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CHAPTER FOUR

NEW REALITIES:
NOTES ON TRANSFORMATION
AND THE GENERATIONS OF WRITERS

People are like words in this way toothey


cannot live without being attached to a place,
because only then do they become real.
(House of Day, House of Night, Tokarczuk
2002, 177)

Introduced in previous chapters, the discourse on womens writing,


melancholy and travelling will be continued here from the perspective of
emigration (and migr) literature and various notions of displacement as
elaborated in selected literary texts of recent decades. Emigration, as a
phenomenon and as a literary term, has played a significant role in Polish
culture, as in any culture whose existence has been threatened by historical
and political circumstances; first in the nineteenth century, when Poland as
a state did not exist, and later after the Second World War, when Poland
fell into the so-called communist camp, on the eastern side of the Berlin
Wall.
In his Diary of 1953, during a time when the communist regime was
still a new order and its collapse seemed impossible, Witold
Gombrowicz asks about Poland after communism: What will be born,
what can be born in Poland in the souls of a ruined and brutalized people
when one day (in the future) the new order that has stifled the old one
disappears and nothing follows (Gombrowicz 1986, 21).1 This nothing,
sounding both pessimistic and intriguing, came in 1989, and it has been a
1

A bit further on, Gombrowicz warns the West about the new, post-sovieticus
men, who will threaten Europe: Western civilisations ought to prepare themselves
for an invasion of homeless people (Gombrowicz 1988, 21). Polish version: Co
narodzi si , co mog oby si narodzi w Polsce i w duszach ludzi zrujnowanych i
zbrutalizowanych, gdy pewnego dnia zniknie i ten nowy porz dek, ktry zd awi
stary, i nast pi nic. (Gombrowicz, 1986).

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time of transition, revolution and transformation. Nothing, this


undeterminate state of things with an ambiguous but significant potentials,
can give the beginning of many things. Przemys aw Czapli ski writes,
from Gombrowiczs perspective, in 1989 Nothing became Nothing or
freedom. That is, continues Czapli ski, because to confront oneself
with freedom is to create oneself from nothing, from the limitless
possibilities that are offered by a reality, which has ceased to limit the
individual.2 Indeed, the year 1989 can be seen as giving Polish prose a
unique opportunity to create new characters, new stories that would not
conform to any political or ideological standards and expectations.
Feminist-inclined womens texts of the 1990s and 2000s were, however,
seen as ideological standpoints, as was mentioned in Chapter One.
Womens literature was interpreted as being about the political and social
intertext rather than an aesthetic expression or a source of aesthetic
experience. In this chapter, I examine selected Polish texts from the 1990s
to the present day, in order to seek traces (and memories) of the social and
political transformation of the 1980s and early 1990s. I ask how the near
past and memory of the turmoil of the 1980s were used by young authors
who began their careers in the 1990s, and for whom the preceding decade
was a time of youth and the passage into adulthood. Moreover, I compare
these texts with others by authors who began their careers in the early
2000s, for whom the 1980s were a time of early childhood. I do so in order
to juxtapose their positions, their memories and their visions of the
transformation. I examine the literary constructions of men and women as
well as the gender patterns presented in these texts. I also ask who were
the witnesses and the activists, the persecutors and the victims of social or
political changes. I show that the stereotypes and common beliefs of the
East (as the Soviet bloc) and the West (as a capitalist dreamland) are
crucial to the stories presented here. It can be argued that all the characters
and narrators in these novelsthe disappointed political activist, the
emigrant, the artist and the outsiderare defined by the overlap between
three contradictory references: the socialist past, the illusions of
democratic freedom and capitalist welfare, and finally, the realities of
transition and post-transformation.
In this chapter I look at literature as a particular interpretation of
reality, remembering that every literary vision is always just an
interpretation, and that my interpretation of the literary texts is just one
2

Przemys aw Czapli ski. 1997. lady prze omu: O prozie polskiej 19761996,
Krakw: WL, 225. It is important to mention here the title of the 2005 novel by
Dawid Bie kowski, Nic, describing the tough times of the 1990s in Poland in
ironic and gloomy terms.

