I was fifteen when my family realized that our new neighbors could not read. They had worked on a communal farm during the Cold War; after 1989 they were allotted some of that land to farm on their own. When we met them in 2001 they were selling it off, bit by bit, to professionals such as my parents, whose salaries had risen under capitalism to the point where they could afford to build a house on the outskirts of the city. The former farmers—I’ll call them Jan and Maria—walked my parents across the swampy field they had on sale, and Jan measured out an acre of it in his own strides. My parents came back the following weekend with a contract. Jan and Maria glanced at it briefly and placed X’s on the dotted lines my mother pointed out to them. With the funds they raised from my parents and others, Jan and Maria set up a trucking business that went bankrupt two years later. We know that only circumstantially; our families never spoke again except to exchange greetings by the village bus stop.
No longer intoxicated with capitalism and far removed from the anti-communist dissidence of the Czeslaw Milosz generation, a new crop of young Polish writers has turned instead to fantasy and dystopia.
When you cross over from Germany to Poland on the InterCity train or via the newly built, EU-sponsored highway, the landscape hardly seems different. All you see are miles of fields and trees, and the occasional billboard. But once you step off the train, or take an exit ramp, you quickly realize that Poland has not progressed into capitalism as rapidly and evenly as territories west of it. You also notice that its areas of growth and despondency, capitalism and decaying communism, are close together: you step over from one to the other as into a pothole on an otherwise smooth road. Poland’s newly installed populist right-wing government, which came into power from within such enclaves of stagnation, is only one recent reminder of these inequalities, and of the anger and frustration to which they give rise.
A number of young Polish writers take as their subject the fates of people trapped in such surreal islets of socioeconomic torpor. Most of these writers are now in their forties or fifties, and they have long abandoned the strong anti-communist stances that earned their forebears, such as Czesław Miłosz, dissident fame. Filip Springer, Łukasz Orbitowski, and Joanna Bator are inheritors not only of the Cold War’s conflicts, but also of the accelerated westward push Poland made after 1989. Theirs is a generation that jumped over from living in a closed police state to being free to visit New York and Paris—and discover how little their post-Soviet currency and education could buy them there. Theirs is also a generation that saw economic inequality increase vertiginously within Poland itself, as some professions—and indeed, some individual temperaments—adapted to capitalism much more easily than others, in a way that neither the old communist ideologies nor the new capitalist ones could quite account for. Coming down from an early intoxication with capitalism, this generation of writers has adopted narrative modes that are at once deeply historical and deeply speculative. Fantasy and dystopia offer them means of burrowing into the contradictions of their country’s economic and cultural condition.
These recent Polish dystopian narratives are invariably set in small towns that were once on their way to being big cities: towns for which a sustained, capitalist future once seemed possible before the dreams of investors fizzled. Within such towns, these writers’ plots combine the conventions of sociology with those of sensationalist detective fiction, and sometimes also myth or legend. Their narrators uncover grisly crimes, but also pause to inspect these crimes within their larger social and cultural contexts. As they insist on something like empiricism, only to stage its dramatic failures, Springer, Orbitowski, and Bator put their characters, and by extension their readers, in the disempowered position of someone falling into a nightmare. Small towns, they insist, can be infinitely oppressive despite their obvious spatial finitude. The socioeconomic processes that make these places stagnant are no less frightening and real for being confined to a space so small that an unknowing traveler can pass through them almost without even noticing.
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Filip Springer’s Archipelag Miast (An Archipelago of Cities, 2016) is a series of impressionistic vignettes about twenty provincial cities, each of which lost its status as a regional capital in the 1990s during a series of local government reforms. A great deal of money poured into these cities immediately after the fall of communism, but these investments stopped when the cities were administratively demoted. Their inhabitants now live amid ruins of public buildings begun but never completed. Small groups of artists haunt community cultural centers to which nobody comes anymore; local businessmen and shopkeepers hover around their clean, well-kept stalls but can rarely turn a profit. These cities have often existed since the Middle Ages, and Springer revels in the vertigo of reflecting on both their long histories and the possibility of their continued persistence in a perpetual state of slow, asymptotic decay. Describing these towns as an archipelago, Springer points out the similarities between them, not least of all their shared deepening difference from the more consistently traditional countryside around them, as well as from bigger cities such as Warsaw and Kraków, which emerged the victors in the struggle for foreign investment.
In Poland, capitalism and decaying communism remain close together: you step over from one to the other as into a pothole on an otherwise smooth road.
