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    (Nie)obecnośc. Pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku

Ewa Stańczyk

Edited by Hanna Gosk and Bożena Karwowska. Warsaw: Dom Wydawniczy ELIPSA, 2008. 532 pages. Index of names. ISBN 978-83-7151-794-5. Paper. In Polish.

The last century brought significant political, social, and cultural changes to European societies, and this resulted in the desirability of reexamining the usual forms of thinking about the world and focusing on the notions of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. In turn, this has led to the emergence of the formerly excluded, erased, or suppressed voices that are now coming to the fore. As the editors point out in the introduction to this book, the emancipation of those formerly on the margins revealed the complexity of their interaction with the formerly dominating discourses and centers of power. Despite being a popular area of research in Poland and elsewhere, the various forms of erasure in Polish literature and scholarship have not yet received sufficient scholarly attention. The present collection of articles sets out to remedy this. The volume contains twenty-seven contributions that engage a variety of critical approaches in order to find new paradigms in thinking about Polish literature of the last two centuries.

The book is divided into three parts. The first consists of three sections and fifteen essays. Section one contains three theoretical articles that discuss the limits and pitfalls of current methodological approaches. Ewa Domańska’s paper examines the status of the category of victim in contemporary humanities. She discusses recent changes in the notion of the victim from a passive subject to an active agent, and links them to destabilization of the traditional systems of power. She concludes by saying that theoretical concepts often become the tools of political manipulation and thus need to be examined in a specific sociopolitical context.

In the article that follows, Ewa Thompson explores problems of collective memory in postmodern Europe. She refers to several mainstream scholarly accounts of European memory from which Polish collective experience has been excluded. Thompson posits that this erasure of Polish memory from Western discourse is a sign of non-Germanic Central Europe’s marginalization. She remarks that this particular gap in scholarship can only be rectified if Western discourse rejects the orientalist clichÈs in thinking about Poland and, more generally, Central and Eastern Europe.

The interaction between translation studies, gender, and body is the topic of Tomasz Bilczewski’s essay. The author discusses changes that have taken place in the theory of translation in the last few decades and investigates its relationship to feminist criticism. Referring to a statement by Marguerite Duras in which the writer compares écriture féminine to translating the unknown, Bilczewski shows that feminist translation studies have had a similar tradition of uncovering what had been excluded, silenced, or erased.

The second section of part 1 consists of articles that apply postcolonial theories to specific literary texts. The section opens with Hanna Gosk’s interesting account that shows the necessity of adjusting postcolonial terminology to the Polish case. The author distinguishes three types of this process: imperial discourse (which includes both the period of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the interwar colonization of the so-called Kresy); counter-discourse (the periods of partitioned Poland and People’s Republic); and post-partition/post-dependence discourses (the interwar and post-1989 years, respectively). Gosk subsequently examines Konwicki’s

Polish Complex through the lens of counter-discourse and provides a compelling argument about the writer’s attempt to undermine Soviet authority.

Next in the section, Dariusz Skórczewski’s essay investigates two different cases of marginalization and erasure in nineteenth-century Polish literature. In the first part of the article he looks at Mickiewicz’s Crimean Sonnets and argues that the protagonist’s perception of the indigenous population of the Crimea replicates orientalist clichÈs similar to those discussed by Said. While Skórczewski’s discussion of the sonnets largely builds on earlier scholarship on the topic such as Dixon’s and Koropeckyj’s accounts,[1] his examination of Prus’s The Doll in part 2 of the essay brings new insights to our understanding of the absence of the Russian colonizer in the novel. In his precisely worded analysis, Skórczewski argues that erasing Russian presence from Prus’s Warsaw was motivated not only by the trauma of colonization but also by the strong conviction of Russia’s cultural inferiority. This erasure of Russian imperialism from The Doll, as read by Skórczewski, is thus a syndrome of what David Chioni Moore has described as “reverse-cultural colonization.”[2]

In the subsequent article, Irena Grudzińska-Gross discusses Miłosz’s anti-imperial stance and his identification with the multiethnic, multireligious, and multicultural ethos represented by the literary and historical concept of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. German Ritz’s paper, on the other hand, explores the literary notions of the former Polish eastern borderlands by focusing chiefly on the works by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. In the essay’s last part, Ritz also engages Andrzej Stasiuk’s writings. While the selection of Iwaszkiewicz’s texts is justified in the context of Ritz’s argument, the choice and, most importantly, the subsequent treatment of Stasiuk’s works leave this reader somewhat confused as to the focus of the essay.