New Realities: Transformation and the Generations of Writers

107

vision. Yet a vision that takes into consideration the particularity of the
position of women in post-socialist society is important in order for us to
reconstruct and understand the very nature of this transitional Poland.
Polish literary critic and feminist Kinga Dunin eloquently explains the
connection between literature and the world:
literature interprets the world, and we interpret literature with the help of
the entire arsenal of our knowledge and prejudices. We negotiate our
interpretations with others. In this way knowledge of society as presented
in literature comes about. We need to remember that [] reality and
interpretation, reality and literature are entwined; they are the parts of the
same process. Society is never completed and done; it is always a work in
process. (Dunin 2004, 24).3

During the 1990s a significant number of Polish novels tried to


describe the predicament of people in the new, democratic, capitalist
reality. To that end, their main characters (typically modelled on the
authors) often live in the 1980s, or reminisce about those times. Among
the most important novels, we find those by writers who, for the purposes
of this chapter, we shall call generation X: Manuela Gretkowskas My
zdies emigranty (1991), already mentioned above in my Introduction, and
also her Tarot paryski (Paris Tarot, 1993); and Izabela Filipiaks mier i
spirala (Death and the Spiral, 1992) and Absolutna amnezja (Total
Amnesia, 1995). Of course, alongside many women writers there also
appear male writers, such as Stefan Chwins Krtka historia pewnego
artu: Sceny z Europy rodkowej (The Brief History of a Certain Joke:
Scenes from East-Central Europe, 1992), Andrzej Stasiuks Tales from
Galicia (Opowie ci galicyjskie, 1995, translated in 2004), Przez rzek
(Across the River, 1996); and Jerzy Pilchs Spis cudzo o nic: Proza
podr nicza (List of Adulteresses: Travel Prose, 1993).4
Both female and male writers revisited the recent past of the 1980s or
early 1990s in search of the very nature of transformation. The 1980s, a
time of political turmoil, economic crisis and constant cultural change,
were seen and depicted as the root of an equally unsteady present. This re3

All translations in this Chapter, if not from published translations or otherwise


stated, are my ownU.Ch.
4
Stanis aw Stabro writes about Polish prose after 1989 as follows: trying to
express itself fully, the prose used several literary strategies: from the complicated
postmodernist procedures of the linguistic and formal experiment, feminist
inspiration, special mythical attitude towards the presented world in the novels, to
the historical vision vindicated through the prism of the problem of identity,
important in the 1990s (Stabro, 2002, 154).

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interpretation and re-reading of the past was often equated with the
process of becoming an adult, in which one fully understands an earlier
period and in doing so regains responsibility for what is in the present,
thereby echoing the maxim of Cicero: historiam nescire hoc est semper
puerum esse (one who does not know history is always a child). The new
prose showed that no past or history can fit any single plot and that the
shape of the past is always entangled with the contemporaneity of the
writing process. According to Pawe Huelle (b. 1957), a Polish writer who
has described contemporary Polish political and social discourses, the
most severe disagreements are over the shapes of the past because there
are as many keys to the past as there are projects for organizing
contemporary life (Huelle 2007, Gazeta Wyborcza).
This re-examining of the most recent past was therefore a method
used by writers to identify the post-transformational condition of Poles.
Such identifications took various shapes in different books. Different
issues would come to the fore depending on the author, her background,
engagement in the political movement or place of residence (Poland or
abroad). However, without much exception, at the beginning of the 1990s,
authors were depicting the communist past as oppressive and ensnarled in
everything pertaining to socialist reality (greyness, boredom, shortage of
products, poverty and censorship). In opposition to that bleak reality, the
author would describe the present, which held the potential for a better
future (while better was uncritically associated with the West, which
was seen as the realm of opportunity, challenge, colour, choice and free
voice).5 These images underpinned the first works of the aforementioned
generation of then thirty-something-year-old writers, erupting at a time of
faith in capitalist culture, postmodernity and globalization. In Western
discourses postmodernity was seen (in the media, academia, on the shelves
of bookshops) as being entangled with the incipient themes of media
society (Guy Debord), consumer society (Henri Lefebvre), late capitalist
society (Jean-Franois Lyotard), post-industrial society (Daniel Bell)
5

Here, I mention only certain general social associations and stereotypes, and do
not take into account the deeper problem of cultural and social differences between
the Western and Eastern discourses which embrace different worldviews and
hierarchies of values, etc. This was especially prominent in feminist discourse,
which often took a patronizing tone towards women from Eastern Europe at the
beginning of the 1990s. In a book edited in 1993, the critics Nanette Funk and
Magda Mueller write: there are tremendous differences in culture, socialization,
and personality between Eastern and Western women, and in what Habermas has
referred to as the lifeworld, that stock taken for granted of unreflected beliefs and
worldviews (Funk 1993, 320).