Swallowing Mercury By Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak Oakland, CA; Transit Books, 2017, 160 pp., $15.95, paperback
Flights By Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft New York, NY; Riverhead Books, 2018, 416 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Beth Holmgren
Recent political news about Polish women has been grim, driven by the relentless campaign of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party against women’s reproductive rights. The news about Polish women writers, I am pleased to report, is much more encouraging, especially for the writers who can engage directly with an English-language audience thanks to the skills and support of their translators.
Last year, poet Wioletta Greg’s first novel, Swallowing Mercury, was published in Eliza Marciniak’s spot-on translation and longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This year, the prolific Olga Tokarczuk (To-KAR-chook) won that prestigious prize for her novel Flights. The first Polish recipient of the Man Booker International Prize, which is given to the best work of translated fiction from anywhere in the world, Tokarczuk decided to share its cash award of 50,000 pounds with Jennifer Croft, who not only masterfully rendered the multilayered stylistic register of Flights into English, but also campaigned for its translation since the novel first appeared in 2007. A photo of an ecstatic Tokarczuk and Croft at the prize ceremony captures a landmark in women’s history and Polish literature. While the current Polish government would deny women control over their bodies and lives, one Polish woman writer and her American partner in prose have won the literary world’s respect and can reach millions of new readers with their stories and testimony.
The concern for broader accessibility has always been key for Polish writers. In this regard, the fact that Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury received a nod from the Man Booker is more surprising than Tokarczuk’s win, for its coming of age story foregrounds a provincial Polish terrain that may strike non-Polish readers as particularly bizarre. The fictional village of Hektary, the heroine’s hometown, blends a vibrant, unruly nature with traditional customs and pagan-like rituals that most of its Catholic villagers unquestioningly embrace. The protagonist and first-person narrator, named Wiola after the author, describes this world as she explores it with her cat Blacky: “I learned to climb haystacks, apple and cherry trees, piles of breeze blocks; I learned to keep away from limestone pits hidden by blackberry bushes, from hornets’ nests, quagmires and snares set in the grain fields.” After Blacky’s death, Wiola’s grief dissipates only when she wins a statue of Jesus at a church lottery, a totem which awes her friends as well as the women gathered at her home for a feathering evening (they are breaking up feathers to stuff pillows and duvets) and a deity to which Wiola earnestly prays, hoping that He can resurrect her cat. Wiola remembers how her grandmother and mother feverishly prepare for a “visit” from a picture of Our Lady from St. Anthony’s Basilica, washing walls, polishing furniture, and spraying flykiller— “‘We can’t have bugs nesting in the corners when the Most Holy of Virgins crosses our threshold,’ my grandmother kept saying.” Though Wiola never gets the chance to peer into the tulle-covered box encasing the icon, she is riveted by the spectacle of the curate and helmeted firemen who bear Our Lady into her home and set it down on the flowercovered altar her mother and grandmother have improvised.
Complicating these images of a village frozen in medieval time is the oddball modernity of 1980s communist Poland. This means that Wiola is more or less educated in a state-run school and can enter national art contests sponsored in the Soviet bloc, though her unintentionally smudged drawing of Moscow prompts a government official to interview her in person about her political views. The material vagaries of communist Poland also mean that Hektary’s state-owned power plant intermittently shuts off electricity, and imported luxury goods are only sold in special shops for those with foreign currency, despite Poland’s presumably classless society. Part of Wiola’s sexual awakening involves drinking with and spurning the advances of Natka, a sometime prostitute, and ogling the contents of Natka’s bathroom cabinet, in which “everything was unfamiliar: packages available only at a Pewex shop, with names like Dior and Lancôme. A perfume bottle labelled ‘Dolce Vita’ which looked like a crystal sugar bowl caught my attention. I sprayed my wrist. The scent of vanilla cupcakes and summer filled the room.” Yet we are propelled through Wiola’s curious and curiouser world by her pluckiness, dynamism, sense of humor, and keen eye for wildly disparate details. She is an obsessive collector, not only of images, but also of locally available art—namely vintage matchbox covers. And she is surrounded by family eccentrics. Her grandfather keeps tabs on the collapse of all the tile stoves he built back in the day, and her father is an avid taxidermist and one-time jailbird who fills Wiola’s home with zoology books and the detritus of his hobby and introduces her to one notable thief who comes over to play poker. Her father ’s atheism and interest in the natural world leaven her mother ’s piety and superstition. His confession that he still feels like “unripe fruit” at the advanced age of fifty hangs over the novel like a symbol of Wiola’s coming of age or, perhaps, all life. Indeed, Unripe Fruit was Greg’s Polish title for this sharp, fresh little masterpiece.
