looks reluctant when asked about his youth and his earlier adventures abroad.
You notice that reticence, but that doesn't bother you much. You've your own features to work on and your own travels to write home about.

Then the Maestro passes away.
A few months later you start working on your next book: His biography.

Now some questions arise:
- Why would you like to write this biography?
- What are you going to write about those years and those topics He never talked about?
- Who are you going to interview to learn more about Him?
- Where are you going to take your readers, people who loved His books and wish to know more about Him?
- When are you going to stop in making speculations and writing hidden details of His private life?
And, first and foremost:
- How would you like to portray this friend of yours, this dean of reporters turned into national hero?

I believe Artur Domoslawski posed similar questions to himself and I'm glad he did.
For this Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life (the original Polish title, Kapuscinski non-fiction, should have been kept) was certainly not an easy book to write. Which doesn't mean that this biography is not interesting to read; in fact quite the contrary.

I do understand Kapuscinski's widow and many reviewers bearing a grudge on the author upon the publication of this book. The dean of Polish journalism and one of the most famous reporters worldwide to date doesn't come out as an entirely positive character from this biography.
To those - like me - who loved Kapuscinski's reportages and essays, Mr Domoslawski could look rather ruthless in writing about the dark sides of the great Polish journalist. Especially considering how he knew him quite well and was a colleague of his. Sometimes the author seems to enjoy digging into Kapuscinski's dirty laundry revealing his extramarital relationships, the troubles with his estranged daughter as well as his political involvement in communist Poland.

Tu quoque, Brute!
Well, to some extent.

True, Mr Domoslawski is far from being soft with his old pal Ryszard and could have easily left out some of the nastiest stuff about him, but I don't look at him as if he stabbed dead Kapuscinski in the back.
Hundreds of pages here are devoted to the great reporter travels and accomplishments and there is literally a ton of quotations from his most and less famous works.
To me it looks crystal clear how the author studied Kapuscinski's oeuvre very carefully and delivered a great insight on his complex personality. Had Mr Domoslawski ignored the shadows drawn by the shining sun of the great reporter, it would have been harder to appreciate what the dean of Polish journalists left us.

And what did Kapuscinski leave us is essentially fantastic literature written with passion and dedication, books full of illuminating observations on the human nature and brilliant analysis on power in politics.
As it happened, most of this excellent literature was delivered through reportages which were - strictly speaking - works of art rather than dry chronicling.
Kapuscinski did embellish or dramatize some of his facts and was aware of that: he just couldn't admit that in public as everyone labelled him a journalist. And yet he considered himself an author, an intellectual, a poet and, coming fourth, a reporter.

Towards the end of his life, Kapuscinski became a victim of his own myth: readers and fellow journalists expected him to tell them how to become reporters, how to put facts into beautiful words.
But what he would have liked to teach them was rather how to put beauty into facts. Unless that he couldn't say that. They regarded him as a Maestro of factual objectivity, but he pursued feelings not objectivity and loved to take sides.

Domoslawski explains this inner dilemma (and others) very well and this goes to his credit.

Five stars don't belong here, see my mild criticism above, but four do fit well.

4.10.14

Buying English Written Books in Warsaw - A Martian's Guide to Warsaw

Dear Reader,

The following text is the first instalment of A Martian's Guide to Warsaw, my humble attempt to chronicle some aspects of daily life in contemporary Warsaw.

Please be advised that the aforementioned title is misleading. In fact – just like you – I hail from planet Earth. However, as an Italian expat who moved to Warsaw just one and a half month ago I still consider myself an alien in this rough and beautiful town; thus the Martian's reference.
Well, to be completely honest with you I sort of borrowed the title of this guide from the excellent Hungarian novelist Antal Szerb who published his A Martian's Guide to Budapest back in 1935.

Please note that the point of view expressed in this instalment (and in the following ones) as well as the choice of topics is entirely my own. I'm a journalist myself, but my own experience in writing about a foreign capitol town is next to nothing. Not to mention that my current knowledge of the fascinating Polish language is still rather patchy.
Due to these reasons, don't expect these short vignettes about life in Warsaw 2014-2015 to be always that reliable and to provide survival tips in town. I'm just a Martian here, trying to get by and struggling to make ends meet.

That being said, do, sit down on a comfortable armchair and follow me rambling along the streets of Warsaw. I'm sure that you won't regret it and hope you'll find your humble Martian quite amusing.

Powodzenia!

