10 Polish Books You Should Be Reading

A. M. Bakalar, guest editor of our Poland issue, opens the door for the uninitiated to what’s going on right now in Polish literature.  From a Stanisław Lem classic to stunning new novels and innovative children’s picture books, if you’d like to know more about Polish writing in translation, this is where to start.

snow whiteSnow White and Russian Red
Dorota Masłowska (2005), translated by Benjamin Paloff
Chaotic, surreal, vulgar, darkly comic, and breathtaking, Masłowska’s debut novel became a best-seller shortly after its publication in 2002. A monologue by a tracksuited slacker in search of the next girl and a line of speed while the Russians are taking over the local black market. Is the war coming or are these drug-fuelled delusions? Fiction like a roller coaster.

Ryszard Kapuściński- A Life, Artur DomosławskiRyszard Kapuscinski: A Life
Artur Domosławski (2012), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
A fascinating and complex portrait of one of the most outstanding Polish journalists and author of The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and Imperium. Domosławski paints a picture of a flawed human being; Kapuściński was a brilliant journalist who had to make compromises with the authoritarian regime in order to write. Despite his writings sparking controversy by combining fact and fiction, his collaboration with the security services and his several affairs (one of the reasons why his wife tried to stop publication of the book in Poland), his books have been admired and loved by readers all around the world. A superb biography of a journalist’s life and times.\

The Cyberiad, Stanisław LemThe Cyberiad
Stanisław Lem (2008), translated by Michael Kandel
In 1974 Stanisław Lem was reported to the FBI by the legendary American science fiction author Phillip K. Dick, who believed (perhaps due to his schizophrenia) that Lem was in fact a pseudonym for a composite of Communist Party committee members: “he writes in several styles”, Dick said. But in fact, Lem was simply an incredibly imaginative and unique author, best known in the West for his novel Solaris. You don’t need to be a fan of science fiction to be blown away by his masterpiece The Cyberiad. In a robot dominated future, rival inventors and best friends Klaupacius and Trurl travel across the galaxy, creating ever more ridiculous and nonsensical inventions. Beneath this compelling collection of hilarious stories of two robots and their adventures Lem delves into the complexity of our own humanity.

Where the Devil Can’t Go, Anya LipskaWhere the Devil Can’t Go
Anya Lipska (2013)
Though Anya is a British author, she did an amazing job with her debut crime novel about Janusz Kiszka, a fixer for the Polish community in East London. Kiszka is hired to solve the mysterious disappearance of a young Polish woman while detective Natalie Kershaw is faced with a dead body of another Pole. Things get complicated when Kershaw suspects Kiszka had something to do with the murder. If you’d like to find out about Polish communities in London you are in for a real treat. Insanely entertaining.

Our Class, Tadeusz SłobodzianekOur Class (Oberon Modern Plays)
Tadeusz Słobodzianek (2009), translated by Ryan Craig
Are humans born evil? When and why do we decide to do the unimaginable? Our Class is chilling drama which follows the lives of 10 members of a school class, from 1925 to the present. The starting point is the slaughter of over 1,000 Jews in a small Polish town of Jedwabne. Recent research attributes the killings to the local community. Despite its harrowing content, it is a remarkable text where religious tensions and political agenda influence childhood innocence, where fear drives young people to become informers, killers, and collaborators. Above all, Our Class asks the reader: What would you do if you were in this situation? What would you be willing to sacrifice to save yourself? What is the price of freedom?

Lovetown, Michał WitkowskiLovetown
Michał Witkowski (2010), translated by W. Martin
Hailed as the first Polish queer novel; queens Patricia and Lucretia grow up in the communist Poland of the 70s and 80s, seducing Soviet soldiers, and preying on drunks and heterosexual men in public toilets and parks. A visit from a young journalist prompts a dazzling journey into the dark and twisted stories of the gay underground. Lovetown is a tour-de-force of storytelling and inventive dialogue.

White Fever, A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia, Jacek Hugo-BaderWhite Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia
Jacek Hugo-Bader (2011), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
On his 50th birthday, Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader gives himself an unusual present – he decides to drive east to Siberia in the middle of winter. Along the way on his epic car journey, he encounters bandits, shamans and ageing hippies; he visits Mikhail Kalashnikov, the 88-year-old inventor of the famous gun, and Russia’s Miss HIV Positive. With great humour and sensitivity Hugo-Bader paints a nonetheless disturbing picture of the underbelly of Russia and its people. Unforgettable!

