Showing posts with label polish. Show all posts
Showing posts with label polish. Show all posts

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg | Review

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (trqnslated from Polish by Eliza Marciniak) has been shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Sometimes I'll read a book and my mind will instantly - and consistently - go to another place. Not in the sense that the book is dull, or distracting. Not even in the sense that the book is inherently transporting (though this is typically the case). Sometimes it's just a question of connections: a certain book will automatically link itself to another story or concept. This might, at times, detract from the book I'm currently reading; with Swallowing Mercury, the connection was positive, and reflective of the book's greatest strengths.

With Swallowing Mercury, the connection that I made was to a relatively unknown (but great) novel called The White King by György Dragomán (I read a translation into Hebrew). I read The White King over eight years ago (and even reviewed it on Amazon, years later!), finding it to be a strong, captivating coming-of-age novel-in-stories. It was well-written, childlike in the right places, and told a larger story just beyond the personal narrative. Suffice to say, I loved it. And from the very first moment I began reading Swallowing Mercury, I couldn't shake off the feeling that here - finally! - was the sort of coming-of-age novel that followed in The White King's footsteps.

Mind you, the two books are far from identical. While both books follow children growing up in Communist countries around the same time, each progresses at a different pace and follows a very distinct broader plot. The two novels also sharply differ in tone, with The White King more singularly focused on its narrator as a preteen, while Swallowing Mercury tracks Wiola through early adulthood. Moreover, The White King could work as a young adult novel, while Swallowing Mercury is distinctly darker, grimmer, and addresses a harsher form of reality. 

But that initial connection made me read Swallowing Mercury through a particular lens, with a sense that I knew how the novel would unfold. Greg, like Dragomán before her, uses Wiola on two levels, telling a story that is both intimate and generic at the same time. For instance, the chapter "The Little Paint Girl" tells of young Wiola's interest in art, and her attempt at entering an art competition at school, which involves submitting a damaged, stained painting of Moscow. This leads the authorities to descend upon Wiola's small school, and demand an explanation as to why she painted Moscow so "gloomy". While Wiola is simply a young, more-or-less ignorant girl in this story (focusing on the official's grammatical errors and feeling rather uncomfortable), the reader can also sense the bigger story - a Polish paranoia that a young child has painted Moscow streaked with black. The political implications are huge... but not quite the focus of the story itself.

The writing is typically a little loose, often feeling a little conversational and casual. It makes for easy, enjoyable reading, despite the typically darker tone of the stories themselves. And Swallowing Mercury, despite the childlike framing, is dark. Greg doesn't shy away from many of the less pleasant experiences of growing up as a girl, with more than one instance of molestation taking place (presented to the reader with an almost chilling detachment). Wiola's life is ultimately far from pleasant, but it's also just... life. Swallowing Mercury seems to emphasize this point, with the vignettes skipping subjects from school, to religion, to relationships, and all over. Yet through it all, Wiola grows, leaving Swallowing Mercury an admirable addition to the coming-of-age canon. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dreams and Stones | Review

If ever a book to serve as a transition from solving physics problems to reading literature, Magdalena Tulli's Dreams and Stones (tr. Bill Johnston) is it. This short book - and I hesitate to call it a novel, for reasons I'll soon elaborate - has so many delightfully physics-y moments, shining in its cool appraisal of this world we live in.

Dreams and Stones is hands down one of the most quotable books I've ever read. Filled to the brim with brilliant lines about momentum, or about specific cities, or about the nature of stones, or about the nature of man, it was hard not to spend the entire book just highlighting away and writing "BRILLIANT" in the margins (eBook, of course, because I doubt I would ever highlight a print book, no matter how quotable it may be...). Individual sentences were so clever, so intelligent and so well-observed that I couldn't help but view the book altogether very positively right from the start.

And yet I don't think overall I can call this a particularly good book. Because though the writing is fairly brilliant when viewed through a microscope, the bigger picture shows a very disjointed work. I really loved each individual bite of Dreams and Stones, but the overarching narrative was loose and fairly lacking in cohesion. It's abstract writing at its most vague, its most scattered, and its most frustrating.

That said, Tulli did manage to hit on some themes fairly strongly. There were the fairly obvious hints against a totalitarian, overbearing state (and the subsequent counter-city concept), but Tulli also seemed to tackle the Holocaust through this very specific, blurred lens. This section - near the end of the book - felt a bit more directed than any of the other ideas bandied about, but it also may remain open to interpretation. With my own personal experiences, I was only able to understand it as Tulli's method of acknowledging Poland's national shame... but perhaps other readers will view it differently.

I hesitate to call this a novel for one simple reason - there isn't really much here. Dreams and Stones is a meditation: a long, hardly interrupted monologue about the growth of cities and thoughts on their subsequent influence on humans. There are no characters (except perhaps the residents of the city, but they provide as much emotional connection as the stones do), there is no plot, and there is very little in the way of emotional pull. It's a book based on ideas, but unlike others of its kind (the oft-compared Calvino, Borges), the lack of a personal dimension placed it a bit further out for me.

There is one final comparison I must make. A few months back, when I reviewed the truly astounding Kalpa Imperial, I mentioned that that novel had one of the greatest thirty pages of literature I had ever read. Those thirty pages belong to the short story "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities". While reading Dreams and Stones (which is obviously longer than Gorodischer's phenomenal story, but not by that much), I couldn't help but compare the two. Both look at the changing face of a city, yet while Gorodischer's city sprawls and shrinks and we get a pure, clear image of it over thousands of years, Tulli's gaze is turned too deeply inwards. I could easily see Gorodischer's city in my mind's eye, but despite spending much longer with Tulli's, it remained vague and evasive. This is clearly indicative of the two author's differing styles, but I definitely preferred Gorodischer in this case (also: everyone should read Kalpa Imperial).

It's not that I disliked Dreams and Stones. It's an extraordinarily intelligent and thought-provoking book, brilliant in its individual passages and overall hits many of the right notes for me as a reader. But after having read "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities", having read Calvino, and in general having read enough books that do abstract without just being vague, I couldn't help but feel Dreams and Stones disappointed somewhat. I'm definitely going to read more of Tulli's books, but I hope that her others have a bit more to them than just isolated brilliance. Obviously a talented writer, but as a clear, coherent novel, I'm not sure Dreams and Stones really works.