The only remaining American Bookstore in town can be found - til November 2014 - at Galeria Arkadia

Earthlings of Warsaw and Beyond,

Let's face it: the right title of this instalment should be On NOT Buying English Written Books in Warsaw. For there is not going to be such a thing called an English or American bookshop in town from November 2014 onwards.

When your humble Martian moved here – merely 45 days ago – I was flabbergasted by the number of bookstores and cosy cafes-cum-bookshelves one can find in central and less central districts of Warsaw. And yet, for all of this profusion of Varsovian bookshops I wasn't able to find a single place selling decent English written books.
True, a few bookstores I visited did sell a tiny selection of (overpriced) non-Polish written books – chiefly tourist guides and chicklit novels –, but a well-stocked section of international titles as well as of Polish novelists translated into English was nowhere to be found.

In the following days I made some research online to find out whether I missed out some hidden booklover's lair wondering around town or not at all. What I've found turned out to be discouraging.

Listen up, folks.
As far as I could track down, there were up to 10 (ten!) bookshops in Warsaw selling English-written books only six years ago, which I will list down below:
Traffic Club, Redding's, All That Stuff, Co-liber, plus 6 (six!) American Bookstore (on Kozykowa,  Nowy Świat, Galeria Arkadia, Galeria Mokotow, Sadyba Best and in some other place).

Eight bookshops out of this lot have run out of business in the meantime and a ninth one – the last American Bookstore – will shut down within November this year. From then on the only bookshop boasting a somewhat large English written books section will be Co-liber on Placu Bankowym 4. They don't have the best English written books selection you might look for but, at least, they're still in business.

Those were the days of the Traffic Club in Warsaw that closed down in 2013
A couple of the bygone bookshops – Redding's and All That Stuff – used to sell second-hand English written books and this is the greatest loss for your often penniless Martian.
Truth be told, All That Stuff's website states that they're on 'a well-deserved break' and that they will 're-launch the bookstore in another place', but I wouldn't count on that in the short term.

According to some conversations I eavesdropped in town as well as to various online forums I read, Amazon is to blame for the death of the Varsovian English bookstores. These bookshops were simply not able to cope pricewise with the competition provided by the evil Jeff Bezos' monster.

Redding's is no more and shut down in 2009. Picture taken from bookstoreguide.org
Now, I won't write down an apology of the self-named Amazon Family (including worthy Abebooks and BookDepository both selling rare and second hand stuff), as it is a smoking gun pointed at independent bookshops indeed.
Nevertheless, I think that - in Warsaw and elsewhere - Amazon and its Kindle are a damn good alibi to justify lazy bookshop owners going out of business and I'll tell you why.

I'm lucky enough to know some booksellers whose shops are still alive and kicking in places much smaller than Warsaw. Small towns with no universities, no decent transport network, no wealthy foreigners and hard to reach for deliverers and clients alike.
What I noticed from those experiences is that a bookshop can survive nowadays by organizing workshops and events, involving kids and their parents, inviting authors, encouraging strong readers to buy rare books by ordering them on their behalf etc. But all of this means passion, knowledge, customer dedication and a good deal of time spent at the phone and on the social networks.


This sign which I spotted in the bookish village of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, reflects the attitude of many former Warsaw English-American bookshops: Amazon and Kindle cannot be fought back, but only forbidden. As much as I dislike reading on Kindle, I believe this neo-luddism is totally wrong. Photo by Christopher Fowler.
Well, I don't want to judge anyone here but I'm afraid that most of the former English/American bookshops in Warsaw didn't do much to save themselves from oblivion. And it's precisely this fatalist passiveness that killed them so quickly. The attitude I witnessed and experienced myself at the only surviving – but not for long – American Bookstore in Warsaw is a prime example of the wrongest behavior in town. Read and see what happened there:

Martian: Hello, I'm looking for this book: XY by YZ, I wonder if you have it here...
Bookseller: Hmm, mmmpf. No.
M: I see. Is there any way I can order it? I'd like to get this book.
B: Hmmm, mmpf. We sold our last copy on February this year.
M: Oh, that's a pity. But can I order another one?
B: Mmpf, no. We have only one copy left at our store in Krakow.

See what I mean?

Co-liber labels itself a 'Professional English Bookstore' but does have some English written novels, history books etc.



Anyways.
If you don't have problems with your budget in zloty and are just looking for a quick read to grab you could go to Empik which has several bookshops in Warsaw. Some of these bookstores (i.e. on Marszałkowska and on Nowy Świat) host a selection of expensive English written books. However, please be aware that in Empik bookshops it will be hard finding many Polish authors translated (Korczak, Hugo-Bader, Kapuscinski might pop up if you're particularly lucky).

