Pokaz prozy (Prose Display) is, as reviewers have pointed out, a curious book. It aims to showcase good modern Polish prose (12 writers born more or less in the period 1945 to 1960, all of whom have already achieved success). What it displays is, in fact, the weakness of modern Polish prose. To begin with an old favourite: product placement.
I had hoped to find a brand name in at least one piece by every author but it was not to be. Barańczak namechecks “Przemysławka” eau de cologne and mentions syrenkas and maluchs, kinds of cars. Stefan Chwin fits in a references to Singer sewing machines and Star lorries. Kowalewski firmly anchors his story in its period and class by mentioning a glove from “Buquet” and naming more wines than you could shake a stick at. Volkswagen gets a mention from Libera, as does Soplica vodka. Rylski, like Barańczak uses an eau de cologne to characterise a person – in this case it is “Brutal” (still available in all good kiosks). Olga Tokarczuk signifies foreign sophistication with the unforgettable words “Johnny” and “Walker.” Adam Zagajewski has a character write his verses not on a humble typewriter but on a Remington. When not using a Remington, he uses a “Złoty Pelikan” or golden pelican, a kind of fountain pen beloved of Polish intelligentsia of a certain age, though the “Waterman” brand also gets a look-in in Zagajewski’s contribution. Jerzy Pilch is more Catholic: he name checks not only the pelican and the waterman but also the parker, covering as many bases with the snobs as possible without mentioning anything so crude as a bic. Lastly, Bronisław Maj gets in a mention of a Czech make of guitar known as Jolana (“we didn’t know any other brands”). So drinking, writing and splashing on the male perfume would seem to be the obsessions of Polish writers. But a full three of the twelve featured writers manage to tell their stories without once mentioning a brand name.
Elsewhere the flippant disregard for accuracy is again in evidence. Maj’s story is a kind of paeon to the Animals. Here he is quoting Eric Burdon: “I’ve smoked my first cigarette at ten.” I doubt Burdon speaks English like a schoolboy yet to master the subtleties of the past perfect and the simple past tenses. Libera also tries is hand at a bit of the old English. As is to be expected of a translator of Samuel Beckett he does a little better and “It’s my plesure” and “it’s much cheeper” can probably be blamed on the book’s proof readers. I’m not so sure that his “I hope, you have read him” can be blamed on proof readers though. A writer’s mistake, not a proof reader’s.
Rylski is obviously not a big fan of Rylski: he has never read Rylski’s work. Otherwise the word “rozkosz” (delight) in various guises would surely not have occurred 9 times in his story (five times in 3 and a half pages). Maybe it’s just the western pedant in me, but why do the mother and her child, in the same story, come to the beach every year for their summer holidays when the mother has “światłowstręt” (light intolerance, photophobia). Would the woods not be a shadier option than the beach? Here’s a snippet of “dialogue:”
“‘I’m definitely not going to shave.'”
‘What did you say?’ asked his wife.
‘I had a dream…'”
But that’s not what he said. He said “I’m definitely not going to shave.” I know, because it’s written above.
Olga Tokarczuk’s “Professor Andrews w Warszawie” is a happy hunting ground of cliches. A treasure trove. A veritable gold mine. The Prof – one of the stupidest people ever to people the pages of fiction and entirely devoid of any self-preservation instinct (Tokarczuk forgets to feed him for one entire day) – visits Poland just as martial law is declared and at a guess I would say that his confusion is a metaphor for the confusion of the country. At a guess. The cliches: the prof gets into a rattling car. The town is sad. There are tower blocks everywhere on the housing estate. The books on the shelves are in ugly covers. Even the snow seemed grey. He finds a telephone box at last. But he has no coins, only bank notes and he doesn’t even know if they are large or small in denomination. He decides to return and realises he is lost. The inside of the bar is dismal. The food he eats there is not good, tasteless. In the shop there are only bottles containing a clear liquid, perhaps vodka [actually it’s vinegar] and jars of mustard. People stand obediently in queues. He buys a Christmas tree more or less accidentally because that was what the queue was for. He sees in a bath a large, floating fish [probably a carp]. It was alive.
And it’s no good saying that’s what Poland was like in December 1981. If it was, then “so much the worse for reality,” as Barańczak once said, quoting someone else. A dismal display.