Neighbours and Tourists
by Ewa Mazierska
(Adelaide Books, 2019)

Is there literature that we can describe as Polish literature in English, i.e. literature about contemporary experiences of the Polish diaspora on the British Isles, written in English or translated into English? Since Poland entered the E.U. in 2004 and Poles started migrating to the UK and the Republic of Ireland, Polish authors have published around 90 works of fiction in English. Some of the best known writers are A.M. Bakalar, the author of Madame Mephisto (2012) and Children of Our Age (2017), Marek Kazmierski (Damn the Source, 2013), Tomasz Mielczarek (Obecność/Presence, 2014) or Daniel Żuchowski (The New Dubliners, 2014), who is based in Ireland. The quality and strength of this fiction have been recognised on the British Isles and beyond. Recent triumphs of the Polish fiction in English include the Decibel Penguin Prize for Marek Kazimierski’s short story “No Way Back Where” (2007), longlisting Madam Mefisto for the Guardian’s 1st Book Award (2012), longlisting Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury for the International Man Booker Prize (2017) and awarding the Prize to Olga Tokarczuk for the novel Flights in 2018. Of course, the ultimate success was the 2019 Nobel Prize for Tokarczuk, who has had two novels translated into English (the other one is Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead). In 2015, A.M. Bakalar’s Woman of Your Dreams and Agnieszka Dale’s Fox Season were turned into plays and aired on 4 and 11 September. Finally, in 2017, Poland was the Market Focus country at London Book Fair, the most prestigious book fair in Europe. In recognition of the robustness of its literary traditions, Polish literature received some critical endorsements as well. In 2013, Litro Magazine #126 dedicated one issue exclusively to Polish literature because, as the editors put it, Polish literature has become “such a hot topic.”

This Polish fiction in English is national and transnational at the same time. On the one hand, the authors keep their familial and political ties with the homeland; they set their narratives in Poland and often deal with the topic of ongoing social and cultural transformation that started after 1989. On the other hand, their narratives are transnational because they show untrammelled currents of people, whose unprecedented mobility is the source of their unique perspective on the Polish homeland and their host country, England or Ireland. Much of this perspective springs from the contrast between the realities of life, historical experiences of post-socialist Poland, and the capitalist-to-a-fault West.

Ewa Mazierska’s short story collection, Neighbours and Tourists, is part and parcel of this (trans)national stream in the current Polish literature in English. Mazierska, who is also a film historian specialising in Eastern European cinema, came to the UK in the mid-1990’s and had a very successful career as a Professor of Film Studies and more recently, popular music. Mazierska’s academic work has been shaped by her second-world roots; likewise, her stories are often inspired by her own experiences of growing up in the country in Poland and her status as a traveller shuttling between two or (as it will become clear in a while) three different worlds.

This collection forms a short story cycle. The stories in the first part of the collection are interconnected because they all take place in Kowal, a village in Kujawy, a district in the centre of Poland. They also have the same narrator: a middle-aged expat woman from the UK, who is the author’s alter ego. These stories are autobiographical accounts of updates (i.e. gossip) the narrator receives from the locals about family, friends, and neighbours when she revisits her village and runs errands around her village on her bike. Like other fictional works by Polish diasporic authors, the stories show the author’s strong connections to this small “imagined” rural community, which is, after all, not entirely imagined, as everybody seems to know everything about everybody else, even if they did not meet those neighbours in person. This community is divided into the members who were born in the village and “naturalised” outsiders, who are a part of that community but “never gained an identity of their own” and are always referred to as wives or husbands of the “natives.”

The stories are recounted rather than dramatized, with the effect that they present their characters’ typical and recognisable (for a Polish reader) provincial mindset. They are narrated from a perspective of an insider whose familiarity with the local life has not been erased by decades of absence. They are told by a narrator who has a gift to bring gossip to life, read minds and motivations, emotionally explore every least likeable character. This exploration, however, rarely shows much empathy towards the subjects. Instead, the narrator takes the position of an informer, a participant-observer, who looks at her native community “through a spy-glass of anthropology,” as Zora Neale Hurston once famously put it. The stories often turn into satires and the narrator, personally involved in gossiping and storytelling, resorts to irony to depict characters “in grotesque pursuit of negativity,” their quirky motivations, beliefs, and fears.

