Lajos Pálfalvi








Mythogeographical Constructions in Polish Literature:

A Summary


In connection with research at the University of Pécs, Polish literature seemed to be most discussable from the point of view of regionalism. While interpreting the periphery-centre relationship, we may take Pécs and Budapest, for instance, but also think of such huge regions as Central-Europe or general problems like postcolonialism. From the perspective of Pécs, the Polish situation seems encouraging as, besides the capital, there are important cultural centres like Krakow – the twin city of Pécs, which has already been the European Capital of Culture (Pécs is only about to).

Along these lines, I have tried to connect the two dominant tendencies of Polish literature in the last decades, sometimes completing sometimes blurring the geographical-concrete term of regionalism with the mythographical range by using an unofficial term: mythogeography. The word was coined by a mere slip of tongue at the promotion programme of Piotr Szewc's Dusks and Dawns [Zmierzchy i poranki], a relevant novel in this context. Despite its accidental emergence, the term seems useful. The more limited term, mythography, draws attention only to the process of myth-creation but does not say anything about the material of the myth, cannot stress that most such works are tightly connected with a concrete territory, a city. For me it is the latter which is more significant now.

If we make a mythogeographical journey in the former and present Poland by detecting the worlds depicted by the works, we will see that the Polish may play two opposite roles. The literature of exile by writers having left the Ukraine-Lithuanian territories can be primarily characterised by the elegiac mood of the Romantic Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz [Pan Tadeusz]. The cultural values communicated by these works are fragile and were destroyed in the middle of the 20th century. It was just the opposite to what happened in the Western and Northern parts of the country: there the Polish were forced to move to Breslau and Danzig, cities reduced to ruins by the German, by the same oppressing forces which expelled them from the East. However, the emotional-intellectual interpretation of this experience will be literarily textualised only in the last decade of the 20th century.

The journey is started from Krakow by Zero[1], a short story by Slavomir Mrożek. It is difficult not to read one of its characters as autobiographical. The plot is quite simple: in the theatre an adolescent meets a high state security police officer, who invites him to dinner and entertains him with stories about his demanding job. First of all, a few words about this odd couple. The age of the adolescent, the zero of the title is fifteen and a half. He has no basis to call himself a bon vivant. He takes the first steps in the dangerous and extremely fascinating realm which is beyond the world of his home and school. His wild desires have not been fulfilled yet – this must be shown by his face, and that is why he suffers from the glances of people. Maybe that is the reason he goes to the theatre: the darkness of the auditorium conceals him and he can get experienced without identifying himself. Thus, he avoids seeing the poor opinion of his real character in people's glances. He carries out an initiation into the world of artists, into night life, however, only by remaining a spectator or voyeur.

The age of the other character is not provided exactly: he is a self-confident, exhibitionist ”dandy” however, it is quite obvious that he does not belong to the elite of the city. There is no pleasure which he cannot get; however, he does not seem to enjoy night life very much. He comments on facials and face massage most enthusiastically – implying that he also has problems with his face. The salient detail about him is his extreme cleanliness, which reflects his attempts to get rid of a mysterious sin. He does not tend to accept the role of spectator.

If we knew from which theatre they leave for the Casanova, we could even follow their route on the map of the old town. What we know is that the characters get out of the city on the Florian Street, the Route of Kings, which connects the Main Square and the Florian's Gate and say good-bye to each other before they would get to that railway station.

Zero is a depressing short story; however, it exploits the archetypal exchange of roles known from comedies. The swaggering soldier neglecting his duty of secrecy (after forcing so many people to confess, would he also like to confess at last?) is a close relative of cheated cheats and hunted hunters. He manages to subordinate people but its necessary symbolic violence of his acts deprives him of the possibility of an intimate discussion. He throws himself into night life; however, being a paranoid ascetic, he cannot get satisfaction.

Piotr Szewc is a representative artist of the Eastern-Galician town, Zamość. He started his career as a poet, then presented the past and destruction of a stetl in his essay Chagallewo's Death (my translation of the title) [śmierć Szagalewa]. This text has clearly anticipated his first novel titled Annihilation [Zagłada]. The one-day plot of the story is set in Zamość in July 1934, its characters – the shopkeeper, the lawyer, the innkeeper, the local courtesan, two policemen and a Gipsy fortune-teller – are typical figures of the stetl and often appear in Szewc's poetry as well, because whatever he writes is part of one huge book. The work does not have a plot and it lacks psychological descriptions: the characters do not transcend their scheme of everyday routine, they are engaged in their everyday activities, which get eternal, ritual connotations in the fictitious world of the novel. In the spirit of a metaphysical realism every detail is raised to a sacral level by the idyllic depictions of the text.

