Warsaw Tales 2006: New Europe Writer's Ink
Edited and coauthored by James G. Coon. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Książkowe IBiS, 2005. 142 pages. ISBN 83-7358-031-X. Paperback. Zl. 10.00. Available through <www.new-ink.org> and <www.co-liber.com.pl>.
Warsaw Tales is a collection of some sixty poems and short stories written by several dozen members of New Europe Writers’ Ink, a loose group originating in the Warsaw Writers’ Workshops of the mid-1990s and the Union of Foreign Writers in Poland. In the foreword to the book, editor and coauthor James G. Coon described the group as “writers from many cultures who have the English language in common.” He also explained the editorial criteria for the volume: “quality of the writing and the Polish experience.” Unfortunately, this is the only information readers are given before starting to read the tales. Neither the cover nor the foreword tell them what to expect; there is no contents page and no biographical notes.
It’s not possible to avoid history in Warsaw: it sits on every street corner: the city is paved with it.
The book‘s title is somewhat misleading. Not only does Warsaw feature in the tales, but also Kraków, Gdansk, Przemysl, Walcz and other Polish cities, towns, and villages. The book is mainly about Poland (although there are a few stories that could have happened anywhere) seen through the eyes of English-speaking foreigners. Because of this perspective, the book offers interesting insights into Polish reality. It shows Poland as perceived by strangers, not all of whom are familiar with its history and culture.Poland is described by members of the New Europe Writers Ink in three different ways. The first presents it as a mixture of the past and the present or, to be more precise, as the present constantly haunted by history. Mr. Kuszmek, the main character of the poem “The Sworn Translator,” “dreams above Warsaw’s old Soviet reality.” In her poem about a Warsaw architect Karen Kovacik wonders “how does he move between these realms?” By that she means possibilities of a new Poland and “[the] disaster of central planning.” James G. Coon in “The cry of nie ma” offers a pun that comes close to describing the essence of Polishness. Somebody explains to him why there is never any small change in Poland, whether in kiosks or in the department stores: “Poland has been short-changed / by history.” Jennifer Robertson, while describing Polish markets of today and admiring “home grown enterprise,” recalls the war and forty-five years of communism, when “[m]arkets were closed, alleyways ill-lit / unappetising fare issued by the state / with no song to sing, no tale to relate / nor anything to advertise.” Andrew Fincham begins his story “Around Kolo” with a sentence: “It’s not possible to avoid history in Warsaw: it sits on every street corner: the city is paved with it.” He describes the market at Kolo and the street sellers who peddle “nuggets of true history: veteran trophies of war, scratched water bottles. . . officers’ pocket watches and hundreds of medals, each with the arachnidine swastika.” He meets a man who does not want to sell his two-edged Nazi sword, which once belonged to a German Nazi and with which five Poles and five Germans were killed in the same cellar in the old town during the Warsaw Rising.The authors of Warsaw Tales are attracted to Polish history, especially to the Second World War and the ensuing socialist captivity. Some show expert knowledge, like Leon Zylicz in the story “Pilsudski’s Sword.” Others do not seem to understand much of what they see. They express their fascination with a “Vanished Imperium” in a disarmingly naive and yet new way. John a’Beckett, while pondering on relics of socialist reality (the old communist party restaurant and a trans-Siberian train), even makes spelling mistakes in Polish names. Instead of PrzemyÊl he writes Przemysl, Ustrzyki Dolne is changed into Uszczyki Dolne, Gierek becomes Gieremek (!), and Pani Walentynowicz is called Pani Walentynow.The second way of describing Poland in Warsaw Tales is satire about the present time. Such stories and poems show the absurdities of modern life with a touch of gentle irony and a lot of humor. Using humorous Polish names such as “Pan Dupek,” “Pani Krowa,” or words such as “wariaci,” “reklamówka,” “kawa,” or “kurcz’!” creates amusement and highlights the aspects of Polish reality that are alien to foreigners. Sometimes the stories succeed in showing stereotypes of Poles approaching “a typical exaggerating American”or “[a] bloke from Australia.” Probably the best-that is, containing the funniest and/or most acute observations on life-are the stories by James G. Coon: “The Man Upstairs,” “Job Takes a Bath,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “The Carpet Beaters,” as well as Brenda Goodwin’s “A Quiet Night” and Frederick Abrams’s “Cultural Exchange.”The third type of tales are those in praise of Poland, which is symbolically shown in them as a “goddess,” a “woman warrior,” a “gentle healer,” or a “lover.” The names of the authors and sometimes the contents of their poems indicate that these are chiefly writers from Africa and Asia who associate Poland with beauty and gentleness. Writers from America, Europe, or Australia seem to be more attracted by Poland’s history than by its beauty. Perhaps Warsaw Tales could serve as primary material in sociological research.Occasionally, fantastic stories and poems (especially the ones by Wojciech Maślarz) also appear in the book, which makes the volume somewhat inconsistent. Most stories are written in the first person, and hence appear very plausible: they describe firsthand experiences and easily convince readers of the authenticity of their creators’ feelings, impressions, and thoughts. In fact, the main virtue of the volume is that these stories are based on firsthand experience by outsiders. The realm of fantasy does not fit in here. There is another inconsistency in the book: some stories do not meet the high standards of quality set by Mr. Coon‘s or Mr. Fincham’s poems and stories.
Nevertheless, Warsaw Tales is worth reading. For a Polish reader in particular, it is interesting to observe how people from the other side of the former Iron Curtain (no matter how profound or shallow their knowledge)comprehend Polish history. The stories should thus be translated into Polish.
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