Springer insists that the desolate landscapes he visits are not sources of reliable self-knowledge for the people who live among them. “The thing about ruins,” he says in his account of the drab mining town Tarnobrzeg, “is that they’re easy to gaze upon for extended periods. Soon, the sight of crumbling walls appears to justify all of the failures that surround it.” The answers that such ruins offer are too easy; they do not produce real or useful insights on which the cities’ inhabitants can build. Instead they merely reflect back to their inhabitants their own sense of defeat, and reinforce this defeat’s apparent inevitability. The personal stories Springer retells carry a sense of purposelessness and an absence of context that seem to confirm his diagnosis. Two young men whom he interviews in Zamość spend their time making derivative graffiti that no one comes to see. The ageing administrators of Tarnów, Nowy Sacz, and Elblag lead Springer around dilapidated buildings that were supposed to house international trade centers and experimental, multilingual primary schools. Part of what these cities have lost, in their failed bid for Westernization, is a capacity to open onto vistas larger than themselves.
In his novels, Łukasz Orbitowski depicts a similar experience of stagnation, one of being trapped in an eternal present. His characters develop cyclical patterns of interaction that never accumulate into anything more momentous. They aspire to successful careers, but find that their labor gives rise to nothing except bodily routines that can only be broken through dramatic acts of departure or violence.
Orbitowski made his debut in the early 2000s as a fantasy writer, but came into his own more than a decade later with Inna Dusza (A Different Soul, 2015), a novel inspired by local news stories from the town of Bydgoszcz. Within this semi-journalistic framework, Orbitowski’s speculative, dreamlike style is placed in the service of an intensely pessimistic psychological realism. The book retells a series of murders that took place in this provincial town. The three main characters—the narrator Krzysiek and his two schoolmates, Darek and Jedrek—come of age in the nineties, right as Poland is undergoing major political transformations. But neither the teenagers nor their families find that their lives are significantly improved—or, indeed, significantly altered—by these changes. Instead they continue much as they always have, along tracks that appear to lead nowhere. Krzysiek’s father is an alcoholic who constantly attempts, and fails, to get clean, his family’s poverty becoming ever-more inescapable with each new failure. Darek is killed before he comes of age; Jedrek, whose short temper keeps him from being promoted in his job as a pastry chef, climactically turns out to be Darek’s murderer. The novel is bookended by two chapters set in the 2010s, in which the narrator visits Jedrek in prison but fails to extract from him an account of what motivated his crime, or an expression of remorse.
Orbitowski’s pessimism comes through not only in the plot, but also in his style. In one illustrative passage, Krzysiek reflects as he walks his father back to a bus that will take him to a rehab facility:
A few days later . . . I accompany dad to the bus stop. He shows me a certificate that lets him ride the bus for free. His ticket fines have been retroactively annulled. Here’s a detail he’s fixed. He’ll make his life anew out of such details. Before he gets on the bus, he takes me in his arms and almost breaks my ribs with affection. He ascends. He’s so unreal, like a stick figure drawn on a dirty windowpane. I detour to the park by the railroad tracks, find a bench, and try to comprehend what I just saw.
Orbitowski’s narrator is a grown man at the time when he writes these sentences. Even so, whenever he recounts his youth, he lets his voice and viewpoint become childlike. As he retells his father’s empty promises in free indirect discourse, he lets us hear, in his short, simple sentences, both the breathlessness of the father’s rhetoric and the eagerness with which the young boy absorbed it. The metaphor of a “stick figure” finally also conveys how difficult it is for father and son alike to truly imagine a better future. And indeed, soon Krzysiek’s father has relapsed; the cycle then repeats itself many times over.
Addressing the affluent urbanites of Warsaw, they work to create a sense of community—and ultimately a shared history—for the inhabitants of provincial towns who are isolated not only from the wider world but also from each other.
Only much later will it even occur to Krzysiek that he can move away, an unthinkable idea for much of his young life. Because of the compulsion to nurture a slowly dying community, as in the case of Krzysiek—or to violently speed up its decay, as in the case of Krzysiek’s friend and alter ego, Jedrek—the characters Orbitowski depicts cannot imagine going anywhere, just as they cannot conceive of breaking the routines in which they are stuck. The dramatic acts of separation the characters do eventually undertake—murder in Jedrek’s case, and a less violent but momentous move to Warsaw in the narrator’s own—are striking and surreal for how little they manage to loosen the stranglehold their hometown has on them. Once his crime is discovered and he is convicted, Jedrek is made to serve his life sentence in the local prison, where the same few people visit him who routinely saw him throughout his childhood. After Krzysiek manages to make a career for himself in a different city, he continues to come back to Bydgoszcz to visit Jedrek and drains his savings to support his increasingly helpless father.