House of Day, House of Night, Olga TokarczukHouse of Day, House of Night
Olga Tokarczuk (2002), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Tokarczuk is considered by many to be one of the best Polish authors writing today. House of Day, House of Night is her sixth book, but the first to be translated into English. It is a collection of interlocked stories and observations set in and around the town of Nowa Ruda. “If death were nothing but bad, people would stop dying immediately,” says one of the neighbours, Marta. Past and present, dreams and reality, life and death, all merge in this delightfully inventive prose about ordinary human lives.

9. Mamoko series, Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel MizielińskiMamoko series
Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński (forthcoming in 2013), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I don’t have children but these so called “seeking” books blew my mind when I first read them and now all friends who have kids over a year old will be getting them from me. A cast of quirky characters, beautiful design, with intricate details that any child can follow and make up their own stories. Hugely creative, they will make your child fall in love with books.  “My child is addicted to them” said one mother to me. I could not think of a better way to put it.

10. The Assassin from Apricot City, Witold SzabłowskiThe Assassin from Apricot City
Witold Szabłowski (forthcoming in 2013), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I first read this book when it came out in Polish in 2010 and I could barely sleep afterwards. Szabłowski travels to the most remote Turkish towns and villages to meet women forced into prostitution, Kurdish freedom fighters, girls who run away from honour killings. A captivating book of reportage about contemporary Turkish society.

Madame Mephisto (excerpt)

Excerpt from Madame Mephisto by A.M. Bakalar.

Urban Dictionary on Poland: A nation that is unaware of its own col­lective backwardness, to its utter tragedy. It works efficiently only under occupation and dictatorship. Xenophobic and nationalistic.

You don’t believe me? It gets better. Have you heard of a country where twin brothers rule, one the president, the other the prime minister? No? How about this one: the president dies in a plane crash, for which he was most probably responsible because he forced the pilot to land, kill­ing himself, his wife, and ninety-four other people? Did I hear you right? You say it’s a conspiracy theory? Not so fast.

It is your country we are talking about.

But maybe you are right. It is all fucked up anyway.

[private]I am sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t swear. Not in front of you, at least. And we are going to a funeral in five days. But there is still time before we pay our respects.

You see, there are some things you should know about our country. And our family of course since, well, you and I are going to spend lots of time together. And I am not talking about those many hours before the last rites. Everybody is so busy with grieving and lamenting that they almost forget about you. You could say we have a lifetime ahead with each other.

What? Don’t look at me like that. There is nothing to be afraid of. You will learn to appreciate me. Oh, for Christ’s sake, don’t cry now! I am not a monster. But hold that thought. You see, my mother once said to me: ‘How can you be my daughter?’ A bit harsh, if you ask me, don’t you think?

If I were you I would listen to what I have to say in the coming days because I am doing you a favour. I like to think of it as a rescue operation. Oh no, I did not ask for it. Believe me, taking care of you is the last thing I need in my life. I had no choice. Nobody asked for my opinion.

This family! It’s so much easier to love each other from a distance.

So here we are now, you and I. We will see about the future later.

Anyway, we may as well spend this time we have together getting to know each other, or you getting to know me. Here in this room, in my parents’ house. Did you know that it was built in 1928? Of course not. How would you know? Mind you, it is a very solid construction unlike what they build these days. They moved to this house in the late 1990s from a block of flats we used to live in.

Are you comfortable? Good. I will place a pillow under your head.

Let me make it easier for you and lay down the options. You can listen to what I have to say and make up your own mind about whether you want to leave with me for London after the funeral. Or you can simply ignore it and get on with your life, here in this country I decided to leave a few years ago. But you should know that if you choose to stay I will not be able to help you because the family I left behind don’t exactly wish me well, and are not the kind of people I think you should stay with anyway. But we will get to that later.

Why am I saying this? Oh, because I am—well, how to put it? I guess you could call me a herbal purveyor. My clients call me a guardian angel, a lifesaver. Commonly known as a cannabis dealer if you insist on using the, in my opinion, outdated terminology. But this is not the only reason why my family is reluctant to welcome me back. I am a professional liar. I am two people. I take pleasure in experimenting with people’s emotions, people who trust me, putting their understanding of me in doubt.

Basically, I am the best thing that could have happened to you.

You see, I offer you a once in a lifetime chance to change your destiny. Learn from my mistakes. As I said earlier, I did not ask for it but since we have found ourselves in this situation we may as well use it as a business opportunity. Let’s say I have acquired enough and I am ready to share. And since I hate surprises I think it would only be fair to show you the whole picture.

As I was saying, I left the country a few years ago. It was 2004, and Poland joined the European Union. I felt no patriotic duty to stay. Living in Poland was a structured phase of my life. I had just spent four years working as a translator in a bank, right after I did my university degree in translation studies. It was a cover job.