Another place in central Warsaw where you could find some good English written books and a dozen of Polish authors translated is on Bracka 25. Unfortunately, every time I went to this bookstore (I don't remember its current name, but it used to be the old Traffic Club) I felt like I was disturbing those who worked there. 

Don't take me wrong: generally speaking the attitude towards a customer in Warsaw's bookshops is far from being friendly, but there in Bracka I perceived open hostility. And when I say hostility I mean shoegazing, inflated prices on the spot, annoyance. Thus, if I were you I would skip this bookshop and try your luck purchasing somewhere else.

For example, you could order your books from the superb – and kind of cheap – Massolit in Krakow and pick them up from Tarabuk one of those nice cafes-cum-bookshelves I mentioned earlier on. Otherwise, I'm afraid you'll either have to join the dark side of the Force Amazon Family or try Awesomebooks which asks only 2.99 £ for delivering in Poland.

Well, all things considered I believe there would be plenty of room left for anyone brave enough to open their own English or American bookstore in Warsaw. Please do that and rescue a poor Martian from the sad sad business of online buying. Do that and I'll mention you in one of my posts!

Summer 2015 Update
This post was written and posted months before I 'discovered' the amazing Aladdin's Cave known as Antykwariat Grochowski down Ludwika Kickiego, a little road in the Praga Poludnie district. Now, this IS the place to buy second hand English books in Warsaw I cried the lack of above. 
If you ever happen to look for good non-Polish written books sold for a song (price starts from 6 PLN and rarely go above 25 PLN) do yourselves a present and go to Grochowski. The owner is an awesome guy who'll recognize you at your second visit to his bookstore, plus they do have tons of good stuff in Polish and the place definitely has its charm with jazzy music often in the background. 

24.9.14

Isaac Bashevis Singer - Love and Exile

Rating 8.0

Given that the latest book by Isaac Bashevis Singer I read turned out to be a big disappointment, I didn't lose my trust in one of my favourite authors overall.

With Love and Exile the good old I.B. I knew came back to send his regards from a very special time: his formative years.

Although the cover of the book boasts that this is 'An Autobiographical Trilogy', what we have here is an account of the first thirty-five years of Mr Singer's long life. This means that the size of the book is a manageable 352 pages which won't put off any eager readers but with limited time on their hands.

On a personal note, I would have loved if Isaac Bashevis had written even more about his early years than he did here. Not to mention including something on his following fifty-three years. But I noticed how many great authors who flirted with their memoirs were somehow reluctant to include their more mature and successful years in those books. Vladimir Nabokov, Stefan Zweig, Gregor von Rezzori,  Gyorgy Faludy, Witold Gombrowicz and Stanislaw Lem come to mind and I.B. Singer joins the club.

So, let's talk about what Isaac Bashevis chose to tell us. Yes, let's talk about Love and Exile which is a very carefully chosen title indeed.

First comes love.
You might not know or suspect this but young I.B. was no short than a womanizer. If you can picture a penniless, skinny, poorly dressed, red haired proofreader playing the Don Juan in Warsaw in the late 1920s this is what Mr Singer was. Some of his conquests were women who could have been his mother, others were communist tomboys, and others were nevrotic and opinionated beauties who were just looking for a cultivated lover.
By reading about this women, I could recognise the hectic behaviors and sexual perversions of many a female character narrated by I.B Singer in novels such as Enemies, The Slave, Shadows On the Hudson and - alas! - even from that awful King of the Fields. 
True, Isaac Bashevis Singer wasn't only going from a bed to another one in those turbulent years for him and for Warsaw alike. He was also talented a writer for his young age, but in the Yiddish-Polish circles of his time there were dozens of authors who had published more than him gaining money and reputation.

The Union of Jewish Writers and Journalists of Warsaw membership card of Isaac Bashevis Singer 
One of the shining stars of Yiddish literature in Warsaw was another Singer, Israel Joshua (I.J.) who happened to be Isaac Bashevis' elder brother. It was I.J. who brought home novels by Hamsun, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky along with scientific publications, newspapers. It was I.J. who contested the status quo of the Singer's household engaging in theological arguments with his father, a pious rabbi portrayed by Isaac Bashevis as a holy man twice removed from modernity.
It was I.J. who introduced his younger brother in the Warsaw literary scene finding him the post of proofreader in the magazine where he was editor in chief. And again, it was I.J. who became the Polish correspondent for an American-Yiddish newspaper while Isaac Bashevis soon found out that he wasn't made for journalism.

