Tag Archives: Andrzej Stasiuk

Kapuściński, the Award, and the Biography

The Ryszard Kapuściński Award for literary reportage was established and announced last month, on the third anniversary of the author’s death, by the City of Warsaw and Poland’s largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. As the Polish Book Institute reports:

The award will be given on a yearly basis to the finest piece of literary reportage published in book form in the Polish language. The goal of the competition is to pay posthumous tribute to Ryszard Kapuściński, a resident of Warsaw for over 60 years, through this distinction and the promotion of the most valuable works of reportage, which take up important problems of contemporary life, prompt reflection, and increase our knowledge of the world of other cultures.

The winner will be awarded 50,000 zł, and should the award be given to a foreign-language writer, the Polish translator will also be given an award (15,000 zł.). The first winner will be declared in May of this year.

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This is not the only recent news about Kapuściński. The reporter Artur Domosławski, author of several books of reportage on North and South America, recently finished a biography of the renowned Polish journalist, Kapuściński Non-Fiction: The Man, the Reporter, and His Times, which is to be published by Świat Książki next month. Kapuściński’s widow, Alicja, who is the patron of the City of Warsaw / Gazeta Wyborcza award, has filed a civil suit demanding that the book be banned from distribution.

Evidently the manuscript was earlier turned down by Jerzy Illg, the publisher of Wydawnictwo Znak, who had commissioned it, though not for the reason conjectured by the increasingly Fox-Newsy newspaper Rzeczpospolita — i.e. the old hat about Kapuściński’s links to the Polish secret service — but because, as Illg told a Polish AP journalist, “Rysiek was my friend, and I wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye if I were to publish a book like that.” Świat Książki maintains that the nearly 600-page book will be released on March 3rd.

So what is all the fuss about? From Domosławski’s comments on his blog, it sounds like there’s not much to it:

My book reveals quite a few things and tries to explain a lot, but it is not some cheap attempt to unmask its subject. Those who expect me to examine Kapuściński’s life and pass judgment on his involvement in Communist Poland will be surprised at how I defend him. Those who are waiting for stories from the gutter will be disappointed… I think a lot of people will be amazed that anyone would want to take a book like this to court.

Of course, no writer is ever completely objective about his own work; and the epitaph to the book – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life” – sounds like nothing so much as an invitation to pry. Domosławski, who was one of Kapuściński’s protegés and as a friend of the family was given access to his private archive, evidently violated Alicja Kapuścińska’s trust and her expectations for her husband’s legacy.

At the same time, from his own statements and the several reviews that have so far appeared, it seems that he wrote the book in good faith and strove for objectivity about his subject. In a review posted two days ago (“The Dark Side of the Icon”), blogger Sergiusz Pinkwart describes Domosławski as “Kapuściński’s beloved adopted son” — counterpart to the “heir-apparent,” Wojciech Jagielski — and as having been “able, like no one else, to talk competently with Kapuściński about his great obsession: poverty and social exclusion in the third-world.” Pinkwart also recounts some of the less-than-rosy elements of the biography: Kapuściński had affairs; did indeed collaborate with the Polish secret service; and made things up in his books. But while those things may be understandably problematic, and not just for the family, none of them strikes me as unexpected or even so terribly alarming, not even the single new bit of information, i.e. the affairs.

What is probably even more troubling for a lot of people in Poland is that Domosławski’s biography violates Polish hagiographic conventions of fame, according to which any besmirching of a great Pole’s reputation is considered an assault on the nation. It seems that the controversy over Kapuściński’s biography is already also a debate about the way celebrity is constructed in Polish culture. As Andrzej Stasiuk wrote in his blurb for the book:

Domosławski follows his trail, attempts to get at the truth, and is unconcerned about some people’s desire for yet another Polish saint. Thankfully this book is not a hagiography, rendering its subject a kind of mental eunuch. Poles love to worship images like that, because they don’t demand anything from them, just a little national fatuousness for the tickling.