Andrzej Stasiuk's short stories are located in the present day of this region; however, the above world has totally disappeared from them. The title Tales of Galicia [Opowieści Galicyjskie] ironically evokes the myth of the Habsburgian Poland. The reader is introduced to the everyday life of a godforsaken village vegetating on the ruins of a state farm gone bankrupt. The text seems precisely realistic only at the first glimpse: from time to time it becomes a tragic ballad, the characters of the miniatures return several times but can rarely challenge the everyday ritual order. A few fragments of the haunted village's past will also be revealed when the narrator muses in the place of the two hundred year-old Orthodox church which has been taken to a museum.

The other twin city of Pécs, Lemberg, can be found East of this region; nevertheless, the former capital of Galicia is only present in works inspired by memories, e.g. in the essays by Stanisław Vincenz or in Józef Wittlin's My Lemberg (my translation of the title) [Mój Lwów]. The journey would be continued to the North through the Ukrainian, Byelorussian then Lithuanian  territories not bypassing the exclusively virtual ones either, transgressing the boundaries of Polish literature several times to enable Hungarian readers to wonder about the gloomy position of Byelorussian literature taken as non-existent by them in the last one and a half decades. However, the enterprise turned out quite differently due to the emergence of such peculiar interferences between the studied literature and certain concrete geographical spaces, between works, authors, towns, countries, even in a European scale, which cannot be ignored. The above phenomena diverted the chain of thought opening it up to other regions and other subjects.

 The first such example is Olga Tokarczuk, who has tight bonds with Silesia. This region literally calls for myth-creation matching the needs of its inhabitants as well. They have to develop local traditions because they cannot naturally identify themselves with the dominant range of the stubborn Polish literature driven by the ideology of independence. The mainstream is problematic here because the Polish Romantic canon reflects the Warshawan, Central-Polish and Lithuanian experiences of the Russian part of the country – excepting a unified freedom fighting heroism, which is the only way to keep clear the national identity from satanic forces.

Olga Tokarczuk's short story, Bardo: The Creche (my translation of the title) [Bardo. Szopka], is located in a town of the Sudete Region already articulated by the title. There are a few restaurants near the monastery and the two churches, where the local speciality, trout with almond, is offered. The major sight is, however, the crèche, which has been brought to existence as slowly and patiently as the towns themselves. According to the fiction, it is first mentioned by the Jesuits in 1591. The biblical figures are moved by a clockwork, the pious puppetry is enriched with new figures and technical improvements by the generations of altar-builders. By becoming a tourist attraction the machinery gradually connects the Silesian landscapes, the small mining towns and factories to the sacral narrative creating a monumental graphic novel. After the Second World War, the Polish will enter into possession of the machinery, which already models both local and world history in a small space. Interestingly, the museologist responsible for it will continue the creative contribution of the earlier generations.

There are also deeper meanings in the work. Even the title has connotations, as Bardo refers to the intermediate state after death discussed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The author claims in an interview that the Book in his first novel, also accessible in Hungarian, is the letter of God to mankind, while the crèche in Bardo is the letter of mankind to God.

After the publication of the short story, the author was invited to the library of Bardo because the locals were about to organise an annual nativity festival. The invitation cards and programme guides included excerpts from the work though not as literary illustrations but as the descriptions of an existing machinery. Those interested in taking part in the promotion programmes of the book seemed to take the text as real and not fictitious and a man even reported his grandmother's memories about the described machinery. Thereby the text has become a basic-referential narrative, and even the trout with almond as local speciality can be ordered in a restaurant in Bardo.

My Europe [Moja Europa] written by Andrzej Stasiuk and Yuri Andrukhovych has been strangely reinterpreted by the Ukraine's democratic change. The Polish-Ukraine reconciliation stimulated from above and the extremely conscious Polish foreign policy resulted in the situation that the whole Polish society supported the Ukraine's liberation movement. On 15 December 2004 Andrukhovych made a speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg – enriching his literary work with a special occasional text. He seemed to try to argue in a conceptual language against a rude thesis claimed by many people, a thesis which had already been done away with by his fiction without using the rhetoric of a journalist.

 The mentioned thesis can even be read in Aristotle. According to it, people who live in the “East” are servile and accept despotism without objection, i.e. their needs and intellectual level result in their inevitable subordination to a tyranny. This political orientalism is reinforced by the geopolitical fallacy that Russia has the right to maintain the neototalitarian system in Ukraine and Byelorussia and, even, to try to reunite his former empire as soon as it has got prepared for it technically. Andrukhovych's oration objected to the logic which claims that the situation in Ukraine would be an example for the Huntingtonian style of civilisational fault lines, since the conflict was not exploded between those who speak Ukrainan and those who speak Russian, or between Europe- and Russophiles, but between the society struggling for democracy and the neototalitarian government. At the end of the speech, arguing for the European attitude of Ukraine, he also referred to Stasiuk and their book written in collaboration.

