25.3.14

Andrzej Szczypiorski - The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman (Początek)

Rating 7.5

The chief problem with Andrzej Szczypiorski for foreign readers is that tonguetwister of a surname he bore.

I wonder how many readers out of Poland have heard of Szczypiorski by word of mouth but cannot spell the author right. And how many non-Polish speaking librarians and booksellers might have been engaged in surreal conversations such as the following one:

Reader - Good morning, I'm looking for a book by this guy Sshz…Tzip…something like that. You got it?
Librarian - Morning. Well, I'm glad to help you, but it's a bit vague as a hint. Still let me try…Shteyngart?
R - What? That guy who wrote that weird stuff about Azer-something and called it Absurdistan? No, no. The author I'm interested in is someone else.
L - Spiegelman, maybe?
R - Hey, wait for a second? Do I look like I'm interested in comics?
L - Well, actually, Maus is more of a graphic novel and it's rather goo…
R - Whatever. I don't read comics. And Spiegelman is not whom I'm looking for.
L - Ok, then. Fair enough. I had a couple of shots in the dark. Could you be please be more specific? Do you remember the nationality of the author, by any chance?
R - Polish, I guess. The friend of mine who told me about the book hails from Poland.
L - Mmh, let me think about that…Ah! Right. Sienkewicz, perhaps?
R - Not quite. The author's name did start with an S, but then there were plenty of consonants straight after that letter...
L - Szymborska?
R - No, no. Look here, I like Jimb…Zimb…whatever -ska a lot. But the author I'm looking for doesn't write poetry, as far as I know.
L - Szpilman?
R - The Pianist, you mean? No. I read that one.
L (looking tired) - It could be Sczygiel, then.
R (pleasantly surprised) - Say that again?
L - Szczygieł. Mariusz Szczygiel.
R - Oh! Shee-gye-aw! Sheegyeaw... Could be the right guy, you know. At any rate, he does sound familiar. Did he write a book with an elegant lady portrayed on the cover?
L (sighing softly) - I don't think so, but let me check for a second (looks into an online catalogue). Socialist monuments, Prague's skyline, lions, crosses. No, I'm afraid there are no elegant ladies here.
R - Pity. I'm afraid I have to give it up, then. Goodbye.
L - (hiding his relief) Goodbye. But please come back once you get more information!

And this is how Andrzej Szczypiorski lost another potential reader.

I was luckier than the unbearable and confused reader above. I've found the Italian edition of The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman midprice and by myself without testing the patience of any bookseller. It was a good and unexpected catch that happened a few days before relocating to Poland.

What did I expect from this novel? I had no idea. But the reputation of its Italian publisher (Adelphi), the synopsis on the inside cover and the somewhat alluring title of the book bought me.

In fact, the title of this novel on the Italian, German, English and French translations doesn't have any resemblance with its original one Początek that means Beginning (or so I was told) thus not mentioning the beauty of Mrs Seidenman at all.
Now, is this a stratagem thought up by foreign publishers to win over Szczypiorski's tonguetwisting surname? It might well be. Still, I'd have preferred a better rendition of the Polish title.

For Mrs Seidenman part in this novel is not that relevant as you might expect given its foreign title. Well, to some extent. Irma Seidenman is only one of a cast of well-chiselled and convincing characters created by the author and getting by in their own ways in an already Nazi-occupied but not yet Nazi-destroyed Warsaw.

It's the Spring of 1943 and the pre-war state of things has changed dramatically. Thousands of Warsaw born and bred Jews are either confined in the ghetto or hiding somewhere in town. The Polish population is oppressed by the occupying Germans and gets by day after day. Fortunes are made in a week by cold blooded informers, traffickers and art traders who were good for nothings for years. Fortunes which were made over years by doctors, lawyers and entrepeneurs are lost in a week.
And yet, life goes on.

Szczypiorski - who wrote this novel in 1986 - took part in the Warsaw Uprising as a youngster and knew the hard times he depicts here. It's a tough choice writing a work of fiction inspired by events you witnessed forty years earlier, but the author does show plenty of talent and sensibility in doing that.
The characters here are faced with moral dilemmas and have to make important choices in the span of a few minutes. They all have either a strengthful motivation (for good or for bad) or a carefully pondered resignation which makes their decisions believable to me.
Furthermore, Andrzej Szczypiorski knew when and how to use a subtle bitter irony and is able to give an out of time grace to this novel by the means of a refined language.

At a first glance The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman could look like a belated novel dealing with places and people which are no more. But the fact that Mr Szczypiorski discloses what will happen to each character of the novel in the following years stretching as far as the 1970s tells you something about how modern and innovative this book is.
What you find here are indeed beginnings. Beginnings of fictionalised individual lives which - just like the ones of millions of actual people - were very much influenced by the choices and the decisions made in that crucial Spring of 1943.

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