Features » Literature

May 2005 to May 2006 is German-Polish Year, with academic and cultural events taking place in centres throughout the two countries. Ina Hartwig was at this year's Warsaw Book Fair, and reports on the latest generation of Polish authors.


The sweet taste of underground

Dorota Maslowska is the unchallenged queen of the young Polish literary scene.

Aha, so that's the most sought-after writer in Poland today. A textbook case girlie: pink stockings, turquoise training jacket, red Puma bag, checked miniskirt and a fantastically asymmetrical hairdo with flowery bobby pins in straw-blond hair. Dorota Maslowska (image) smokes, giggles and answers questions put by German journalists with a deceptively innocent girlishness. The book that catapulted her to fame and fortune, "Wojna polsko-ruska pod flaga bialo-czerwona" (Polish-Russian War under a White-Red Flag), appeared in 2002. She notes with a grin that elderly veterans came to her first reading to relive old memories. How taken aback they must have been to hear the vulgar street talk of today's suburban kids, the inner monologues of teenagers in track suits keeping their cracked-up egos on edge with hard drugs, sex, violence and acute jealousy.

Over 130,000 copies of the prize-winning novel were sold in Poland alone. Apparently it spoke to a lot of people who don't normally have their nose buried in a book. The novel boasts a bold, original, astoundingly confident tone, with as little traditional reverence for the great Polish poets – Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz – as Catholic prudery. Dorota Maslowska herself, occasionally called an 'enfant terrible', by no means belongs to the doleful milieu of her heroes. A bourgeois girl, she is said to have jotted down the 250-page novel while preparing her high school leaving exams (which she passed with flying colours). She was nineteen when her stroke of genius came out.

Now, three years later, she studies Polish literature, has had a baby and has written a second book that's appeared for the Warsaw Book Fair. "Paw królowej" is a 150-page poem in prose, a rap song with endless verses poking fun at her success, the media and its hacks.

"It's a book about stupidity", says her publisher Pawel Dunin-Wasowicz, a shy freak of 37 with a big belly and a hearty thirst for beer. His publishing house shares the first floor of a spacious, run-down old building in the Warsaw inner city with the Raster gallery. Electric cables lie in winding choreographies in the stairwell. The atmosphere in the office, which doubles as a club – scuffed armchairs, brick bar, jolting punk music – is a mixture of alternative pad and youth centre. The publisher takes the time – grumbling it's true – to introduce his company "Lampa" to the German literature critics invited by the "Instytut Ksiazki" on the occasion of the German-Polish year.

The firm is basically something of a "Gesamtkunstwerk", challenging the distinction between mass products and individuals in a family subculture atmosphere, not unlike Andy Warhol's factory. It's members are poor, young, critical, free and stylish. Pawel Dunin-Wasowicz founded the periodical Lampa – which means both "lamp" and "spark of God" – along with the publishing house of the same name in 1992. But it was Dorota Maslowska's novel about the Polish-Russian war that has permitted him to dedicate himself full-time to publishing. The journal has appeared regularly for a year now, with circulation at a respectable 4,000 copies. Maciej Sienczyk, the periodical's ingenious illustrator, does graphics – including for Dorota Maslowska's two books. It's difficult to see why Kiepenheuer & Witsch did not retain the original layout for the excellent German translation by Olaf Kühl (with the somewhat unfortunate title "Schneeweiß und Russenrot" - Snow White and Russian Red). Instead, the cover shows an inconsequential photo of an inconsequential girl that readers will mistakenly take for the author.

The "Lampa" journal, which is not at all opposed to the "middle" generation of Polish writers now in their 40s - Andrzej Stasiuk, Olga Tokarczuk or Pawel Huelle. It functions both as organ for literary reviews and forum for clever self-dramatisation, toeing the fine line between trash and styling. The "Lampa" women model second-hand clothes on a makeshift catwalk, the counterconcept to the many young girls who strut their guilelessness innocence on the sidewalks of Warsaw and look like little whores without knowing it. The young "Lampa" men make a show of proletarian paraphernalia (track suits, beer bottles and the like) and guess who's always there with them? Dorota. You wonder how she manages to come to terms with her twin roles of superstar and underground girlie.

The new heroes of the young Polish literary scene have also all been in the literary journal Ha!art or in the anthology Takstylia (2002), both published by Piotr Marecki. These include the intense Agnieszka Drotkiewicz, whose novel "Paris London Dachau" (excerpt in English) is said to process fragments of a language of love (of a very young girl) à la Roland Barthes. There is Michal Witkowski, whose novel "Lubiewo" (excerpt in English) is situated in the gay milieu and in the turbid days of socialism. There is Slawomir Shuty, an erstwhile bank clerk whose novels "Belkot" and "Zwal" defy the new flood of consumer goods in the form of anti-consumption literature, a sort of Polish Frédéric Beigbeder. And there is the linguistically promising Wojciech Kurczok, whose prize-winning novel "Gnoj" (roughly: manure, bullshit) deals with domestic violence. His novel "Widmokrag" will be published in German by Suhrkamp.

As varied as these writers' literary qualities might be on an individual level, one thing is clear: politically tinged realism has come to Polish literature. You couldn't really say returned, at least according to Beata Stasinska, programme director of the well-known publishing house W.A.B. Because the period of freedom between the two World Wars was too brief for an individualism worth the name to develop. And there never has been a realistic narrative tradition in Poland, the land of the poets, until now. 'The time has come for us to take a look in the mirror', admits Stasinska, whose company emerged from the Solidarnosc movement. She too is 'permanently on the lookout for new voices in Polish literature' (one of the foreign writers signed to W.A.B. is Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek). Beata Stasinska is only slightly sceptical of the new anti-capitalism of the younger generation.

One hears that today's 30-year-old Poles see themselves as the losers of transition from communism to capitalism, while those even younger have immersed themselves in things private. Unemployment, also among the well-educated, is an experience that this generation admittedly shares with their West European counterparts. And who knows what similarities are yet to be discovered on the way to European unification. "As opposed to our parents' generation, and that of Andrzej Stasiuk, we do not measure the present against the past, or against censorship, or communism," explains Mirek Nahacz, novelist and member of the "Lampa" family. "This is the only reality we know."

The present is the present, the point is to interpret it? As Dorota Maslowska presents her new book in the "Lampa" rooms, everything goes according to plan. The reading starts at exactly 7:30 p.m. At 8, the family is standing around talking, drinking and smoking. No loud music, out of respect for the neighbours. Any of the young men who doesn't want to play tabletop soccer can delve into the black eyes of a Serbian diplomat's daughter. Dorota Maslowska lifts her head in concentration. Then she writes a dedication for a friend in the freshly printed copy of her rap poem "Paw królowej", a play on words that means both "king's peacock" and "king's puke". At midnight everyone pours out onto the street. What a time we live in!


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on June 1, 2005.

Ina Hartwig is a literary editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european