You need to have a cover job if you don’t want to get caught. This is your first lesson. You should remember that. You see, I did not actually need to leave as I was already making good money, from dealing cannabis, of course, not as a translator. Growing and selling weed made me feel needed, appreciated, rewarded. Simply put, there is no comparison between working in an office and working as a cannabis grower.

After Poland joined the EU we, the young people, had such hopes, hopes for our own country. That things would get better from now on! There’s nothing better than being young and naïve, with no imminent danger of future responsibilities like parenthood, marriage, paying taxes—basically being a good citizen. Some call it contributing to society.

Trust me, it’s all bullshit.

Do you remember what I said about the twin brothers? Well, it was like the movie they starred in when they were 13. What was the title? Ah yes, The Two Who Stole the Moon, about two cruel and lazy boys who one day have an idea to steal the moon, which—in the story—is made of gold, so that they will not have to work any more. You see, those twin brothers later became two cruel politicians who, like the boys in the movie, had a vision of the glory of this country. Yes, you are right, unlike the boys in the movie, the brothers did have jobs—president and prime minister—but their paranoid ultra-nationalism and obsessive reli­giousness has turned our country into a place I can no longer call my home. It is not always about money, so I can’t complain. (Mind you, the UK has one of the largest cannabis mar­kets.)

You see, in a way, the twin brothers made it so much easier for me to make this decision and leave. After Poland became a member of the EU I gave up on my homeland and devised a plan to retreat to London.

There was also the question of my family, or my mother to be precise, who I thought would be the main beneficiary of my absence. Don’t get impatient. We will get to the family. But first things first.

A cover job. Remember?

When I think about the first few years of my life in London, I admit that I was not ready to circulate amongst the Westerners. You must remember the years of communist propaganda did a good job of tem­porarily carving its way into my emotional system. Under the ban­ners of the Polish United Workers’ Party to the victory of socialism! The Polish-Soviet friendship!


Perhaps I did not smile as much as was expected of me during my first job interview in London, which unsur­prisingly turned out to be a failure. I tried to be friendly and unthreat­ening. But smiling was something I had yet to master. No matter how much I wanted to escape from my birthplace, and find solace in invent­ing my new immigrant identity, I was forced to admit to myself that the essence of my being was formed where I came from. And where you and I come from a smile is a rare phenomenon, perhaps because of the turbulent history of our country, feeding fears and expectations directly to the heart of each Pole. Poles have a talent for lamenting, endlessly dissecting the events of the past.

While I was battling the crowds on Oxford Street, trying to squeeze my way towards the pedestrian crossing, I received a phone call from the little-known agency called Office Beasts that set up my first interview.

‘I’m sorry but you didn’t get the job.’

‘What?’ I said against the roaring noise of a double-decker bus passing in front of me.

‘It’s not that you don’t have the right experience. They really liked you. But they said, and please don’t feel bad about it, they said you’re too beautiful and they would have trouble working with you. We’ll find something else for you.’

‘Why don’t you send me where looks do matter?’ I asked, but it was unnec­essary. Office Beasts never set up another interview and I didn’t know enough about political correctness to question what I had been told.

Of all the insecurities I brought with me—my imperfect command of English with a dominant Polish accent, my unprivileged non-Western edu­cation, and my lack of work experience—my face hardly made it to the list.

My first job interview in Poland had not gone well either, in fairness. With a degree in my hands I knocked on the door of the biggest bank. Ah, those were the days of the Celtic Tiger, and the Irish were investing in the Polish banks before anybody else in Western Europe realised that the countries of the former Soviet bloc would soon become goldmines of opportu­nity. McDonald’s had just opened its doors and we all queued for hours to taste the West. The new owners needed translators and interpreters, and I needed a cover job for my budding cannabis enterprise.

The president of the bank, a Polish man in his early sixties, looked at me with curiosity. Or was it my breasts he was staring at? I do not remember exactly.

‘When are you planning to get married and have children?’ he said.

‘I don’t.’

He laughed. ‘A young and beautiful woman like you will surely find a husband very quickly and we will lose a translator when you get pregnant.’

I came home that day and told my mother that I got a job because my boss liked my face and my breasts. She shrugged. ‘What’s wrong with that? You got the job,’ she said.

I admit my looks helped me in the past, but I did not come to London to face the same judgment.

