Sunday, July 01, 2007

Review: 3 works by Dorota Masłowska

Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviews three works by the Polish writer and journalist Dorota Masłowska:

Dorota Masłowska, Snow White and Russian Red. New York: Black Cat, 2005.

------------ Paw królowej [The Queen's Spew]. Warsaw: Biblioteka Twoich Myśli, 2005.

------------ Dwoje biednych Rumunów mówiących po polsku [Two poor Romanians speaking Polish]. Warsaw: Lampa i Iskra Boża, 2006.

Since democracy and the free market took hold in 1989, two Polands have come into existence. "Poland A" is what we hear about most in the West: the capitalist success story, the proliferation of small and medium businesses, the emergence of Warsaw as the financial hub of Central Europe, the bonhomie of two-term president Alexander Kwaśniewski -- communist youth minister turned capitalist president -- the shady but held up to be admirable financial dealings of his eye-catching wife Jolanta.

Then there is the "Poland B" of the unemployed and unemployable, the marginalized and unneeded, the hewers of wood and drawers of water, the impoverished and aging, who lost out big time with the transition to the market economy. We feel their pain indirectly, through the xenophobic and religious rants of the men they put into power, the identical twins who govern Poland today: Lech Kaczyński (president) and brother Jarosław (prime minister).

The phenomenon that is Dorota Masłowska -- born in 1983 of Kashubian origin (we recall that Günter Grass's The Tin Drum is set among Kashubians) owes a lot to her descriptions of a hitherto overlooked "Poland C." It consists of disempowered youth, junkies and alcoholics, wannabe rock musicians and racist skinheads, their vulgar language and uncouth habits, the dead ends they face in life, the bonds they forge with each other. Masłowska the underground girlie recognizes her role on the contemporary Polish literary scene. In her 2005 book The Queen's Spew (the title can just as easily be translated as The Queen's Peacock but it does not capture her literary intentions) she spoofs an acquisitions editor advising her "what matters most to us is authenticity, truth ... in the background 'Poland C,' its harsh reality, the capitalism, the consumerism in its various manifestations, the general melee within society" (p. 147).

In this spirit Masłowska wrote The Queen's Spew -- what she has called a song and others have labeled a rap poem -- and in 2006 she was awarded the NIKE, Poland's most prestigious literary award, for it. Her faithful (fictional) acquisitions editor had suggested that she "write in some rhymes, that's how hip hop is" (p. 147), so rap poem may not be the right term to use.

The author inserts herself into the story as a character and thus breaks the so-called fourth wall. This allows her to criticize herself: "It's important to stop this book from being translated into other languages because the outlooks of its protagonists betray a low level of morality which puts Poland and the general values cultivated here into a bad light in the West" (p. 119). An illustration: while riding her bike, Doris (the author) "wanted to forget in what a terrible country she lived, bearing the strange name Poland, in which a war of some kind, without a number, was still being fought, where you couldn't ride through because here or there someone is lying down, there's some broken glass, an unconscious person, the smell and stink of urine, filth -- and try to keep your balance so that you don't do an endo because of that junkie" (p. 31). The most memorable character in the story is Stanisław Retro, a vocalist in a rock band, screaming homosexual, substance abuser -- or so it is said -- that no one can swerve to avoid.

Masłowska's first novel, Snow White and Russian Red (the Polish title is The Polish-Russian War under the Red-and-White Flag) is her only work available in English thus far. It presents a hyperealistic portrait of small-town Polish society of the 1990s. Completed when she was nineteen, it captures the slang, mindset, and paranoia of postcommunist youth. The novel tells the story of Nails, a marginalized kid dumped by his girlfriend Magda who turns to drugs, gutter punks, and xenophobia as surrogates. It spotlights the anarchic as well as russophobic attitudes of young people -- paradoxically the generation which had suffered least at the hands of Russian-imposed rule.

Russkis are blamed for controlling the black market in fake cigarettes, pirated CDs, even Polish sand; these are some of their economic wrong doings. They have raised the salinity of the Niemen river and are responsible for the arrival of gale-force winds -- their environmental degradation. They also go off with grubby-faced dirty girls, demonstrating their lack of taste and culture. The thinking pervading much of Polish society seems to be, then: "Either you're Polish or you're Russki. To put it more bluntly, either you're a person or you're a prick" (p. 120). Masłowska correctly anticipated the heights that russophobia was to reach under the Kaczyńskis five years later.

"Poland C" has other bad guys, for instance, Polish collaborators of all kinds. Nails speaks of "an annihilation prepared for the country by the fucking aristocrats, dressed in overcoats, in aprons, who, if only the conditions were right, would sell us, the citizens, to whorehouses in the West, to the German army, for organs, for slave labor" (p. 20).

Finally there is the enviable hateful West. Nails fantasizes about poisoning Magda because then "she couldn't go to the West to have a career as a secretary or actress" (p. 158). The West is symbolized by the movie shown on a German porno channel: "set in a castle, a guy in armor, and a German shit-eating glam-rock girl gave it to him in quite uninventive ways" (p. 92). Snow White and Russian Red, pornographic in a very different way, is being turned into a film to be released in Poland next year.

Three literary works, three genres, is what Masłowska achieves with the publication of Two poor Romanians speaking Polish. It is a three-act play about a Romanian couple hitch-hiking through Poland, a road story.

East European self-loathing figures in most of her works. Parcha lashes out at his wife Dżina: "You have no shame! Woman, you're pregnant, you sniff glue, you curse, you stink up the car." He tells the first driver that picks the couple up: "You have to excuse her, she's a dumb Romanian, a lout, she worked her whole life in a factory of monkeys and dogs and doesn't know how to behave in public" (p. 30). Later he explains to a drunken middle-class Polish woman driving to Warsaw: "we're Romanians who speak Polish, we're lesbians, queers, Jews, we work in an advertising agency, like I said you know, we're going to Israel to plant trees" (p. 62). The woman replies, revealing all she knows about the Balkan nation: "Fuck -- Hungary, Romania, Turkia, I know, a beautiful country. Everyone says Romania, filth, shit, excrement, Islam, kids eating shit from the sidewalks, that tyrant Cincinnati ruling" (p. 63).

So let's hear Maslowska -- a waifish punk with strawberry-blond hair -- offer an offbeat summary of Poland's dilemma in Snow White and Russian Red. There is a fruit counter: "Basket A, that's expensive fruit imported from the distant West, coated in a thick layer of poisonous pesticides -- germs spread by the blacks who touched them. And now let's look into Basket B, that's Russki fruit, a little cheaper than ours, but they're doctored fakes, certainly empty in the middle. Whereas in Basket C, there's genuine inexpensive Polish fruit, even the bruised Polish apples taste better than the apples of the putrid West, it goes without saying" (p. 194).

Masłowska has been a columnist for a number of popular and avant-garde Polish magazines. In 2004 she had a daughter with an artist who is leader of the Autonomous Group of Anarchists. The circles she has frequented are not a springboard for career advancement. That makes her an especially worthy representative of the generation of Poles that grew up during the democratic capitalist transition -- cynical about and alienated from it, taking to the streets in spontaneous protests, not taken in by the myth of civil society trotted out by the establishment and counter-establishment, infused with an energy, honesty, and self-awareness that nearly all the politicians of the period lacked.--Ray Taras

Ray Taras, professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years, is the author of a forthcoming book on xenophobias in old and new Europe.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Taras has also reviewed nonfiction on the blog:
Andreï Makine, Cette France qu’on oublie d’aimer
Andrei S. Markovits' Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America

--Marshal Zeringue