The respect, admiration and awe that the future Nobel Prize for Literature felt for his elder brother are  expressed umpteen times thorough Love and Exile. Young Isaac Bashevis knew very well that he lived in the shadow of Israel Joshua's success to the point he was often confused with him and yet in this book one can only find words of gratitude for this brother.

Second comes exile.
The exile from a country, Poland, that both the Singer brothers loved in a way, but that they couldn't fully perceive as their homecountry. Isaac Bashevis explains that he could read books in four or five languages (including Polish), but that Yiddish was the only language he spoke well admitting that 'women in Warsaw were constantly correcting my Polish'.
Now I can certainly relate with such a statement myself, but I'm a foreigner while I.B. was born and bred in Poland. Well, bred to some extent as he spoke Yiddish at home, attended cheder instead of Polish school and later never went to university. The author here makes crystal clear that he's at the same time proud of his Jewish heritage and ashamed for having not had the possibility of learning Polish well which I've found touching.

Anyways. Let's go back to the exile.
Guess what? It was Israel Joshua who moved first to the US and it was I.J. who sent his brother an affidavit to come and join him in New York City. Isaac Bashevis arrives in the United States with only one published book in his portfolio - Satan in Goray - and out of fear for what he feels will happen to the Jews in Poland. As far as we know, he never looked at the US with keen or curious eyes before. Among the novelists he read the most, the future Nobel laureate mentions Aleichem, Peretz, Hamsun, Mann, Rolland, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, not a single American one, save Twain.

And yet, because Israel Joshua migrated to the US - not before having his novel Yoshe Kalb translated into Polish: quite an accomplishment - Isaac Bashevis goes with the flow and leaves Europe behind.
The chapters regarding the trip to the US by ship are among the most interesting ones in this book. The sense of claustrophoby and discomfort felt by Mr Singer on board is described very well. He only pines for loneliness and gets discriminated for his asking to eat alone and for being a vegetarian. These pages are poignant and disturbing at the same time. One cannot help but asking themselves what I.B. Singer did for being treated so badly by the crew and the injustice of this treatment hurts.

The final part of the 'trilogy' depicts the arrival and the first years of the novelist in the US being hosted by (I bet you know by whom)...his brother Israel Joshua.
Once more, it's I.J. who finds Isaac Bashevis a job in the newspaper he has been writing for and buys him an Yiddish typewriter. And later on I.J. will even rescue his younger brother from a writer's block crisis by helping him to put an order and give a sense to the drafts Isaac Bashevis is working on.  

Unfortunately, Love and Exile ends up before two crucial events in the life of I.B. Singer: the sudden death of his elder brother at the age of 50 and the publication of The Family Moskat a masterpiece that will be dedicated to Israel Joshua, mentor and model for Isaac Bashevis.

The Singer siblings portrayed by Hazel Karr. From left to right, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Esther Kreitman Singer (who was herself a writer), and Israel Joshua Singer.

17.9.14

W. Somerset Maugham - The Painted Veil

Rating 7.6

It was a pleasure reading my very first book by W. Somerset Maugham. This guy knew how to write and - what's more - didn't show off. There's not a single superfluous word in 'The Painted Veil' and every character here speaks with a very distinct and entirely believable voice.

For what is particularly masterful and consistent through this novel is the high quality of dialogues which are just pitch perfect.

Given this as well as the flawless sobriety of his writing style, I find fascinating that Mr. Maugham's mother tongue was actually French, as he grew up in Paris. Furthermore, during his school years in Canterbury young William was teased by his schoolmates due to his shaky English later developing a stammer that stayed with him til the rest of his life.

You might reckon how it's hard to picture someone with such issues in using spoken English writing as well as Maugham did.
In the introduction to the edition of this book I own, the author states that he got his 'mastery of technique and ease in writing dialogue' by translating Ibsen. Now, I had no idea that W. Somerset Maugham knew Norwegian and, in fact, I couldn't find any proof that he actually did, but whatever the reason, he certainly became a master himself.

The bygone demi-decadent colonial atmosphere of 'The Painted Veil' brought other British novelists to my mind: first and foremost Graham Greene, but E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling as well. Even though the latter two were almost peers of Mr Maugham, I'd daresay that he was well ahead of his time as this work reads as something Mr Greene could have written thirty years later.