Lesson number two: don’t underestimate your appearance. Learn about the market and your clients. I did not know it then, but in my line of work I can’t emphasise it enough. BPR—behaviour pattern recogni­tion: never act as if you are carrying illicit substances. Who do you think the police are going to suspect first as a marijuana dealer: a woman wear­ing an impeccable suit who works in a well respected company, preferably in the City or Mayfair, or a black guy with the stink of weed about him? That’s right! You already have the answer. Image! Façade of trust and hon­esty. Your biggest asset is the fact you are an attractive woman. Use it! There is more to it than that, but for now that is all the information I am going to give you.

As I said earlier, I was not ready to work among the Westerners. After the first interview in London I cut my long blonde hair, much to my mother’s displeasure. According to her, it was throwing away the biggest asset that could make a difference among the possible suitors for my hand. Abnor­mal, was the word my mother used to describe me, and in the same breath she praised my twin sister’s sensibility. Alicja served as an example I should aspire to, with an established career as a corporate lawyer, and long hair accentuating her femininity, of course.

Polish women make good housewives; a two-course dinner is always ready on time, the house is scrubbed clean, the children are taken care of, and at night we transform into sexually insatiable goddesses. Making a career is the last of our worries, because it is the family, husband and children who always come first. Simply put, a Polish woman is one of the best deals on the matrimonial market.

Much to my mother’s disappointment, I yearned for a childless and mar­riage-free existence, whether in Poland or in England, and with the list of expectations relentlessly drummed into my head since I was a child at school and at home, I felt I had to escape my conventional predicted future. I was terrified by the prospect of ending up like my mother; a faith­ful and devoted housewife. It was not only how she groomed us at home when we were children: weaving ribbons into our plaited hair, buying colourful fabrics on the black market to sew skirts on the Singer sewing machine, knitting pullovers out of pink wool; my childhood was full of my mother’s commanding voice: ‘Don’t splash soup on your blouse’; ‘Stop laughing so loud’; ‘Sit straight with legs together, you are not in a barn.’

Don’t be surprised. My mother is the product of a strict Catholic upbring­ing. And I can tell you now that if you decide to stay here, she will get her hands on you before you know it.

Unfortunately, it did not end with my mother. At primary school, Alicja and I were taught to bake, knit, and make sandwiches, while the boys built birdhouses, learnt about car engines, and assembled radios. I, too, wanted to build birdhouses. At secondary school, my mother made sure Alicja and I attended classes on religion. Catholic religion—it is not like in the UK where you have a chance to learn about other denominations. Here you will learn only about sweet Jesus.

I say, forget about Jesus. There are so many gods to choose from.[/private]

Litro #126: Poland – Letter from the Editor

Read the issue here.

litro126_poland_singlePolish is now, after English, the second most widely-spoken language in England. But how many Polish books and authors have you read?

When I talk about Polish books people often tell me they are depressing, and assume they are mostly about the Second World War. And there’s a grain of truth in that reaction. Poles, with their turbulent and often tragic history, have not had an easy ride. The recent presidential plane crash, in which all 96 people on board were killed, was another powerful blow. Poland’s accession to the European Union in May 2004 resulted in a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Poles which kicked off the ‘Stay With Us’ campaign back in Poland to counteract the brain drain of young and educated Poles. But Poland is a nation of proud and resilient people, of people who forge new paths with surprising ease, a land of contradictions.In preparation for this issue Litro launched a short story competition inspired by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, in association with the Polish Cultural Institute in London. I had the great pleasure of working with one of the judges of this competition—Tasja Dorkofikis.

This month’s Polish issue brings a fascinating collection of diverse texts from authors who live in both Poland and abroad, each offering a glimpse of a very different and unforgettable world. One of the most exciting aspects of the pieces included in this issue are the intriguing new ways Polish authors engage with the vastness of human experience in the context of the past and, unsurprisingly, the new migrant existence.

Tadeusz Różewicz is considered one of the greatest, most innovative Polish authors. His Mother Departs, devoted to his dying mother Stefania, won the NIKE Prize, often called the Polish Booker, in 2000. What makes a poet? What is the meaning of life and death?—these are the questions Różewicz ponders.

Novelist Zygmunt Miłoszewski is the new star in Polish crime fiction and the prosecutor Teodor Szacki’s relentless pursuit of the killer in A Grain of Truth will keep you awake at night. Miłoszewski is also a double winner of the High Calibre Award for the Best Polish Crime Novel. Be scared. Be very scared!

Paweł Huelle tells the absorbing story of his family through their cars in the very witty Mercedes-Benz. Illustrated with personal photographs, Huelle packs this short book with funny and tender stories. Mercedes-Benz will stay with you long after you have read it.

The beautifully crafted poetry of Wioletta Grzegorzewska mesmerises with its observations of the human spirit. The poetess, who settled on the Isle of Wight, navigates her existence between Poland and her new home in the UK.