The third part starts with the study of the textualisation of the other world in Polish literature. The analysis focuses on the main protagonist of Forefathers Eve [Dziady] as this character transgresses the boundaries of worlds and realms. The reader may follow him on his way of gradual spiritual evolution towards eternity. As far as the progression to the other world is concerned, it has inspired such exceptional artists of Polish theatre as Stanisław Wyspiański and Tadeus Kantor. However, the ghosts of Mickiewicz haunts not only the Polish stage but the novels as well. Who Was David Weiser [Weiser Dawidek] by Paweł Huelle still maintains the great dialogue with the Romantic tradition, while in the case of Piotr Siemion's Niskie Łąki[2] we cannot assume this any more. The middle of the novel is set in New York, and when All Souls' Day comes the characters do not invoke the spirit of the dead (ancestors) but watch the happy Halloween on TV. The solemn tone of Forefathers Eve is deconstructed by the appearance of the English word, Ghostbusters, which is present even in the title of two chapters. The ghostbusters seem to destroy the ghost of Romanticism, which has been haunting for two hundred years.

However, what happens to the ”hero of the Polish” on the earthly level of existence is closer to our common topic. This may be paradoxically formulated as the exile to the empire. As the hero's lot may remind us of that of Mickiewicz, who was exiled from Vilna to Saint Petersburgh then to Moscow, postcolonial criticism may be applied here as well. Said's orientalism needs to be refined by Central-European experience. His enumeration implying complexity – ”a whole brunch of poets, writers, philosophers, political thinkers, economists and the empires' men in suits”, great names from Aeschylus to Marx – try to make the reader believe that we, outsiders, even if interested in the Eastern religions' oversimplified versions for Western consumption, we are unable to understand anything which does not fit into the scheme of ”Eastern despotism, Eastern beauty, violence and lewdness”. How would he comment on Crimean Sonnets [Sonety Krymskie] by Mickiewicz? Is it possible that the former conspirator saw the Muslim world subjugated by the Russian the same way as a conqueror or a missionary? Not very likely. On the other hand, Mickiewicz realises their completely common lot. He has a great interest in the little-known culture (he learns a lot from a Polish orientalist in Saint Petersburgh), he is attracted by the living tradition. He does not find despotism and violence but imperishable longing for freedom. This experience may also have contributed to Mickiewicz's description of Russia as the tyranny of the North and not that of the East.

Russia as the opposite of the East. Most countries react with indifference or understanding as they watch the Russian massacring the Chechen in the name of the struggles against terrorism, while the Polish relate to the war of the Chechen with great empathy. Moreover, it is a Polish journalist who has written one of the best books on this war under the title The Stone Towers (my translation of the title) [Wieże z kamienia]. The author's primary intention is to introduce the reader to the territory where Russian imperialism and militant Islam collide – drawing an internal picture of a culture often described adverse, and thus contributing to its better understanding.

The above Polish examples contradict what postcolonial criticism advances about the Western attitude. By the way, Jameson and Said typically discuss the relationship of the most wealthy countries and the third world, for them there is no second world, to which, actually, Russia and its former allies belong. They keep taking Ireland as the only European country with a colonial past. Their Marxism and helpless sympathy with communism prevent them from extending the category of imperialism to Russia, which would make them draw some necessary and relevant conclusions.


[1]No English translation is available.

[2] It has not been published in English yet. A word for word translation of the title would be Low Meadows. The German and the Hungarian translation prefer the title A Picnic at Night.

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Kiadványunk felsőoktatási segédanyag, mely A Pécs / Sopiane Örökség Kht,a Pro Renovanda Cultura Hungariae AlapítványKlebelsberg Kunó Emlékére” Szakalapítványa,valamint A Pécs2010 Programtanács „Európa Kulturális Fővárosa - 2010” cím elérésére kiírt pályázatán megítélt Nívódíj segítségével, a kiadványhoz kötődő konferencia pedig a Pécsi Tudományegyetem Rektora, a Pécsi Tudományegyetem Bölcsészettudományi Karának Dékánja, a Modern Irodalomtörténeti és Irodalomelméleti Tanszék, a magyar szakos levelező képzés és a Liber-Arte Alapítvány által nyújtott támogatásokkal jöhetett csak létre. Segítségükért ezúton is köszönetet mondunk.