'The Painted Veil' was published in 1925. At first the novel meant a lot of trouble for W. Somerset Maugham due to its setting - Honk Kong - some random but unfortunate choice in naming the characters and, last but not least, the plot itself. The author was forced to replace Hong Kong with a fictional Tching-Yen and even had to change the surname of the protagonist from Lane into Fane because of some people bearing that surname in HK who wanted to sue him.
In my copy of the book Hong Kong has been reinstated as the main setting of the novel, but - oddly enough - Mr and Mrs Fane were not rechristened Lane. I bet the grandchildren of those angry Lanes in Hong Kong are happy.

Anyway, so here we have a woman, Kitty Fane , who is certainly not a likeable character being, in fact, unfaithful to her husband, coquettish, capricious and rather shallow. No point in hiding that Kitty's affair is with some top-notch guy in Hong Kong as Maugham himself makes that crystal clear from the very first chapter.

But it's what happens later that I won't reveal and that is an excellent plot indeed.
As Monty Python would put it, Kitty Fane will eventually find out that her charming lover is so effing pompous and hasn't got any balls. But it will take some unexpected twists and turns in the story for Kitty to gain that awareness as well as the strength she needs to leave behind the airhead she used to be.

8.9.14

Marek Hłasko - The Eighth Day of the Week (Ósmy dzień tygodnia)

Rating 7.5

After a long chase that went on through three countries and two languages, I finally managed to get a (second hand) copy of The Eighth Day of the Week. Upon reading this novella, I'm happy to say that the chase was worth for Hłasko's book is a good catch indeed.

I'm writing this review sitting at a diminutive table in the tiny kitchen of my little sixth floor flat in the Varsovian district of Praga Połnoc. From the window on my left hand side I overlook a vast empty space left in the middle of the neighbourhood. Down there some bald-headed guy is fixing up the carburettor of his motorcycle. Next to him a bunch of kids is playing hide and seek among the bushes punctuating interconnected communal courtyards. Above them, at the top of a grey-coloured apartment block, two guys in white t-shirts are installing (or removing) the umpteenth satellite dish. In the pale blue sky of an early September morning a lock of white doves is drawing spirals around the red-bricked buildings in various state of disrepair stretching along Brzeska street. 

I wouldn't have annoyed you with all these details had The Eighth Day of the Week not been set in this very same area of Warsaw, fifty-eight years ago. The road where I live is even mentioned once and I confess how reading that name gave me a thrill. Back then, Praga Połnoc was probably the dodgiest place in Warsaw and it's no surprise that Marek Hłasko chose it as the background of this very bleak and very pessimistic novella. Not that the neighborhood is all wealthy and glossy right now. Actually, many a Varsovian I spoke with couldn't believe that I moved here of all places in town. But then again I met several people who live or lived here at some stage of their lives and love the area as much as I do. 

True, the dimly lighted and drunkard patrolled Praga Połnoc popping up leafing through the pages of The Eighth Day of the Week is quite different from the one where I live and that's a relief. However, you don't need to be a historian to picture that bygone atmosphere nowadays if you walk past some hidden and half-forgotten corners of the district. Perhaps the fact that I can relate with the places Hłasko wrote about here makes me a biased reviewer, but that doesn't matter. 




I liked this novella very much even though you have to be in the right set of mind to appreciate it. As I said before, this book is quite pessimistic to the point it sounds almost nihilistic in some of its parts. All characters here cannot see any hope in their present and future existence alike and thus behave like there's no tomorrow. In fact everyone here despise drunkards, but drink to a stupor nonetheless as drunkenness seems to be the only way to be sane in Warsaw A.D. 1956.

Where Marek Hłasko excels is in dialogues which are no short than masterful and imbibed with dark humour as well as with a good deal of fatalistic sarcasm. Agnieszka, the main character of the novel, develops her sense of morality through the story to the point it's hard to recognise her at the end. And yet, she always keeps consistent in not giving a damn about life, Poland and mankind in general. 
Grzegorz, Agnieszka's brother, will become your favourite pessimistic alcoholic philosopher in town and is the perfect author's alter-ego no doubt expressing Hłasko's point of view on many a subject.

Pity that the other characters here are much less focused than the protagonists. 
Agnieszka's father is an oddball who enjoys walking on his hands (!) and endlessly pines for fishing; his spouse got a sort of nervous breakdown which made a perennial complainer out of her. Zawadski, the lodger at Agnieszka's flat, has potential with all of his passionate temperament and his POW camp stories, but ultimately turns out to be a rather passive moron. Piotr, Agnieszka's beloved, is the greatest disappointment of them all being neither tough nor romantic, but only someone who gets ridiculed by the events.