The biography will no doubt also play a part in the ongoing debate in Poland about the communist past, just as that debate has evidently influenced Domosławski’s approach. In a review posted yesterday on his blog, the reporter Wojciech Orliński describes how Domosławski “conducts… a cross-examination” in the book. A few years ago, Polish Newsweek reporters suggested that Kapuściński was being let off the hook for his involvement with the Polish secret service and suggested that he would have fared differently in America (the gold standard, of course): “After all, in the USA, if it came to light that a renowned, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist had collaborated with the CIA, he would be discredited at once in the eyes of his readers,” they insisted. According to Orliński, Domosławski was sceptical and interviewed a number of American journalists to find out what they thought; and they provided “any number of scenarios, both real and hypothetical,” that call into question the Newsweek reporters’ speculation.

I for one look forward to reading Domosławski’s biography; and I imagine that if it does end up released in Polish, it won’t be long before English-language readers will be able to read it, too.

Recent Polish literature news…

A few updates on recent goings-on in Polish literature:

This year’s NIKE Literary Award was announced on October 4. It went to Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, the only poet among 7 finalists, for his book Piosenka o zależnościach i uzależnieniach (Song of Relationships and Addictions, Biuro Literackie 2009). Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, who was born in 1962, has over 9 books of poetry in Polish and one in English: Peregrinary, which was translated by Bill Johnston and published in 2008 by Zephyr Press.

dycki-piosenka Dycki-by-MichaelZgodzay1

The other finalists were: Andrzej Bart for Fabryka muchołapek (Flycatcher Factory, WAB), Inga Iwasiów for Bambino (Świat Książki), Ignacy Karpowicz for Gesty (Gestures, Wydawnictwo Literackie), Tomasz Piątek for Pałac Ostrogskich (The Ostrogski Palace, WAB), Bohdan Sławiński for Królowa tiramisu (The Queen of Tiramisu, Czarna Owca), and Krzysztof Varga for Gulasz z turula (Turul Gulash, Czarne). Of these other finalists, all but one are men, all but one were nominated for a novel (Varga’s Turul Gulash is a reportage about Hungary), and all but one already had a book or more under their belts (The Queen of Tiramisu is Sławiński’s first novel).


Andrzej Stasiuk has just published a new novel, Taksim (Czarne). Here’s a summary by critic Przemysław Czapliński from Czarne’s rights catalogue:

In his latest novel Andrzej Stasiuk tells a tale of a very last chase of capitalism. His two main heroes – Paweł, a marketeer who circulates among the bazaars of European provinces, and Włodek, his driver – suffer a symbolic and actual defeat in their encounter with the new force. Up till this moment they’d always managed to come out on top. Paweł in particular is like a knight errant of the first phase of capitalism in these parts.

Now, yesterday’s culture of short-lived products becomes a culture of one-time use. Asia invades Europe, not with an army, but with trade. It floods the continent with knockoffs, in other words merchandise the Chinese copied from Central European products that were themselves copies of Western items.

If someone has the impression that Stasiuk has created a contemporary version of the story of how “the yellow race overcomes the white race,” they will only partly be right. Stasiuk is less interested in portraying the victors in this capitalist duel of deceptions, more in showing us the losers – that is to say, the pariahs of Europe, inhabitants of its poorest regions, people condemned to a worse life because they live in a worse place. These people acquire the cheapest goods, but they themselves, especially the women, are also turned into merchandise. The only thing Western Europe exports to Central Europe is its trash, its used objects, the detritus of its development, while from there it imports male bodies for its harsher jobs and female bodies for its entertainment. In this way the strength of money and the weakness of the provinces cause the ideal of Europe to enter liquidation. And since history driven by money has no brakes, it is a liquidation that cannot be reversed.

I wonder if this book was picked up by an American publisher at Frankfurt last week. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Stasiuk’s novel Nine three years ago, has plans to release his book Traveling to Babadag sometime in the relatively near future. And if you haven’t yet read his amazing Fado, which came out last month with Dalkey Archive, please drop everything this minute and go out and get it.



