Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

White and Red by Dorota Masłowska

Poland’s first track suit novel? Dorota Masłowska’s debut novel, published when she was only 19 and causing a sensation in her native Poland, attracts labels and chin-stroking disquisitions on the State We Are In. Its hero, Nails, is also held to be a spokesman for ‘Generation Nix,’ the first generation of Poles to grow up, into a spiritual vacuum, with no memory of communism.

Nails, though, for all his swearing, his mental confusion, his drug-taking and violence, is not simply a skin-headed tracksuit wearer, despite what the cover art of various editions suggests, and it is Ala, the devout Catholic, whose aspirations reveal the hollowness of modern Poland in a lengthy episode stylised on the language of women’s magazines and TV game shows. Nails, with his ludicrous ‘anarchist’ opinions, has at least turned his back on shuffling off to the university-cum-sausage-factory to learn pointless business skills that might some day result in a job with a multi-national firm.

So is Nails a romantic, an idealist, a modern-day superfluous man? This is someone who says: “the narcotics level in this house is as follows. One nervosol. and one box of panadol” [186-187] and before leaving that same house urinates over the pet parrots, who scream their heads off and desperately try to “fly off to warm countries” [194]. As he runs away from the house he thinks that when the owner “ascertains my absence as well as the occurrences that went down in her personal ecosystem with regard to the flora and fauna, it’ll be bad, maybe she’ll start chasing after me or, even worse, will want to show me those [holiday] pictures” [195].

The novel is told in the first person and recounts the heavily drug-influenced adventures of Andrzej Robakoski (“Nails”) over a few days against the background of a war between Poles and Russians in the town. Since the narrator spends almost the entire novel out of his head on drugs, it is hard to know what exactly is meant by this war and how much of what is described in the book actually happens and how much is hallucination. At one point, for example, Nails wakes up to find that the “the world’s broken out of its mould. The sun’s bigger. Fatter, lardy like a parasite gnawing away at us… The colours were stolen in the night. Or whatever. Maybe washed out” [104] The lower halves of the houses around have been painted red, the upper halves white, or as Nails puts it: “Up top, Polish amfa [amphetamines], down below Polish menstruation.”

Masłowska’s extraordinary use of language – frequently vulgar and obscene but sophisticated and inventive too – is the book’s strongest point, and one which may unfortunately hold it back in the English-speaking world. Nails is a loquacious, rambling, repetitive speaker, whose narration, with its run-on sentences, is often close to stream of consciousness. Masłowska hints at Nails’s poor linguistic skills with his use of malapropisms and bad or at any rate non-standard grammar but the language is poetic, often literary and always alive. Yet still Nails comes across as primitive and his use of language as close to the depressed housing estates and disaffected youth of modern Poland. Thus, Nails will say that his nerves are “besmirched, desecrated” and in the same breath that he is “quick to fucking anger.” In his fog of drugs he often doubles up expressions (not always captured in the translation) and repeats himself, cramming twice the linguistic material into the same message: “she escaped with her life in one piece.”

Masłowska has used the language of “people on the margins of society” with such confidence and authority that critics and readers have generally assumed that Nails is such a person: the blurb on one Polish edition describes him as “a dense mule.” And yet even a cursory reading throws up numerous examples of sophistication, though not always grammatically well formulated: “…from her teeth, which are arranged sparsely and pretty irregularly, like gravestones in a cemetery, radiates the glare of cadaverous happiness…” [145]. There are numerous literary references, e.g. to Bruno Schulz, Witkacy, Żeromski and Tennesse Williams, though they sometimes point up Nails’s ignorance. He often misuses or misunderstands the words he uses, e.g. “Getting to know the native autochthonous population.”

Nails is no college boy but his rough-hewn knowledge of literature and biblical stories, his references, for example, to the river Styx, his creative use of language, his self-destructive behaviour, his ability to even speak to people like Ala (though she does most of the talking) and his general intelligence suggest not a sink-estate youth who has never had any prospects, but someone who has seen his prospects and not liked the look of them.

The translator – a job I was foolhardy enough to ask for – was faced with no mean task. Masłowska’s use of language is highly colloquial and individual. Benjamin Paloff’s translation sticks admirably close to the original, rarely trying to tame Masłowska or make the book easily digestible for an English-speaking audience:

“I return to the room, where it’s utter Sodom and Gomorra, syph, malaria, the plague” [49]

“fucking gardener’s dog, he doesn’t smoke it down himself, and he doesn’t give it to someone else” [224]

These Polish expressions are not immediately recognisable but Paloff does justice to the original by not simply throwing them out and replacing them with English versions (e.g. “dog in a manger” for “gardener’s dog”). Some success is had in capturing the rough colloquialisms of the original, especially when Paloff translates more freely: “he’s all shit-pissed [rozkurwiony] about it” [239] and “opening up a can of whup-ass on the fascist tourists” [226].

“One big shitstorm of epidemic proportions” [202], if Paloff had been literal, would have come out as the baffling “syph and an epidemic of one great brothel.” Unfortunately, Paloff often is very literal and this has led him up some blind alleys. For every felicitous transfer of a Polonism into English there is an awkward sentence that was not awkward in the original:

“you don’t have you” [215] (instead of “you do not exist”)

“that’s up to you, whether yes or no” [116] (instead of “it’s up to you whether you want to or not”)

“She’s finally lost it? – I scream” [138] (“Has she finally lost it?” would be less literal but more English.)

“Whereas she suddenly unwinds, who knows what or why I, instead of being satisfied, am revolted” [180]

The translation is also not without misunderstandings of the original. Tough enough as translating White and Red was, it should be nothing compared to Masłowska’s just-published second novel, The Queen’s Peacock, which is written in the style of Polish hip-hop.

White and Red by Dorota Masłowska, translated by Benjamin Paloff, is published by Atlantic Books(2005) .

American edition: Snow White and Russian Red.

The original Polish title translates as: The Polish-Russkie War Under a White and Red Flag.

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