No surprise that this book got banned in then socialist Poland as it is more than a mere J'accuse by its author, but portrays a bleak country where even young generations grew up to be cynical, harsh and disillusioned.  
All in all, The Eighth Day of the Week is an interesting, if monochromatic, snapshot on some of the darkest and most desperate days of the Polish People's Republic: quite a contrast with contemporary Poland.

PS: I wrote about Mr Hłasko and this novella (in Italian) also here, just in case you're interested.

29.8.14

Jeno Heltai - Jaguar

Rating 6.8

'Jaguar' is a strange animal of a book. 

I stumbled upon this one by chance while in Budapest for holidays and looking for books by Hungarian novelists. I had never heard of this novella and its author before. Thanks to the excellent (and Budapest based) Corvina Kiadò for having translated 'Jaguar' into English making it widely available in the bookshops of the Hungarian capital. 

Written by the Hungarian journalist, poet and playwright Jeno Heltai in 1914, 'Jaguar' is set twenty-three years earlier.

Now, back in 1891, Heltai's beloved Budapest was quite an exciting place to be. The town itself had been created only eighteen years later by merging the municipalities of Buda and Pest with Obuda. The beautiful Chain Bridge was only forty-two year old and the first line of the Budapest Metro was going to open in five year time. 
The city was probably at its cultural and economic peak back then within a still powerful Austria-Hungary and sporting a multilingual identity. Budapest in 1891 had an exciting nightlife, excellent theatres, cafes, museums and a number of daily newspapers. 

Heltai lived those years working as a reporter for one of those newspapers and sort of romanticises the deeds of his early career in this novella. You'll learn how journalists in fin-de-siecle Budapest were often penniless, spent a good deal of time in coffee houses, lived in furnished rooms and worked til the early hours.

Yes, 'Jaguar' is an odd book. 
Semi-crime fiction novel, semi-entertainment, semi-spy story, the book revolves around the weird and kaleidoscopic character of Jaguar, a columnist who saves from closure the newspaper he writes for. 
Jaguar manages to do this by ensuring the publisher one exclusive scoop per week and the way he gets those news is sensational in itself.

Suffice is to say that Budapest will soon discover the existence of the daring 'There is Still Humour in the World Burglars' and Old Soldiers' Association' led by the bold and mysterious Great Nemo.

I cannot imagine a book like 'Jaguar' having been written anywhere else than in Hungary. Fellow Hungarian novelists such as Antal Szerb and Gyula Krudy might have loved this one; I've found it an entertaining quick read.

20.6.14

Wojciech Górecki - The Land of Golden Fleece. Journeys to Georgia*

Rating 7.7

Over the last five years I became a great fan of Polish journalism so that every time I skim through bookshelves labelled 'travels' or 'reportages' I hunt for that bunch of authors I know or for any Polish sounding surname. That's how I 'discovered' Tochman and Stasiuk, for instance. And that's how Wojciech Górecki showed up with two books he wrote, one about Caucasus as a whole and this one about Georgia.

Now, the only Górecki I knew was the composer Henryk whose Third Symphony became an unusual worldwide hit in the mid 1990s. The unexpected success for the Polish composer came thanks to the British trip hop band Lamb who sampled a tiny bit of it in their aptly titled song Górecki back in 1996.
(I didn't like that song as well as the symphony).

Wojciech Górecki is not related to Henryk.
The Italian edition I bought calls Górecki 'the heir of Ryszard Kapuscinski' and Wojciech himself dedicates
'La terra del vello d'oro' ('The Land of the Golden Fleece') to the great Polish reporter.

Are there similarities in writing style and reporting approach between Kapuscinski and Górecki? To be honest I couldn't find many. The dean of Polish reportage liked to write about his own personal daily experiences living in foreign countries and stressing out his fascination for everything local and his distaste for the spoiled reporters gossiping from their five starred resorts. The young dauphin prefers to draw sketches of what he sees around him keeping himself as humble as Kapuscinski but standing more in the background than him.

The Georgia portrayed and narrated by Górecki in the early 2000s was not at war, for the time being. This state of temporary, if apparent, serenity lets the Polish reporter tell the reader about the country's turbulent history, its unique traditions, its multi-layered character. For someone like me who didn't know much about Georgia having read only a single book marginally dealing with it and dating back to the 1960s ('Journey into Russia' by Laurens Van der Post), Górecki's book brought a gust of fresh and precious knowledge.