The most memorable characters have their mentality shaped by historical traumas inflicted by the turbulent history of Poland, the partitions, two World Wars, or shift from communism to neoliberalism, which are still present in the living memory. So, for example, Theodor, in “Too Smart,” cannot stop gathering food supplies in case an army rolls over Poland from the East or the West or some other apocalyptic calamity happens. Theodor sees even Islamic fundamentalism as a potential threat to Poland (which has a tiny Muslim population) because it could cut off the country’s oil supplies and topple its economy. Most villagers congratulate themselves for having stayed in the province (even though, by their own standards, all the clever ones have left) because “there might be war and hunger in the city and then a cow and some chickens will be of use.”

Most characters in Mazierska’s Polish stories are misfits who find it difficult to rebuild their lives in post-communist times, make careers, be successful, or equip their children with the right skills to survive. Many (except villains and gangsters) are hopeless in the face of frantic social change and misguided neoliberal modernisation. The narratives show the failure of the Polish capitalist dream; the promised economic revival never comes; disillusionment, resignation, and poverty are rampant. People live on the dole or fraudulently obtained incapacity benefits. Doctors who issue incapacity certificates dwell in mansions, while others live in houses with “scars” that “aged prematurely, with walls falling apart before they were full erected.” The social neoliberal experiment has led to the break-up of the community, alcoholism, solitude, and decay. The themes of rural degradation, a better pre-capitalist world that is on the verge of disappearing, and nostalgia are highlighted from diverse angles as the narrator engages with a variety of characters who recount their own and others’ experiences of stagnation and resignation.

The transnational narratives from the second part of the collection are more personal and also clearly autobiographical. They often feature a female academic travelling to conferences or events on her own or a mother on holidays with her family; a son, occasionally a grown-up daughter, and a somewhat estranged father who usually presents a typically British perspective on events. The second part also sets out to examine female experiences concerning love and motherhood. The stories present the entropic nature of romance and sturdiness of feelings between a mother and her children. For example, the story “Homo Sacer and Her Lover” tells a tale of an aborted love affair which ends when the female narrator realises that her lover’s “idea of love was completely different from hers—his was based on addition; hers was based on subtraction.” A similar entropic relationship is described in the story “What is Love,” about a defunct marriage, which seems to be a sequel to the previous story about a fleeting extramarital romance. Although the author seems to keep more distance from her narrator, these stories seem to be more intimate; they are focused on the inner life of the female protagonists or their familial ties. Again, the stories seem to be interconnected because even though they have different female protagonists, all they seem to present different facets or pieces of experience of the same person.

These transnational stories are also characterised by the narrators’ interest in other people, locals and tourists, in such locations as Greece, India, Switzerland, or the Caribbean. They are interlaced with reflections on other cultures, lifestyles, and national characteristics. However, it is always clear that the perspective from which the narrators depict their inter-cultural encounters is always that of a Polish expat. So, German tourists are “stingy krauts,” loud and demanding special treatment from everybody. Russians also have a “bad reputation”; they are vulgar, noisy, and tight-fisted. They haggle even if the goods they want to buy are, by any standard, dirt-cheap. They don’t even want to pay for renting deck chairs on the beach “on account of being stingy beyond repair.” When accidentally met tourists or locals appear “ethnically ambiguous,” they must be shifty Jews and “frauds,” which is a piece of wisdom from the narrator’s grandmother “who knew many Polish Jews from before the Second World War.” The British are usually generous, emphatic and polite, even if they adopt an “unapologetically colonial position.” They can be in turn gullible with their “naïve openness,” or smug when they think that by buying local products for next to nothing, they are “atoning for the colonial sins of their ancestors.” The Polish-British narrator, who is a bit too prone to stereotyping, attempts to stay neutral in these postcolonial settings; happy when the natives don’t “increase her white guilt” and crateful “not to diminish [their] postcolonial suffering.” In these transnational stories of travel and exploration, everything is filtered through a distinctively Polish “central consciousness.”

Mazierska draws heavily on real people for the material of her stories to present personal and collective experiences of Polish expats in their homelands and vis a vis other cultures. But she makes the most of her characters and settings. Her stories are transnational, personal, and feminist at the same time, as she explores the meaning of love, motherhood, and other human connections in a world overshadowed by various historical dramas. It is not a joyous world; one can survive in it only by managing their expectations. It is a world in which “success” is “avoiding disaster. Not reaching some peak. Heaven [has] a ceiling, [and] hell is bottomless.” Despite her pessimism, however, Mazierska is certainly another interesting voice in the new Polish literature in English.

Click here to buy Neighbours and Tourists.