An Interview with Zygmunt Miłoszewski

By Richard Jackson

Zygmunt Miłoszewski is a Polish novelist, journalist, and editor, currently working as a columnist for Newsweek.  Born in Warsaw in 1976, he is the author of several books across a variety of genres.  His horror novel, The Intercom, was published in 2005, while The Adder Mountains, a book for young readers, appeared the following year.  English language readers will be most familiar with him for his Polish State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki crime series.  Released through Bitter Lemon Press, a London-based independent publisher which specializes in contemporary crime fiction, the first in his Szacki trilogy—Engagement (2010)—followed the world-weary Prosecutor through modern Warsaw, investigating a murder with murky links to Poland’s communist period.  A Grain of Truth, the second in the series and again translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, was published in January.  Moving his sleuthing protagonist from the capital to provincial Sandomierz in southeast Poland, Miłoszewski delves into history once more, when a series of seemingly ritual murders force Szacki to delve into the tangled world of Polish-Jewish relations.

Having receiving critical acclaim as well as a degree of controversy in his native Poland for A Grain of Truth, Miłoszewski is currently writing his third and final Szacki mystery.  A major voice in the new wave of Polish crime authors, in an engaging and frank interview, I had the pleasure of speaking with him about A Grain of Truth, Poland, crime and fiction, as well as his next novel.

Welcome Zygmunt.  With the Nordic-noir craze reaching its apogee, English translations of crime writing from other corners of Europe are growing in popularity.  Why do you think Poland offers such a versatile setting for crime fiction?  Compared to other European countries, Britain and France for example, crime statistics are much lower.

Scandinavia is an even safer place than Poland, but crime fiction is even more popular there.  Hence the conclusion that the quieter the location, the greater need for crime fiction, and the more gang wars people have in their streets, the more keen they are on mawkish love stories.

Do you agree therefore that crime fiction offers a more fertile ground for social commentary, where perhaps other genres fail?

Crime fiction has stopped being a simple “whodunit” of the Agatha Christie kind long ago.  Thanks to writers such as Henning Mankell or Ian Rankin, people expect a crime novel to give them not just an intriguing puzzle, but also an incisive portrait of a community.  We expect to get to know its character, its problems, and its darker side.  Crime fiction has become a keyhole through which we can look at other cultures and other communities.  It’s not from the newspapers, but it’s thanks to Mankell, Larsson, Nesbø, and Fossum that we have found out Scandinavia is not just a set of boring countries with a high standard of living.  Now it’s time for other parts of the world—I hope Poland will blaze a trail and set a fashion for crime fiction from behind the iron curtain.

On that note, can you please recommend and name the Polish crime authors you enjoy?

Of the Polish authors I like Marek Krajewski, who is already having success in English, and I think Marcin Wroński could be of interest to Western readers—he writes very good noir novels set in prewar Polish-Jewish Lublin, which in those days was the intellectual capital of the Jewish community in Poland.  There are a few other contemporary authors now being translated into English.  So we’ll see.

Highlighting how crime fiction can tackle difficult subjects, A Grain of Truth touches upon the sensitive issue of contemporary Polish-Jewish relations.  In the novel, you reference a number of controversial histories, such as Jan Gross’s Neighbors.  Is the Polish-Jewish story one that has always interested you?

I don’t think modern Polish-Jewish relations are “difficult” or “‘sensitive.”  To tell the truth, the topic of modern relations between the two races is actually not much in evidence, because apart from history there is not much to connect us nowadays.  Gross’s book was extremely important, not for Polish-Jewish relations, but for Polish-Polish relations.  It brought about a clash between supporters of history with the wrinkles removed and true history.  I will always side with the latter—I think you can only be a true patriot if you’re aware of the sins committed by your own nation.  A Grain of Truth is about this; the history of Polish-Jewish relations merely served me as an example of how harmful racial and religious identification can be, which in my view always leads to terrible things.  When people decide that one particular God or nation is doing their thinking for them, it’s always the beginning of the end.

Has any contemporary literature in Poland tackled the Polish-Jewish question as explicitly as A Grain of Truth?

I’ll say it again: it’s not about Polish-Jewish relations, but Polish-Polish.  The Jewish diaspora in Poland is very small these days, practically invisible, only a few thousand people.  Neither internal relations with this group, nor external relations with the State of Israel are in any way crucial for Poland.  Mentally our two races are identical—just as oversensitive about themselves, equally convinced the world revolves around them.  It’s not true.  And the ongoing debate in Poland isn’t about the Jews at all.  It’s about how the Poles are to build their collective identity, which stones they choose for the foundations of their state.  Of course most people want nothing but crystal and diamonds—heroes, uprisings, and Nobel prize-winners.  I think there’s also room in there for a fieldstone and some carbon from the site of a fire.  To my mind, pride in our moments of glory only counts when it’s accompanied by shame for our moments of disgrace.  And the attitudes of some Poles to the Jews during and after the Nazi occupation was one such moment of disgrace.

Prosecutor Szacki speaks with a young, Israeli-born rabbi, as part of his investigation into the Sandomierz murders.  Did you speak and work with any members of Poland’s Jewish community for the development of your novel?  Indeed, are you aware as to how Polish-Jews received A Grain of Truth?

I spent a lot of time in the library and I talked to people who know about Jewish culture.  To tell the truth, I don’t know if they were Jewish or not.  Nor do I know how the novel was received by members of the Jewish community.  Probably well, because any withering criticism would have certainly reached me by now.