Even though forty years have passed from Van der Post being invited to a lavish Georgian banquet and writing about its peculiar etiquette, I was happy to read that Górecki experienced the same hospitality and jotted down similar observations. The pages regarding the towerhouses dating back to the 13th century that are still inhabited in some remote and beautiful regions of Georgia are excellent and reminded me of the Albanian towerhouses depicted by Kadare in his novels. Which was a delightful deja-vu.

Whereas the book is thin and somewhat disjointed, it is also very informative and a pleasure to read. My only criticism is that the last chapter might have been placed at the beginning of 'La terra del vello d'oro' as it's extremely helpful in contextualize Georgia and its debated regions such as Abkhazia, South and North Ossetia. But this is only a minor detail.

Even though I'd be more careful to call Wojciech Górecki the heir of Ryszard Kapuscinski, I'm certainly eager to read that second book by him that I bought for he knows his topics well and is a brilliant reporter.

*Please note that my review refers to the Italian edition of the book. Unfortunately, it looks like this book is not yet available in English translation. The title I put is (my) literal translation of the one chosen for the Italian edition.

3.6.14

Victor Sebestyen - Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Rating 8.5

This was an excellent, engaging and quite informative read which happened just when I needed it.
I've been interested in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising/Revolution for quite a long time, but - by sheer coincidence - one week upon finishing Twelve Days I finally visited Budapest for the very first time.

I guess it might have been rather annoying for my partner (she has just confirmed that it was) being led through the Hungarian capital by me unawaringly lecturing her on events and anecdotes from October '56. And I reckon how more than once I juxtaposed the monumental main streets and squares we were navigating through with the black and white pictures depicting Soviet tanks, urban guerrilla, rubble and destruction dating back to the uprising. Sorry for that, Paulina! And blame on you, Victor Sebestyen.

For reading Twelve Days brought me straight into a Budapest that is no more. I got sucked into a time vortex blowing me away from A.D. 2014 Poland and leaving me stranded but not confused in 1956 Hungary.
It took Mr Sebestyen's wizardry only a few pages to captivate me and - much to his merit - once I get into the history whirlwind I was reluctant to get out of it. I'll tell you why.

This is one of those rare history books where the context is introduced and explained thoroughly, the chronology is always clear and the narration manages to be enthralling, coherent and consistent. It reads like a well-plotted political spy story with a Machiavellian cast of characters, but it deals with one of the darkest pages in recent European history. 
Despite of the title he chose, the author doesn't rush to the brave and bloody twelve days of the 1956 uprising/revolution. At the contrary, Mr Sebestyen takes his time to explain what happened to Budapest and Hungary during and after World War II. By doing so the Anglo-Hungarian historian skilfully introduces the readers to a place and time they might not be familiar with and gradually builds up the book to its climax. 

Each of the main domestic characters who played a major part in the events leading to 1956 and following it - Matyas Rakosi, Erno Gero, Laszlo Rajk, Imre Nagy, Janos Kadar - is carefully disclosed in an unbiased and quite objective way. True, when it comes to villains Mr Sebestyen stresses out Gero's 'sadistic smile' or Rakosi's 'overwhelming cynicism', but one must not forget that these men sent thousands of people to death and are justly remembered as criminals by Hungarians. 
What I've found interesting is that the author doesn't depict Imre Nagy - now considered a hero and a martyr by his compatriots - as an entirely positive character. In fact, Sebestyen does quite the opposite by showing us an often undecided politician, an excessively cautious man uncapable to cut the bounds tying him to the USSR and reluctant to accept the moral leadership the Budapest crowds granted him. 
In the same fashion, Janos Kadar - the man who took over the power after the uprising/revolution was crushed to bits by the Soviet tanks - could be included into the villains ranks as he was 'loathed as a Judas' by Hungarians. And yet, Sebestyen doesn't portray Kadar as merely a Muscovite puppet but reckons how in the years following the uprising he actually did something to soften things up leading to the so called 'goulash socialism'.

On a side note, my only criticism to the author is that he might have done a better job on the international stage. 
The role played in smashing the uprising by a deus ex machina such as Nikita Kruscev in Moscow is explained but not investigated as much as it could have been. Looking Westwards, Sebestyen expresses some mild criticism towards the lack of interest in Hungary from the US and the UN, but eventually justifies both Eisenhower and Hammarskjoeld for their giving priority to the Suez crisis unfolding in the very same days.
This point of view is a tad too simplicistic to be accepted completely, but Sebestyen did such an excellent job overall that I can forgive him.