Joanna Bator’s Ciemno, prawie noc (Dark, Nearly Nightfall; 2012) locates the origins of this sense of helplessness and stasis not only in the political and economic instability of late-communist Poland, but also in the earlier, collectively unprocessed traumas of World War II. Set in a fantastical, mythologized version of Wałbrzych, one of the former regional capitals also described by Springer, Bator’s narrative depicts the town as being all-the-more vulnerable to the upheavals of the late nineties because it never really came to terms with the crimes and betrayals that shook it fifty years prior. Bator is more committed to introspection than either Orbitowski or Springer, but her novel paradoxically also depicts self-scrutiny as nearly impossible within these largely undefined social conditions. For the town in which the novel is set, the community’s history is largely inscrutable except as nightmarish fantasies and dreams. Mired in its past, and left behind by the capitalism that appears to have entirely bypassed it, the small town is lost in a general sense of fear, superstition, and unpredictability.
Bator’s narrator, Alicia Tabor, is a journalist who returns to her birthplace to report on a recent series of missing children. Once there, her investigation of the disappearances merges with a personal reckoning with her family history. The narrator’s mother, who was traumatized during the war, went on to abuse the narrator and her older sister. Through encounters with old women, former boyfriends, and itinerant preachers, the narrator sheds light on some of the war traumas her mother had undergone, as well as on the ways her deceased older sister tried to shield her from her mother’s violent outbursts. A solitary eccentric whom she meets in an online chat room helps her discover a stack of her sister’s letters. A former schoolmate accompanies her on explorations of the town’s underground sewer and tunnel systems in search of kidnappers and ideologues past and present. In the process, the narrator slowly delves into the larger communal history of which her mother’s childhood is only a small part, and of which the currently missing children are the newest—by now sadly predictable—chapter. She starts to see her own childhood as interspersed with echoes and reenactments of the violence inflicted on her elders. She also begins to reinterpret the urban legends recounted to her—many of which eerily involve nurturing cats—as her community’s attempts to pass on to the younger generation alternative models of self-care and mutual care.
To see the world through the eyes of their countrymen left behind is now a more difficult act of imagination for the Polish middle class than is recognizing themselves in their American or Western European equivalents.
Bator paradoxically represents her narrator’s hometown both as a place where she needs to return to finally know herself, and as a site where reflection cannot properly take place except in fantasies and mirages that are always too manifold and overpowering for her to interpret with full certitude. The forms of partial reconciliation and clarity she does achieve come to her in visions and dreams whose metaphoric qualities she cannot quite reduce to diagnoses or facts. These visions also remain idiosyncratic and radically private: they may partly help heal her own sense of self, but she does not feel able to share her new worlds of associations with outsiders. Like Orbitowski, Bator uses metaphors of windowpanes and mirrors to convey her narrator’s sense of claustrophobia and disorientation:
I took my computer out, and the blue light of its small screen fought an uneven fight against the surrounding darkness. I wanted to update my editors about when they should expect me back [in Warsaw], and to impress upon myself that I would leave this place soon, but the wireless Internet was down. Nothing worked in this town, and nothing looked right, even my own face was distorted and too young-seeming in the dirty windowpane.
When Alicia finally leaves Wałbrzych, it is consequently with little hope that her investigations have truly shown the community a better path forward, or connected it back to the capital to which she returns. Neither successfully integrated into the new, Westernized world around them, nor properly eradicated by it, her hometown lingers as a political and social purgatory, a route to paradise that never materialized. Bereft of a sense that anything can be gained in such a place, the intrapsychic and investigative work of Bator’s narrator takes on a Sisyphean quality.
It is an aim of Bator’s, Orbitowski’s, and Springer’s work to create a sense of community—and ultimately a shared history—for the inhabitants of such towns, who are isolated not only from the wider world but also from each other, and thus from those best situated to understand their predicament. Just as importantly, their books address the more affluent urbanites of Warsaw, Wrocław, or Kraków, who have been some of their most avid readers. To see the world through the eyes of their countrymen left behind along the path of their own successes—in my parents’ case, through the eyes of Jan and Maria, who still live across the street from them—is now often a more difficult act of imagination for the Polish middle class than is recognizing versions of themselves in their middle-class equivalents in the United States or Western Europe. Even as they stress how difficult it is to do so, Bator’s, Orbitowski’s, and Springer’s books attempt to build bridges between Poland’s stagnant communities and its more successful ones. They insist that the latter must measure themselves not only against their Western ideals, but also against the dystopias next door.