Grażyna Plebanek’s tantalising Illegal Liaisons breaks down barriers with its thrilling descriptions of sex and acute observations of life in Brussels where the author resides. A father, husband and a writer caught in a relationship with two women. Need I say more?

Jacek Dehnel’s fictionalised version of the lives of Francisco Goya, his son Javier and grandson Mariano reveals a fascinating portrait of one of the greatest artists of the late 18th and early 19th century. Here’s a story of hate, jealousy and manipulation between a genius father and his son.

A poet’s confession, gruesome crime, the perseverance of human spirit, illicit sex, family history and a glimpse at the underworld of cannabis production—a collection of texts that will surprise and, I hope, delight you, from a land of astonishing contradictions. Enjoy!

A.M. Bakalar, Guest Editor, June 2013

Read the issue here.

My Top Ten Nigerian Books

I’ve always been a huge fan of Nigerian literature. A few years back I even went on a course to learn Igbo. I started seriously reading Nigerian literature during my PhD studies on Nigerian and Zimbabwean contemporary fiction—a course, incidentally, which I never finished, because I began writing my own novel instead. The brevity, freshness, and unique storytelling style of Nigerian authors made me fall in love with the country’s literature and, in turn, taught me to believe in myself and my own writing style.

With over 500 languages and over 240 ethnic groups, Nigeria is a mesmerising place for any writer to write about, and the country boasts some of the greatest authors in African literature. The first person from an African country to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka in 1986. Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, is still one of the most widely read book in African literature. The first African author to win the Orange Prize for Fiction was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with her novel Half of a Yellow Sun in 2007, and the first Booker Prize awarded to an African author went to Nigerian Ben Okri’s The Famished Road in 1991. Evidently, Nigeria has a very rich literary tradition, which continues to this day.

Here are some of my recent favourites:

Jude Dibia’s Blackbird (2011)
A powerful novel about love, jealousy, and the fragility of life. Dibia caught my attention with his first book, Walking With Shadows, a brave and sensitive novel about homosexuality in Nigeria. Blackbird goes further in exploring what makes us human, how far we are prepared to go to for the people we love, and whether the sacrifices we make are ever truly worth it.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come To You By Chance (2010)
Have you ever wondered who’s really behind all those Nigerian scam emails promising you untold riches? Meet Kingsley Ibe and the dangerous yet fascinating world of Nigerian 419 scams. This book is incredibly funny—at times I laughed out loud reading it—but it also shows the industry’s darker side, exploring why people might decide to enter the criminal world in the first place.

Helon Habila’s Oil on Water (2011)
Oil on Water is Habila’s third novel and tells the story of two journalists in pursuit of the kidnapped European wife of an oil executive. It is a pessimistic but must-read novel that highlights the ongoing tragedy of the environmental degradation of the Niger delta and the Ogoni people.

Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street (2010)
An unsettling novel about four Nigerian prostitutes living in Antwerp. Before she wrote it, Unigwe approached a number of women working as prostitutes to tell her their life stories, and the book reflects this underlying reality in its raw and vivid language. Unigwe tells a story of courage and hope and manages not to stereotype her female characters as victims.

Mohammed Umar’s Amina (2006)
Set in northern Nigeria, Amina is one of those rare books which offer a glimpse into a world under Islamic rule. This novel has been translated to over 40 languages, and it tells the story of one woman’s transformation into a leader of a movement to bring much needed social change. There are very few Northern Nigerians who write in English and Amina is a great place to start.

Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (2011)
Baba Segi has four wives. But his fourth, the young, ambitious and college-educated Bolanle, has still not had a baby. Imagine Nigerian Big Love, but so much better!

Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames (2007)
Set in East Los Angeles the book follows part-Salvadorian, part-Nigerian mural artist Black and his obsession with transsexual stripper Sweet Girl. Black’s friends include Iggy the tattoo artists and Bomboy the Rwandan butcher. Unforgettable characters that will keep you awake at night.  

Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s In Dependence (2008)
I fell in love with Manyika’s characters: Tayo, a Nigerian on scholarship in Oxford and Vanessa, a British colonial officer’s daughter. A touching and bittersweet cross-cultural love story set in the 1960s.

Richard Ali’s City of Memories (2012)
Ali’s first novel tackles the big question of what love really means, set during the time of religious and ethnic upheavals in Northern-Central Nigeria. A beautiful book of self-discovery by a young author to watch.

Uwem Akpan’s Say You Are One of Them (2010)
A collection of five short stories, each written from the point of view of a child, and each set in a different African country. It is not an easy book to read, and the stories will haunt you long after you finish them.