If you are interested in knowing more about the 1956 Hungarian uprising, revolution (or whatever you call it), Twelve Days is a book to get and read soon.

17.5.14

Isaac Bashevis Singer - The King of the Fields

Rating 5.5

This review will be a hard one to write for two reasons.

First of all, I'm a great fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the point I own some of his books in both Italian and English translation. Secondly, I'm not prudish, puritan, Victorian or whatsoever, but still it hurts me to find plenty of gratuitous, nasty and badly written sex in a novel where it's not supposed to be the core of the story.

Alas, as much as I like I.B Singer, I cannot be that biased to give this late novel of his more than a weak pass mark.
True, Singer wrote 'The King of the Fields' when he was already 84 year old which is remarkable, but was writing this novel necessary? I'd daresay not.

Let's start by saying that even though Singer spent 56 years in the US, he kept writing books in Yiddish explaining his choice by stating that English couldn't compete with the multilayered richness of his native language. Fair enough, but another reason why the Nobel Prize winning author didn't switch to English is that he was aware that he didn't master that language very well. That's why all the major works by Singer aren't translated into English by himself, but by close friends and relatives of his with the author's supervision. I've always found Singer's choice to stick to the Yiddish language in writing and to leave the English translations to people with a better knowledge of the subtleties of that language quite honest and fitting to a man who kept a modesty and a sobriety unknown to other Nobel laureates.
However, as far as I remember, this is the only novel by I.B. Singer that he himself translated from its original Yiddish to English and unfortunately it shows. The language you'll find in this novel is miles away from the sophisticated and engaging narrative of the best works by his author.

The chief problem with 'The King of the Fields' is that it reads like a young adult novel in terms of writing style and that didn't work for me. I mean, there are plenty of dull dialogues and let-down descriptions. And yet, unlike a historical novel for young adults, history is surprisingly blurry here so much that it's never clear what's the period Singer is writing about.
On the one hand, we have uncouth heathen hunters living in caves like Cro-Magnon men, on the other hand there is a description of an unnamed town ('Miasto' means town in Polish) which is portrayed like it might have looked like in the 14th-15th century.  We have an anachronistic Jewish character estabilishing a sort of cheder school teaching how to read to folks living in a hamlet where people walk barefoot and don't have a clue on how to farm the fields. We have Polish 'kings' looking and behaving like tribal chiefs and German merchants bartering weapons for furs while peasant townfolks buy meat by using groszen coins. Mmmh, all this sounds rather messy. Doesn't it?

What's worse, Singer enjoyed peppering these pages with some of the most disgusting sex scenes I've ever read. I mean something that would make even accomplished mysoginists such as Philip Roth or Michel Houellebecq blush.
I understand, I do understand that I.B. Singer wanted to take the reader into those obscure times where shattered tribes of pagan hunters ruled over nowadays Poland so that you couldn't expect fair treatment to women as well as equal opportunities. Nevertheless, there are so many rapes here and so many women falling in love with their rapists calling them 'my god' that I guess how Singer's point on sexual savagery is more than accomplished after the first 50 pages.

Together with rapes, incest, cheeky threesomes, pregnant 13 year old girls, choreographic coitus interruptus techniques and clumsy hints at homosexuality (in pre-medieval Poland!), I couldn't bear some of the hyper-sexualized characters. Let's take the awful and cheesy submissive statements of one of the main characters here - Kora - who is countlessly called a 'miserable whore' and a 'harlot' such as:
'I want to wash your feet and drink the water after ward' (sic!)  or
'I enjoyed other men as long as I could go from them to you'.

And what do you think of the following dialogue:
'He spat at you and you kissed him?'
'Yes'
'It gave you pleasure?'
'Great pleasure'.
Marquis de Sade in pre-medieval Poland? But of course!

I don't know what old Isaac Bashevis was thinking about when he wrote this, but he certainly was into a perverted satyrish period of his long life.
There are some redeeming and even interesting moments in 'The King of the Fields', but I'm afraid they cannot balance all the needless and overexposed sexual frenzy you get all over the place.
I appreciate that a very old Isaac Bashevis Singer wished to detach himself from his usual milieu writing a story which probably meant to celebrate - in its own way - the birth of the Polish nation, but I cannot deny that this is the worst book by Singer I've ever read.