Everyone in this enchanting novella whispers or sings something under his or her breath. A girl, Wiola, comes of age in the last decade of communist Poland, 1970-1980, in the small village of Herkaty hearing whispers, both political and personal. She hears her father, a deserter from the army, return home to sing prison ballads; she attends to her grandmother humming a litany to Mary while making soup; she watches her grandfather, a former Stalag prisoner, silently escape the state Director’s dictates. Pope John Paul II visits and Lech Walesa receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Poland, but much is unfathomable to this child growing up in this historical moment. Wioletta Greg, a prize winning poet, captures the girl’s experiences juxtaposing realities with startling flights of fantasy. Breaking the spell of history, Greg experiments with a series of surreal and folkloric episodes in which Wiola experiences “a different kind of geometry of the world where boundaries are not marked by field margins overgrown with thistles and goosefoot, by cobbled roads, fences or track trodden by humans, but instead by light, sound and the elements”(11). She wins a statue of Jesus in a raffle and stands “taut and still in the darkness until the statue rose a little above the napkin” (18), when she makes a wish for the resurrection of her cat, Blacky. Tired of waiting for her father one snowy afternoon, she decides to walk home across farm fields, goes numb in the cold, and faints in a snow drift . She levitates, “Suddenly, I was in Red Square, dressed in an embroidered vest and a carmine head scarf” (41). Wiola also senses the undercurrents of her mother’s wartime story about the death of little Anna Kurzack who lived in the village and was killed by the Germans in 1943. Her mother’s childhood friend, Stella, leaves school and starts roaming through the town “to finish dreaming the abruptly interrupted dreams of the Kurzaks” (81). There are other whispers and secrets confronting the adolescent: the locked door in the dressmaker’s studio and the mystery of her swallowing mercury after her visit to Dr. Kwiecien. This surreal, poetically limned novella—long listed for the Man Booker International Prize--now translated into English gives the reader a strong sense of the strangeness not only of growing up but a neglected historical moment in Poland’s history.
Wioletta Greg. Swallowing Mercury. Trans. Eliza Marciniak. Transit Books (2017).
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