23.4.14

Slavenka Drakulic - A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism

Rating 7.1

What a great idea for a book!

Pets and other animals talking about the bestialities of human communism in the former Eastern Bloc countries. A well-documented and often entertaining approach to well known and less well known facts that truly happened from East Berlin to Moscow passing through Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Bucarest.

Giving voice to mice and cats, dogs and bears, ravens and parrots with each animal talking about its own country was indeed a work of genius.
Most of those who reviewed this book mentioned the 'Orwellian approach' or 'inspiration' of Mrs Drakulic, but I think otherwise. She's truly original and independent in her own work here so that the comparison with the author of Animal Farm doesn't stand a chance. To me the closest this book gets to is rather The Life of Insects by Victor Pelevin. But then again, unlike Pelevin, Drakulic doesn't insist on metaphors and camouflages: her animals are actual animals from the beginning to the end of their chapters (with one significant exception). Well done, Slavenka!

And yet A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism' (let me catch my breathe) falls short of what I expected. Whilst I did appreciate some of the episodes, others were just not at the same level and, in my humble opinion, out of place in the context.

I particularly liked the stories of the mole talking about people digging tunnels from East Berlin and West Berlin, the one about the rabid dogs issue in Bucarest seen from a canine perspective and the musings of General Jaruzelski's pussycat.
One of the reasons why these three 'fables' really work and stand out here is that they achieve a perfect balance between the human-animal narrative and the historical significance.

On the contrary I found unexplicable the choice to have a real woman, Magda, introducing herself as a 'Hungarian pig' in the chapter entitled - sic! - From Gulag to Goulash*. Putting aside the non convincing story itself, why not giving voice to an actual sow? Was that too complicated? The contradiction here with this one and only episode not being narrated by an animal is so evident that I'm inclined to think that Mrs Drakulic did that on purpose. But for what purpose, I wonder? Who knows.

The human-animal denouement is not broken anywhere else, but a couple of stories are just too long a monologue to be consistent (Tito's parrot, the chaperoning mouse in Prague) with the final result of putting their interesting animal perspective at risk with the author's voice popping up.

That being said, I reckon how Slavenka Drakulic did a good job here. I got hooked to this thin but important book and overall enjoyed it. The fables I read taught me some episodes I was not aware of and reinforced my knowledge of other topics I had already heard about.


*The tragedy is that back in 1996, the uncouth leader of the Northern League party in Italy did call the gulags 'goulash' in a public speech.

17.4.14

Anna Swir - Talking to My Body

Rating 7.2

I've never been a great fan of poetry, but - growing older - I began to reconsider my reader's block towards poems.

Thus, I bought a couple of poetry books, found myself interested in the biography of Eugenio Montale and even went to a contemporary poetry reading (although with mixed feelings for what I heard).

A friend of mine foresaw all this a few years ago by prophesing that I would have eventually (re)discovered poetry at the age of 30. It took me two extra years to fulfil my fate, but eventually I got there.

Applause.
I bow.

Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska)is a fairly well known name in Poland, but try to mention her in a conversation revolving around Polish poets with a pal of yours and I bet they won't be familiar with Mrs Swir.
I didn't know the author, but eventually got rather fond of this collection of nice little poems; for they helped me out with my Polish vocabulary and understanding.

Some compositions of Talking to My Body brought Szymborska's pomets to my mind due to their apparent simplicity wondering on an intimate everyday's life with tiny but meaningful details. Unlike her world famous compatriot, Anna Swir deals quite a lot with post WWII feelings and shows a touching empathy for her father who was a painter with a peculiar character.

Both topics are found in the poem I liked the most here. It's entitled He Did Not Jump from the Third Floor and reads like this in English translation.

The second World War
Warsaw.
Tonight they dropped bombs 
on the Theatre Square. 

At the Theatre Square 
Father has his workshop. 
All paintings, labor 
of forty years. 

Next morning father went 
to the Theatre Square. 
He saw. 

His workshop has no ceiling, 
has no walls 
no floor. 

Father did not jump 
from the third floor. 
Father started over 
from the beginning. 

Bless the Nobel laureate Miłosz who translated Swir into English (taking many liberties in metric) as well as the publisher who kept the original Polish text in this edition.
And thank you to the clever second hand bookseller in Krakow who found this little gem for me by rummaging through his shelves when asked if he had anything in English: this book was the one and only!

11.4.14

Stefan Grabiński - The Dark Domain

Rating 7.5

I'd like to be indulgent with Stefan Grabiński . For he deserves that. For writing the sort of fiction he delivered in his time and place wasn't easy at all, as you will read soon.

The eleven short stories you can find in The Dark Domain are only a tiny fraction of what Grabiński published in his native Poland including five novels and five works for theatre.

And yet, it's with short stories that pan Grabiński briefly touched fame during his short and unfortunate lifetime. And what short stories, I say!

Don't believe Wikipedia and the blurbs: Grabiński is neither the Polish Edgar Allan Poe nor the Polish H.P. Lovecraft. 
What we have here is odd but fascinating material which might sometimes bear a resemblance or two to other authors but, in fact, doesn't look like anything else that I've read before. 

As simple as it sounds, Stefan Grabiński was and still is just the Polish Grabiński. And if that doesn't seem like much to you, please give The Dark Domain a go and I bet you'll understand what I mean.

The quality of Mr Grabiński was that the short stories he wrote between the 1910s and the 1920s were something completely different from what the Polish audience was looking and asking for. Whereas his compatriots revered the historical novels by Sinkiewicz and the neoromantic books by Zeromski, Grabiński didn't publish anything of that sort. At the contrary, he created his own literary (and, alas, unfashionable) genre by putting sinister and introspective short stories in a modern framework. 

Only a few of the eleven short stories included in The Dark Domain have a gothic flavour (A Tale of the Gravedigger, Fumes) imbibed in traditional folklore revisited, but most of them will surprise you with either a philosophical or a sensual twist. Grabiński and his characters are clearly fascinated by the wonders of progress - and particularly by trains - but modernity in itself is not a bulletproof shelter against the wicked acts of evil. Well, in fact, quite the opposite. 

What astonished me reading this collection is how explicit and sexually detailed Grabiński could be in a time in which Poland was a puritan and a conservative country. To be honest with you a short story like In the Compartment reads more like a chapter of a steamy softcore novel (enters saxophone) than something written by an author devoted to creepy tales. Striking a similar note, Szamota's Mistress is stalking ante-litteram with plenty of frustrated libido to make the reader uneasy. There's sex, then. And there's even some powerful and rather scary transgender stuff in Fumes. But to me the mastery of Grabiński lies elsewhere.  

Even though daring experimental short stories such as Strabismus, Saturnin Sektor and The Motion Demon are very good and will implore for a second reading, it's Vengeance of the Elementals that struck me dead. Did you ever watch Howl's Moving Castle by Miyazaki? Well, if you did think about the demon of fire depicted by the Japanese master, imagine it evil and call it an elemental. This story of a hero of a fireman turned an arsonist due to the fire elementals ensnaring him is as scary as engrossing. 

There's this famous Italian comic series called Dylan Dog and dealing with horror stories that I read when I was a teenager. 
If I had to tell what reading Grabiński reminded me of, I would say that it's the scripts of some of the best episodes of Dylan Dog. Just don't call poor pan Stefan the Polish 'Nightmares Investigator' as that womaziner of a Dylan Dog introduced himself.

It's time to give Grabiński some justice, in Poland and abroad.
Speaking of which, please translate into English more of his short  stories!