The plot of Stasiuk’s Taksim calls to mind another recent, darkly futuristic Polish novel rooted in a topical discourse: Paweł Huelle’s The Last Supper (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Serpent’s Tail 2008; US edition forthcoming in December 2009). One wonders if a new catastrophism is under way in Polish fiction, a throwback to Witkacy’s apocalyptic novels of the 1930s… Here’s an excerpt of The Independent review last year, after Huelle’s novel came out in England:

The Last Supper, again [like previous novels Mercedes Benz and Castorp] centred on Gdansk, makes a small leap forward in time. Bomb attacks on liquor stores have raised the fear of jihadi militancy taking root among local Muslims (at present, they hardly exist), while others blame provocations by rival booze tycoons. The Church, via the flashy local prelate Father Monsignore (who runs his own-brand wine label), is shoring up its status via showbiz-style stunts and entrepreneurial gambits. Meanwhile, the artist Mateusz gathers a group of old friends – all veterans of the 1980s opposition circles, some thriving but others marooned in the free market – to take part in a re-enactment of the Last Supper.

The book’s first US review, in Publishers Weekly, just came out today, and is somewhat lukewarm, beginning with a caution: “American readers may struggle with this near-future novel from Polish author Huelle… a meandering meditation on contemporary Poland and Europe,” and ending with a proviso: “Those familiar with the social, political and religious issues Huelle addresses will best appreciate this challenging book.” It does, however, raise some important questions about translation, reception, and differing horizons of expectations between Poland and the U.S. (and between Poland and the U.K.).



Poet, translator, and Literatura na świecie editor Piotr Sommer is a Franke Visiting Fellow at Yale University this semester. He gave a reading together with Christian Hawkey at Symphony Space last month at the Polish Cultural Institute’s season opener, joined by members of theNew York-based ensemble The Knights, who performed settings of his and Hawkey’s poems by, respectively, Jeffrey Lependorf and Lisa Bielawa. He will be giving a reading at Yale tomorrow (20 October).

Polish Literature at the ACLA

Compared to previous years, the ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at Harvard University this past weekend was fairly well endowed with discussions of Polish literature. I always wonder if conference reports are ever read by anyone but the people who were there; regardless, it could be useful to take stock of what people have to say about Polish literature in a context not specifically devoted to it. So here goes:

During the first morning session on Friday, Katarzyna Jerzak, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia, delivered a paper titled “Henryk Grynberg or the Ineluctability of Language” as part of a panel co-organized by former ACLA President and Harvard professor Susan Suleiman. I didn’t make it to this session, but heard from Central Europeanist extraordinaire Prof. Jessie Labov that the paper was excellent.

In the second Friday morning session, Stephen Paul Naumann, a doctoral student at Michigan State University, gave a paper on Andrzej Stasiuk’s travelogue Dojczland (a Polish calque of the German Deutschland), highlighting Stasiuk’s simultaneous critique of Germany and of Poles’ image of Germany. During a panel on the “global sublime,” David Goldfarb gave a paper titled, intriguingly, “The Sublime in the Austro-Hungarian Oilfields: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Bruno Schulz.”

George Gasyna, Professor of Polish and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, talked about Gombrowicz’s Kosmos in conjunction with Michel Houllebecq’s Elementary Particles during the Friday afternoon session. At the same time, the first discussion of Michał Witkowski’s novel Lubiewo took place during a session on queer theory in post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe, co-organized by Joanna Niżyńska, Professor of Polish in the Slavic Languages Department at Harvard University.