In contrast, Tokarczuk’s Flights largely steers clear of the provincial Poland that Swallowing Mercury explores—though, for the record, Tokarczuk began her career as a writer of fantastic prose about Polish borderlands. Flights covers a tremendous stretch of earthly space and time; it is no accident that its best sections are brilliantly conceived historical fiction. By guiding the reader with a first-person narrator who sometimes seems to overlap with herself, Tokarczuk adapts for her purposes a device used by such Polish predecessors as Witold Gombrowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki. It serves her as a means to engage directly with her reader and to establish “her” character as a specific kind of writer—an “anti-Antaeus” whose “energy derives from movement,” a refugee from training as a clinical psychologist who boldly declares that she is drawn to freaks and cabinets of curiosities. Because this Tokarczuk/not Tokarczuk fills pages with reflections on such topics as the self-sufficient worlds of airports and trains taken by those afraid to fly “where every millimeter of the way will be touched by the wheel,” it seems that Flights is all about the experience and ontology of the traveler. The novel’s Polish title, Bieguni (Runaways), underscores that idea, for it is bound to one of Tokarczuk’s most riveting fictions, the tale of a Russian woman who temporarily escapes her life of pain and toil by joining a sect of people living on the Moscow metro. These runaways stay in constant motion to elude an Antichrist of control, upholding their creed: “Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”
I contend that Flights is about much more. Tokarczuk herself gives us permission to make our own “meaningful shape” out of what she calls her “constellation novel,”1 and I take her at her word. This novel is compelling in the way it suddenly breaks out into demarcated fictions, demonstrating how the narrator is sometimes lured elsewhere: “Tales have a kind of inherent inertia that is never possible to fully control. They require people like me—insecure, indecisive, easily led astray. Naive.” Her tales dwell most powerfully on the human body—the marvels of its design, its significance after death—and she slips into the minds and voices of those who mapped it for science and preserved it out of reverence. The narrator whisks us back to the Netherlands in the late seventeenth century where the great anatomist Philip Verheyen meets his former student, Willem Van Horssen, who guides us to what the master has achieved. Verheyen has just finished dissecting that part of his leg that had to be amputated in his youth (at his behest the surgeon had preserved it), and he has discovered what he calls the “Achilles” tendon joining calf and heel. Van Horssen is stunned by both discovery and name: “Maybe Philip Verheyen has happened on the trail of a hidden order—maybe in our bodies there’s a whole world of mythology? Maybe there exists some sort of reflection of the great and the small, the human body joining within itself everything with everything—stories and heroes, gods and animals, the order of plants and the harmony of minerals?” Van Horssen later brings Verheyen the first copy of the anatomist’s masterpiece, Corporis humani anatomia, in which “the human body became some sort of mysterious procedure etched down to its very essence.”
Elsewhere, the narrator lets herself stray to the deathbed of the great Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. Here, the composer ’s sister, Ludwika, is making sure Chopin’s explicit instructions are being fulfilled: a cast is made of his hand, a mask is made of his face, and his heart is removed for burial in his native Poland. It is characteristic that Tokarczuk’s historical fictions almost always feature a female protagonist, usually a wife, sister, or daughter fully initiated in the work of the family’s male “genius.” (Even Verheyen’s solitary post-surgery life is made comfortable by a kind, resourceful Flemish widow.)
Ludwika cannot bury her brother in Warsaw due to his connection with the 1830 uprising there against the tsar. Yet the body part that best symbolized his love of country can be repatriated covertly. This smuggling scheme requires that Ludwika carry the jar containing her brother ’s heart by means of a leather contraption hanging underneath her crinoline. One she has crossed the border into Poland, her traveling companion helps her remove the precious relic from between her legs: “Aniela, rummaging around in lace, drew out the jar safely and handed it to Ludwika with the gesture of someone handing a mother her newborn child. And then Ludwika burst into tears.” It is as if Ludwika has given birth to Chopin’s immortality.
Flights’s narrator voices the most moving plea for preserving the sanctity of a loved one’s body through three imagined letters of Josefine Soliman von Feuchtersleben. Josefine’s father was the famous Angelo Soliman, an enslaved African who rose to the status of courtier during the reign of Joseph II, Emperor of Austria. Though Soliman had been a well-educated Freemason, the husband of a white Christian woman, and a favorite of the emperor ’s in life, he was hideously degraded in death—gutted, stuffed, and displayed as a specimen of the “African race” in Joseph II’s cabinet of curiosities. With increasing desperation and fury, his daughter presses the emperor ’s successor, Francis I, to return her father’s mummy to her for Christian burial. Josefine’s final letter, written as she is dying, argues most categorically that “the human body is our greatest gift,” “forever sanctified” through a Christian god made man, and therefore most liable to sacrilege by evil rulers. She concludes by damning Francis I as a tyrant and usurper.
My review of Tokarczuk’s Flights delineates the constellation that burns brightest in my reading. But Tokarczuk provides many more stories and reflections for you to ponder as you fashion your own meaningful map. I strongly recommend that you explore both Greg’s vivid world in Swallowing Mercury and Tokarczuk’s dazzling galaxy in Flights. Their translators have already guaranteed you firstclass seats.
Beth Holmgren is Professor and Chair of Duke University’s Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department. Recent books include Transgressive Women in Modern Russian and East European Cultures: From the Bad to the Blasphemous, ed. with Yana Hashamova & Mark Lipovetsky (2016), and Warsaw is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzyńska, 1928- 1945, a cultural biography of a Jewish girl who fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and was interned in one of the only POW camps designated for women during World War II (2018).