Polish Literature Embraces the Emptiness of It All, Still

Dorota Masłowska is coping with literary fame in an especially literary country. Her first novel, Snow White and Russian Red, was published in 2002 to immediate critical praise and commercial success. Among its many important distinctions, the novel was named a finalist for the 2003 Nike Prize, Poland's top literary honor, alongside recent books by Nobel laureates Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. And as one might expect in a media-driven culture, Masłowska was hounded by newspapers and magazines seeking interviews about her remarkably brutal prose, her thoughts on contemporary Polish society, and-what is perhaps a little odder for a famous writer-her home life. She was, after all, only nineteen years old when the novel was published.

Inevitably, journalists have sought a way to explain the rise of this phenom, and they have found a convenient solution in pokolenie nic-the Nothing Generation-for which Masłowska's novel would appear to serve as mouthpiece. It's not a bad fit: The Nothing Generation includes all the twentysomethings who scarcely remember the lean years before 1989, when Central Europe shed Communism, which means that they have little basis for comparison with the rapid economic change, the influx of foreign goods and pop-kitschy images, the violent social stratification, and the all-too-obvious political corruption that shape their world at the beginning of a new millennium. Materialism, greed, vanity, and vulgarity seem to pervade their society, and any suggestion that life is better than it used to be fails to resonate with their own life experience. The argument that Poland is better off despite its broad socioeconomic upheavals, after all, sounds too much like a sales pitch, and this generation is none too fond of the product.

Enter Andrzej "Nails" Robakowski, the protagonist and narrator of Masłowska's novel. Nails is a hero of his time, a man trying to navigate the vicissitudes of youth, love, and the search for identity in a country torn between East and West. He doesn't meet with much success. First of all, his romantic life is plagued by women who have no interest in being as faithful or reliable as he himself strives to be. (His street moniker in Polish, "Silny," literally means "strong.") Then there's the confusion stirred in his town by a largely symbolic, though no less destructive war between the native Poles and the predominantly Russian purveyors of cheap and illicit goods. And finally there's the fact that Nails and his friends are almost continually hopped up on speed, which makes it difficult for anyone to get a grip on anything.

Accordingly, Nails's breakneck narration presents a portrait of excess in the face of emptiness. Masłowska's prose jumps brilliantly between linguistic registers, combining slang, street lingo, obscenity, and artificially formal speech in a single frenetic utterance. It is a masterfully constructed, often hilarious language of flailing, of drowning in an abyss of too much information. Even the novel's Polish title, which translates literally as The Polish-Russkie War under a White-and-Red Flag, is a figure of excess, colorful and dazzling, but self-consciously pointless.

Masłowska has spoken in interviews about the emptiness of the Information Age, of the constant displacement that comes from being bombarded by aural and visual data, and in this sense the problematic of her writing easily transcends its national context. Indeed, in her variation of tone, ironic view of our worldwide media culture, and fascination with cross-cultural conflict, Masłowska invites ready comparison to other postmodern Wunderkinds, such as Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer. The recent first novels of these three writers, all of whom are still in their twenties, were swallowed up by an eager and adoring public. Whether it's because they have been endowed with a particular sensitivity to information, or because we, as an audience of readers, are finally willing to listen to what they have to say, these remarkable young talents aptly describe to us how life in our multicultural, polyphonic, heavily medicated global village sometimes results in a sense of otherness to ourselves.

Or so it would seem. As well as Masłowska fits into the greater international picture of postmodern fiction, one must also take stock of the fact that she is part-and-parcel of her national literature, which has a centuries-long tradition of protagonists clawing after a sense of Polish identity at the crossroads of Europe. Despite the sunny simplifications of Western observers, for many Poles 1989 did not represent a definitive break with their country's unlucky legacy of partition, invasion, occupation, and oppression. Rather, with the emergence of social ills like drug addiction, high unemployment, and homelessness, problems that for all their high talk most Western governments have barely even begun to address productively, some Poles have come to see the difficulty of the post-Communist era as just the latest in the long series of blunt traumas History has dealt them. What sets this period of Polish history apart is that, for the first time, much of the world is grappling with the same identity crisis. The national discourses that have come to the fore with the rise of globalization-particularly the question of how to sustain cultural identities against foreign hegemony, whether military or corporate-have been a major concern for Polish thinkers since well before Poland's Third Partition in 1795, when the country disappeared from the map of Europe. In this respect, instead of Poland going global, perhaps the world has increasingly grown to resemble Poland.

The struggle for selfhood in Polish literature is rooted deeply in the Romantic tradition. Since 1832, when Adam Mickiewicz declared Poland to be "the Christ of Nations" (crucified, as it were, between Prussia, Russia, and Austria), every writer interested in investigating Polish identity has had to grapple with the notion of Poland's struggle for selfhood. Masłowska belongs to the rather distinguished constellation of Polish writers who have rejected this tradition and yet, in their grappling toward a positive self-definition, are never quite free from it. Of these writers, Witold Gombrowicz (1904-69) is the outstanding ironist, turning his encounters with Polish culture into a sequence of elaborately layered games. Masłowska shares some of that irony, but her writing also echoes literature from the late 1950s and 60s, such as the prose of Leo Lipski (1917-97) and Маrek Hłasko (1934-69), both of whom offer dark, often unmerciful depictions of personal degradation and intercultural conflict.

There is a dark core of nihilism within this Romantic legacy, which often seems to preclude Polish writers from offering a positive self-definition, that is, one that does not seek to define Polish-ness over and above Russian-ness, Hapsburg-ness, or Coca-Colonialism. Yet this brand of nihilism has been extraordinarily productive for Polish literature, generating a problematic that, while persistent and in all likelihood irresolvable, continues to foster smart, richly layered poetry and prose.

One of the important ideas that Masłowska's novel successfully conveys is that this struggle for a cultural identity is always, first and foremost, a struggle with oneself, an attempt to come to grips with one's own individuality in a sea of individuals. One could make similar comments about a great deal of the exciting work coming out of Poland in recent years, from the linguistically innovative poems of Andrzej Sosnowski (b. 1959), to the sharp outbursts of poet/rock star Marcin Świetlicki (b. 1961), to the sparer, intense verse of Julia Fiedorczuk (b. 1975).

That these writers are all primarily poets and all somewhat older than Masłowska herself is almost inevitable. Masłowska's approach to the crafting of prose, with her subtle tonal shifts and driving rhythms, has more in common with contemporary poetry than with the current scene in literary fiction, which is equally productive but favors a more contemplative mode of expression. And as for her age, though it is quite common for Polish writers to make their literary debut while still in their twenties, it is unusual for that debut to make so large a splash. In the two years or so since her book was initially released, Masłowska has attracted a huge following of admirers and detractors, filling internet chat-rooms with debate about the novel's merits. Is it a dazzling critique of Polish culture at the start of a new century, or merely a two-hundred-page string of dirty words? Does the language sound artificial or genuine? Is the politics provocative or repulsive? And what does any of this matter, anyway? This last question might be better left to the marketing executives to sort out. In the meantime, Masłowska has a large stage, a loud microphone, and all the time in the world.

Copyright 2005 Benjamin Paloff. All rights reserved.