That discussion was continued in the afternoon session the following day, with Prof. Niżyńska presenting on the reception of Lubiewo. She discussed the specific conditions of the Polish reception of this “groundbreaking” novel as involving a “belated” and “simultaneous” reception of queer and feminist theories coming out of the West. Interestingly, she also remarked that after reading the book, she could no longer read Miron Białoszewski the same way (Niżyńska wrote her doctoral thesis on Białoszewski and trauma theory). Błażej Warkocki, a Professor of Polish Literature at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, was also on this panel. He spoke about the “homosexual closet” or “mystery” and its function in Polish modernist literature as a kind of “purloined letter,” drawing on Swiss Polonist German Ritz’s identification of “inexpressible desire” as a trope in writings by Iwaszkiewicz, Breza, Mach, and Gombrowicz. Warkocki concentrated largely on the writer Grzegorz Musiał’s 1997 novel Al Fine, which he identified as simultaneously homosexual and Catholic, “satanizing” the discourse of gay emancipation while at the same time reconstructing the language of high homosexual modernism. Queer theory, like queer literature, is a very new phenomenon in Poland; and Warkocki is probably its most prominent representative. Together with the Italian Polonist Alessio Amenta, he is currently editing an anthology of gay and lesbian Polish writing.

The question of “simultaneity and belatedness” in East or Central European reception of Western intellectual culture came up again on Saturday during a session on modernism. The session included the various authors of articles commissioned by Pericles Lewis for a forthcoming Cambridge UP guide to European Modernism. Marci Shore, Professor of History at Yale University and author of the remarkable Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Communism, talked about modernism in “Eastern Europe.” (It is a shame that the book won’t include separate chapters on modernism in Poland, Romania, the Ukraine, etc., as it does for Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, etc.—though it is a greater shame that the subject of modernism is once again being straightjacketed by the national literature paradigm.) Shore in any case identified several common phenomena around which to structure her description of such a broad and slippery topic (the specific circumstances of reception being just one of them).

Also on Saturday afternoon, Edyta Bojanowska, Assistant Professor in the Department of Germanic, Slavic, and East European Languages at Rutgers, gave a paper on contemporary Polish literature as part of a session on “East-Central Europe and the Western Other.” And on Sunday morning, Magda Romańska, Professor of Theatre Studies at Emerson College, gave a paper titled “The ‘Suspended Theatre’ of Krystian Lupa: The Sleepwalkers and the Polish Stage of the 1990s.”

All in all, discussions about Polish literature were varied and rich, and there were a number of sessions devoted to Central European literature more generally (unlike previous ACLA conferences, which would typically include a single seminar on the topic). I hadn’t been to Cambridge in a very long time, so I also enjoyed exploring the excellent bookshops around Harvard Square. The Grolier Poetry Bookshop, for instance, has an impressive inventory of translations, and organizes it by country, with a heartening three or four shelves devoted to Central and East European poetries alone. Poland has its own shelf; but I was a little disappointed to see it so poorly stocked. Manager Dan Wuenschel, however, explained that due to the recession they’ve suspended ordering for a spell… (bad news), but that in fact Polish poetry is the most popular non-English-language poetry amongst his customers (good news!), just ahead of Arabic, which also trumped languages like French, German, and Spanish in terms of popularity (finally!).

Next year’s ACLA will take place in New Orleans. The deadline for proposing seminars is 15 September 2009, and for paper proposals 1 November 2009. For more information write to: conference@acla.org.

Drenka Willen receives London Book Fair’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Well there is some justice in the world.

The LBF’s advisory board unanimously agreed on [Harcourt editor] Willen as the winner; Simon Master, chair, said: “Drenka Willen has for 40 years inspired respect and admiration amongst her peers across the globe, from authors to agents to publishers. Her dedication to discovering and championing foreign authors, including four Nobel Prize winners [Gunter Grass, Jose Saramago, Wislawa Szymborska  and Octavio Paz], which must be something of a record, marks her out as a worthy recipient.”

(For the full press release, go to www.thebookseller.com.)

Drenka Willen represents a direct link to the interwar European publishing tradition, having inherited the imprint of German emigres Kurt and Helen Wolff (which is now called Harvest Books); and she has also been a translator, from Serbo-Croatian. Her contributions to Polish literature include a number of other Polish authors besides Szymborska, such as Stanisław Lem, Stefan Chwin, and most recently Andrzej Stasiuk (whose GOING TO BABADAG is forthcoming next spring).