12 June, 2017Issue 3434.8FictionTranslation

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Made in Poland?

Jane Hastings

Swallowing Mercury
Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak
Portobello Books
2017
146 pp.
ISBN 9781846276071
£12.99 (hbk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wioletta Greg’s autobiographical novella, Swallowing Mercury (2017), is a perplexingly mercurial work. Narrated from the perspective of a young girl named Wiola, its action unfolds in Hektary, a fictional village located in the Jurassic Uplands of southern Poland. Brevity characterises the twenty-three chapters—or vignettes—of which its narrative is composed. These individual chapters, with twee titles such as “Waiting for the Popemobile”, “Sour Cherries”, “The Fairground Girl”, “Bees” and “Whitsunday”, combine to conjure a quixotic and playful impression of a rural and bygone existence structured as much by folkloric superstition as by Roman Catholicism.

As their titles might indicate, each vignette brims with a good deal of the stock rustic quaintness one might reasonably expect from a coming-of-age narrative set in the provinces. We have beloved pets (and their traumatic deaths), vegetables, outdoor games and expeditions, trips to church, stormy evenings wiled away indoors, awkward romantic non-starters (and, of course, their fallouts). One instance of the latter occurs when Wiola bumps into her “first love” Piotr at the market: she is accompanied by her grandmother as they sell buckets of sour cherries, he by his mother, “the spitting image of TV presenter Krystyna Loska” as they peruse the stalls. The indignation that burns in Wiola’s aside that her and Piotr had spent “no fewer than nine Saturdays … dancing together at the disco” launches readers who might be fortunate enough to have forgotten straight back to the innocent angst of teen dating in a pre-Internet era: “Dear God, I thought, please make me disappear and I promise I’ll go to Midnight Mass this Christmas.” The encounter is, when it actually arrives, entirely underwhelming, with Wiola’s nervous smile and wave going unacknowledged.

Whilst archetypal coming-of-age moments such as these might easily come off as tired and clichéd, the frequent amusing digressions and elliptical descriptions with which they are filled out prevent any sense of typicity. It is in Greg’s shading in of “stock moments” and the unexpected details this throws up that the artfulness of Swallowing Mercury is apparent. Wiola’s precocious voice and wry humour manages to place readers in a position of confusion, annoyance, empathy and amusement or a combination of all four at once, depending on the particular circumstances that she relays.

But it’s not all country life. Wiola’s father’s taxidermy and fishing hobbies are admittedly granted far more space in the narrative than the small matter of the five-year sentence he received for deserting the army before her birth. His stint as a political prisoner is nonetheless laid down within the first paragraph of the very first chapter, thus setting the tone for a narrative that will oscillate between Wiola’s individual story and the wider history of life in a satellite state of the Soviet Union. The novel spans a period extending roughly from 1974 until 1990. Consequently, Wiola’s transition from childhood to adulthood unfolds against the backdrop of a period during which the Polish People’s Republic was gradually disintegrating: by 1990, it would have ceased to exist altogether.

This steady dissolution of the nation is offset with Wiola’s own seeming indestructability: the eponymous mercury-swallowing episode, arising from her trauma following an incident of sexual assault at the hands of the family doctor, or an accident that occurs whilst she is wading alone through snow-drifts late one night, leaving her “lying half-dead in the road”. Just as the response to the news that her grandmother is on the verge of death is blindly hopeful (“if she survived being invaded by a Soviet tank, she’ll pull through just fine”), so too is our will for Wiola to “pull through” where hindsight tells us that the Soviet Union will not. Her bold defiance of the Moscow official who visits her school, having taken issue with the abstract painting of Moscow she has submitted for a prize, and who makes her teacher cry, indicates that she probably will, although the narrative does not grant us access beyond the point of her adolescence. Wiola’s mixture of resilience and vulnerability in the face of the seismic political shifts that surround her is made all the more poignant by our knowledge that she will eventually depart from Hektary, and Poland, altogether: Greg, née Grzegorzewska, has spent time on the Isle of Wight, and currently resides in Essex.

Swallowing Mercury was originally published in 2014 in Greg’s native Polish, under the title Guguły, meaning “unripe fruits”. The undeniable shift in resonance between the Polish and English titles is just one source of the lingering question of the power of a translated edition to repackage a foreign work, especially when that foreign work hails from a language in which potential buyers (or readers) are unlikely to be proficient. This English translation of the novel is contained —perhaps unsurprisingly given the aforementioned propensity for pastoral whimsy— within a sleeve that deliberately evokes communist-era kitsch: primary coloured matchboxes emblazoned with black cats, trees, birds, vodka bottles and, alongside Polish phrases such as “Polskie mecze” or “Marka ptaka”, the oddly conspicuous English-language slogan, “MADE IN POLAND”. This edition of the translation, published by Portobello, showcases the success with which paratextual elements (such as cover art, translator’s notes, author’s name, synopsis) can be deployed in order to speak to the imagined reader’s aspiration to read a novel that fulfils a “MADE IN X” criterion.

And yet, as translator Eliza Marciniak acknowledges in her notes, there is an inevitable distinction to be drawn between Polish readers of Guguły and English-language readers of Swallowing Mercury, for whom, crucially, “the fall of communism in Eastern Europe is a historical fact rather than a memory.” This tension—between historical fact and individual memory, between a place that is recognisable here and now and a fictional village in a country that no longer exists —is embedded in Marciniak’s translation, as well as her broader understanding of Greg’s artistic ethos. A familiar translator of Greg’s work, Marciniak describes her prose as “very poetic and very concrete at the same time”.

The tension between the poetic and the concrete corresponds to Wiola’s personal striving to make sense of her family situation, her village, and the wider world.

To read Swallowing Mercury as a novel “MADE IN POLAND” would thus be to reduce the vividness of Greg’s laconic prose, or to see only the slogan and disregard what it symbolises. Greg, an established award-winning poet, has spoken frankly of the process of distillation that governs her prose writing. It is precisely this distillation that makes Swallowing Mercury such a compelling novella. Although in many ways a highly personal account of a single transition from childhood to young adulthood, it ceaselessly alludes to those stories that have not been told, whether in Polish or English.

Wiola in this respect acts as a mediator for the stories of numerous other young women, such as her mother’s classmate, Stella, who features in “The Woman with a Dog”, or the figure of Natka, a local woman whose morals are viewed pejoratively by many of the villagers.  In translation, of course, these layers of mediation multiply. One particular scene is illustrative: in “Spiders from Jerusalem”, Wiola, her mother, and Natka shelter inside the house during a storm. Whilst her mother sleeps, Wiola ponders a framed portrait of her grandmother, who represents historical fact, and personal memory condensed into one: “I missed her, even though I had never met her.”

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Jane Hastings is reading for a PhD in English. She lives and works in London.

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