The article by Dorota Kołodziejczyk provides a comparative analysis of postcolonial and Polish post-1989 magic realism novels. In her well-crafted paper the author outlines the characteristics of magic realism in works by Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Olga Tokarczuk, and Hanna Krall, among others. Kłodziejczyk argues that despite the distinct local features of these writers, postcolonial and post-1989 literature has common characteristics, among them comments on ruptures in history and the subsequent problem of displacement and belonging. In these works magic realism becomes a discursive strategy. While postcolonial writers employ this particular poetics in order to recover precolonial “indigeneity,” Polish post-1989 novels use magic realism as a means of reconstructing the local space destroyed by war and many years of communism. This reconstruction often concerns the erased signs of past multiculturalism.

The section closes with two papers on Andrzej Stasiuk’s concept of Central Europe. In the first, Aleksander Fiut discusses representations of Central Europe in Stasiuk’s and Iurii Andrukhovych’s texts. He points out that despite differences, these authors experience Central Europe within the parameters of interaction between the stereotypical notions of Western and Eastern Europe, and those of center and periphery. In the essay that follows Piotr Millati examines Stasiuk’s affinity for the forgotten, “uncivilized” Central European periphery. He contrasts such a representation of the region with Miłosz’s, Kundera’s, and Ki‰’s views about the fundamental role of culture in creating a distinct Central European identity.

The third section of part 1 consists of five essays that provide feminist, queer, and gender readings of a range of texts, such as poems, essays, and memoirs. In the first paper Małgorzata Czermińska explores twentieth-century narratives of birth and labor. She notes that when compared to images of death, the representations of labor in Polish literature are rather scarce. Based on her analysis of selected works, she distinguishes several ways of writing about labor. In the first the image of labor plays a didactic role and enables the writer to show the social problems of women (e.g., in a novel by Gabriela Zapolska). In the second case labor is represented as an experience that brings physical pain and causes chaos (Maria Kuncewiczowa). The third way consists of presenting labor as an existential phenomenon (Jolanta Brach-Czajna or Anna Nasiłowska). The author concludes that until it finds its symbolic language, the narrative of birth will oscillate between medicine, philosophy, and poetry.

Danuta Danek’s essay addresses the unacknowledged details of Adam Mickiewicz’s and Stanisław Morawski’s childhood biographies. By analyzing Mickiewicz’s poems, letters of his friends, and fragments of well-known biographies such as those by Juliusz Kleiner and Alina Witkowska, she questions the myth of the poet’s “idyllic and angelic” childhood and argues that he was in fact an abused child. Similarly, in her discussion of Morawski’s biography, she shows how his relationship with his despotic father affected his childhood and future. Danek’s insightful article not only offers the reader a fresh perspective on Poland’s foremost national poet, but also brings to light the biography of a little-known nineteenth-century diarist and writer. Finally, the essay raises important questions about the reasons for omitting or misinterpreting crucial details of writers’ lives.

Next in this section, Roma Sendyka’s paper explores the causes of the marginal position of female essayists. She asks whether it is the essayists themselves who underplay their own importance or whether it is literary history and criticism that suppress their voices.

BoÏena Karwowska writes about Seweryna Szmaglewska’s memoirs of Auschwitz. She first discusses the so-called “universalization” of the narration exemplified by the masculine form of the noun “prisoner.” She then points out that universalization replicates the perspective of the oppressor for whom a prisoner is devoid of gender characteristics. While recognizing that this particular strategy was meant to reflect the shared experience of all prisoners, Karwowska argues that there are other elements of the memoir that disclose a clearly feminine perspective. She subsequently explores the complex interactions between body, nakedness, clothing, space divisions, and other elements of everyday life in the camp that affected the narrator’s gender identity.

The last article in this section by Joanna NiÏyńska focuses on Miron Białoszewski’s “small narrations.” Reading Białoszewski through Butler’s performance and performativity and applying Halperin’s understanding of positionality, the author compares Białoszewski’s life-writing to Poe’s “purloined letter.” NiÏyńska refers to this Lacanian reading of Poe’s story in order to describe the concealed yet obvious status of homosexuality in Białoszewski’s writing.

The second part of the volume is divided into two sections. Section 1 concentrates on the forgotten works, people, and themes of twentieth-century literature and culture, while section 2 discusses the literature of Soviet-occupied Poland. The first section opens with a paper by Danuta Ulicka that focuses on one of the predecessors of Russian formalism and a forgotten founder of the Institute of Art History in Saint Petersburg, Valentin Platonovich Zubov. Next in this section is Ewa Paczoska’s fascinating discussion of Stanisław Brzozowski’s critical writings. The author remarks that Brzozowski was one of the first critics of what he perceived as the xenophobia and megalomania of Polish culture. His revolutionary vision of Polish literature as suppressed resulted, however, in exclusion of his works from the literary canon and placed Brzozowski on the margin of Polish intellectual life. Although his works withstood the test of time, some readers in Poland still see them as a threat to national identity. The two papers that follow look at forms of erasure in Polish literature of different periods. Eugeniusz Czaplejewicz’s account provides a concise retrospective discussion of Polish literature from the Middle Ages onward and its interaction with questions of national pride and shame. Łukasz Pawłowski’s paper focuses on the period of the Second Polish Republic and analyzes works by Melchior Wańkowicz, Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski, and Andrzej Strug.