In the novel, you moved Szacki away from Warsaw to provincial Sandomierz.  Why was this?  What differences does setting a crime novel in a smaller town offer, compared to a capital city where crime must be more prevalent?

As a writer, I’m wary of series, because I don’t like them as a reader.  After a few books even the best series goes downhill—we already know all the locations and all the characters, it’s boring.  That’s why I decided that each volume of my trilogy will be set in a different place.  Warsaw is the capital, a large city where everyone’s a stranger, and crimes that happen behind closed doors don’t concern them.  Sandomierz is a beautiful, historical town, good for a community-based crime story, because the whole of Polish history is reflected in it, and good for a crime story in general because it’s a very small place where they all know each other.  Curiously, if the locals were annoyed with me about anything, it was not for dragging up the anti-Semitic past (in Sandomierz cathedral there’s a huge eighteenth-century painting depicting “blood libel,” with some Jews draining the blood from a kidnapped Christian child), but for describing their ‘royal city’ as a provincial dump that closes down at six pm.  In turn, the third book will be set in Olsztyn, a wonderful city surrounded by forests and lakes in the north of Poland, which belonged to Germany before the war.

A Grain of Truth also references true criminal cases—the real 1976 murders of Krystyna Kalita, Stanisław Łukaszek, and Mieczyslaw Kalita—and one of the novel’s victims, Jerzy Szeller,  is a member of the  nationalist organization Union of Poles in Germany.  To what extent do true events and crimes influence your fiction?

I try to construct a second or third subplot out of true stories, or based on true stories.  Not because I used to be a journalist—I was never a reporter of that kind, I just edited other people’s articles—but because in my view that creates a good background and makes a made-up story seems credible.  And it forms a fuller picture of the world.

And the growth of extremist organizations in Europe, does this interest you at all?

Extreme political movements are always marginal, and that’s how they should be treated.  Unfortunately, the media feeds on extremes, so they pay far too much attention, but in fact every election in Europe shows that though there may be nationalists everywhere, and they may be noisy, they have shit to say.  They never manage to win more than a small percentage of the votes. 

You’ve already mentioned that the final novel in your crime series will concern Polish-German relations.  Can you please offer a few more words on this next volume?

As I’ve said, the action will take place in Olsztyn and the background to it will to some extent be Polish-German relations and issues concerning the identity of Poles who live on formerly German territory.  I admit it’s an easier topic for a writer than Polish-Jewish relations.  I like to keep the tone of my fiction light, and whenever the Jewish theme comes up, at once I can see a banner flying about the plot with the word “Holocaust” on it, and all my jokes get stuck in my throat.  With the Germans we’re on more even ground.  They invaded us, and in exchange after the war we tacked a beautiful bit of Germany onto Poland; now we’re in the EU together and everyday neighbors means that the old wounds have no significance.  In relations with Jewish people we lack that ordinary everyday coexistence, which is why it’s hard to emerge from the shadow of history.

Away from crime fiction, Polish literature in general is enjoying a growing audience in the English-speaking world.  The Danuta Borchardt translations have encouraged a Witold Gombrowicz resurgence, while contemporary authorsOlga Tokarczuk, Andrzej Stasiuk, and Pawel Huelle, for exampleare highly popular.

That’s great.  I’ve always thought that fiction is the best form of promotion for a nation and its culture—after all, we wouldn’t know anything about America if not for Hollywood.  A popular book or movie is worth a hundred times more than diplomatic initiatives, newspaper articles, or television ads encouraging you to take a holiday in Poland.  Eastern Europe is an interesting part of the world—I hope that thanks to our efforts some people will decide to visit it, to come and see where all those fictional corpses were lying.

Are you pleased that Polish literature is held in such esteem, and similar to an earlier question, can you name some general authors you like?

Of course I am.  For selfish reasons, because every international success for Polish literature is my success too.  In Poland we might be rivals, but abroad we bring in readers for each other— people who like one Polish novel will seek out other writers.  That’s what happened with the Scandinavian crime books.  At some point it was enough to have a Swedish-sounding name to get on the bestsellers list.  I hope the same thing will soon happen with names ending in "-ski."

I shall only mention authors whose works can be found in US bookshops.  Of the classics my favorite is Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his short stories—apparently the only reason he didn’t get it was because he was on too good terms with the communists.  My favorite contemporary authors are Jerzy Pilch and Pawel Huelle (who also writes excellent short stories), and of my own generation, Jacek Dehnel.  His new novel, Saturn, about the family of painter Francisco Goya, is probably the best book I have read in Polish in recent years.

Before you began writing fiction, did you believe you work would find an audience outside of Poland?

Did I believe it would happen?  I don’t know.  Did I hope it would?  Of course.  Every writer setting down the first letter of their first novel dreams of international success and millions of readers who will thrive on the adventures of the characters they invented.  I’m still a long way from those millions, but it’s great to have made a few steps in that direction.  Interestingly, international editions are not just an honor but extra work too.  I try to work with the translator to edit the text so that the foreign reader won’t have any trouble with the bits that only a Pole can understand.

I had the pleasure of meeting your translator, Antonia-Lloyd Jones, recently, at a literary event on Ryszard Kapuściński in Liverpool, England.  What was it like, working with her?

I always say that in Polish the book is mine, but in other languages it is mine and the translator’s.  I have a great respect for the work of translators, and I try to help them as much as they need, but without interfering.  I think they know better than I do how the story should sound in their language.  Antonia is an excellent writer, and I can tell you you’re lucky if you’re going to read Szacki’s adventures in English.  They’re very often better than in Polish.


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