The aims of the next article by Przemysław Czapliński are twofold. First, it discusses the search for tradition undertaken by Polish writers and critics in the late 1980s. Second, it focuses on post-1989 artistic responses to the culture and ideology of Sarmatism, pointing out its limits and pitfalls. The section closes with Tamara Trojanowska’s paper on Polish drama of the 1990s. The author examines the reasons for the absence of many Polish plays in literary criticism, explores their dominating themes and tendencies, and compares them with the more recent dramatic texts that have come to the fore in the last few years. In conclusion, Trojanowska signals the need for a detailed survey of Polish drama of the last two decades, arguing that such a survey would foreground the continuity that already exists in the Polish theater and would shed new light on contemporary representations of the human condition.

The three articles in the second section of part 2 are devoted to discussions of literature in Soviet-dominated Poland. In the first article Andrzej Zieniewicz examines Stefan Kisielewski’s novels by disclosing the writer’s representation of the “three secrets” of “People’s Poland.” The second paper by Anna Nasiłowska on the literature of the 1980s discusses problems of censorship, newspeak, and the binary opposition of official and unofficial circulation of publications, among other issues. In addition, Nasłowska emphasizes the necessity of rereading the literature of the 1980s. Above all, she points out the need for further study of the political, historical, and cultural conditions under which literature existed in the last decade of communism. Finally, Jerzy Jarzębski’s essay examines political, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that affected the reception of literature between 1945-1989. He warns against the threat of politicization of works of that period, and claims that such interpretation may reduce literature to being merely a commentary to historical events. Jarzębski’s article asks important questions about the reasons for forgetting certain writers of “People’s Poland,” and it attempts to estimate whose works will withstand the test of time.

The last part of the volume consists of three essays. BoÏena Shallcross’s article examines the interaction between material objects and Jewish identities as presented in the works of Władyław Szlengel, Zuzanna Ginczanka, and Jerzy Andrzejewski. The author explores different textual strategies used in order to conceal ethnic identity of the poetic personae and the protagonist, respectively. The paper by Pał Rodak focuses on Maria Dàbrowska’s Journals. It discusses differences between the manuscripts and printed editions of the writer’s journal. Rodak examines the possible reasons for changes, paraphrases, reductions, and deletions that appear in the final version of the journal. Most importantly, his paper provides interesting insights into Dàbrowska’s writing process and personal issues that affected her work. The last essay in the collection is devoted to the poetry of Tadeusz RóÏewicz. Tomasz Wójcik explores RóÏewicz’s habit of including copies of his manuscripts in printed editions. The author analyzes selected poems and their drafts in order to assign meaning to the poet’s strategy of crossing out words and sentences in the manuscripts.

Overall, the volume offers a wealth of original observations on the problem of exclusion, marginalization, and erasure in Polish literature of the last two centuries, as well as on the problem of excluding Polish literature from the European canon. Of particular value is the collection’s contribution to the ongoing theoretical and methodological debate on postcolonialism and queer studies. In spite of its size and complexity, the book is very accessible. It has a clear and informed introduction that provides summaries of all the papers; each article is additionally followed by an abstract in English, and both the “notes on contributors” section and the index of names are very useful. The book would have benefited, however, from two minor improvements. First, the length of some of the articles seems insufficient, given their scope. Many of the shorter essays discuss important topics that deserve greater elaboration. The other minor criticism is that the book is marred by several proofreading oversights, e.g., the misspellings of “Polaków” (40), “między” (237), “problemów” (277), “relacji” (392), or the omission of the full stop on page 328. In spite of these imperfections, the volume remains a stimulating read for a wide range of specialist and nonspecialist readers. The editors and contributors are to be congratulated for a well-argued and sophisticated work that provides a fresh perspective on Polish literature and culture. Δ


1. Megan Dixon, “How the Poet Sympathizes with Exotic Lands in Adam Mickiewicz’s Crimean Sonnets and the Digression from Forefathers’ Eve, Part III,” Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 45, no. 4 (Winter 2001), 679-94; Roman Koropeckyj, “Orientalism in Adam Mickiewicz’s Crimean Sonnets,” Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 45, no. 4 (Winter 2001), 660-78.

2. David Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique,” PMLA, vol. 116, no. 1 (January 2001), 121.

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