Posts Tagged ‘Wioletta Greg’

Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak 

Some books come into our lives unexpectedly, acquired suddenly on a whim, I know I’m not the only one who does that! I saw someone talking about this slim little novel on Twitter just as I was wondering what book to read next. It sounded so good, that I downloaded it to my kindle and started reading it later that day. It was a lovely little book, quirky and richly poetic in its descriptions. I found out later that Wioletta Greg is particularly known as a poet – and I wasn’t surprised I think that comes across beautifully in the imagery she weaves through her narrative and the brevity of her delicate prose.

Longlisted for the 2017 International Booker Prize Swallowing Mercury is a thin novel at about 140 pages, a coming of age novel told in a series of vignettes or short interlinked stories. These stories or chapters depict the life of a young girl growing up in an agricultural community in rural Poland during the communist era. Set during the 1980s, various political events and a visit to the area by Pope John Paul root us to a period which in the author’s hands feels oddly timeless and could be almost any time in the last hundred years.

Wiola is the narrator of the story, and we see the world through her eyes, a gaze which alters as she grows up. Wiola’s voice is very matter of fact she tells her stories with a kind of naivety that both conceals and reveals a good deal. While the novel isn’t a distressing one – it certainly isn’t all roses round the door either. The adult world begins to gradually encroach on Wiola as it must for all of us as we get older.

Wiola is a good Catholic girl living with her parents, as the novel opens she has a black cat called Blacky that she is very attached to. While nothing terrible happens to the animal that we see – the animal disappears and Wiola is sad – her pet lingers in her mind for a while.

“I spent the whole summer roaming the fields with Blacky. He showed me 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 tracks trodden by humans, but instead by light, sound and the elements. With Blacky, I learned to climb haystacks, apple and cherry trees, piles of breeze blocks; I learned to keep away from limestone pits hidden by blackberry bushes, from hornets’ nests, quagmires and snares set in the grain fields.”

In the background, something understood but only occasionally referred to is the knowledge that her father was a deserter. It’s a shadow, nothing more, it doesn’t affect Wiola – but it gives us a sense of the difficulties this family must have faced. The family live in a traditional rural community, where the women gather together to tear up feathers for stuffing or make cakes. Wiola goes to the market with her grandmother to sell sour cherries, there are church rituals, weddings and stories of the past.

“In the same year that a rumour spread through Hektary that the Pope would drive past our village, my father took over the running of the farm and, to my grandmother’s dismay, began to introduce reforms, gradually turning our homestead into an unruly and exuberant zoo. It wasn’t just beehives and cages with goldfinches, canaries and rabbits, or a dovecote in the attic, where clumsy nestlings hatched out of delicate eggs that looked like table-tennis balls. In the middle of February, right after my birthday, wanting to cheer me up after the loss of Blacky, Dad pulled out of his jacket a little soggy, squeaking ball of fluff, which by the warmth of the stove gradually began to turn into a several-weeks-old Tatra sheepdog. We called him Bear.”

Wiola is a child with a keen intelligent imagination, sometimes we see as her mind takes off – spiralling off into sudden and odd little fantasies, often weaving myth, and Polish folklore with reality. These little glimpses into Wiola’s imagination are handled gently by the author – never going too far or becoming too strange or unbelievable. Wiola’s mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms, and she is absolutely forbidden to enter the secret room at the seamstress’s house. Here is a world rich in superstition and tradition.

“In May 1984, I set out for church carrying a bundle of sweet flag, which I had picked that morning by the pond and adorned with ribbons. Water dripped from the bouquet onto my Sunday shoes. The church was filled with the smell of sweet flag leaves and silt, like a drying bog. My head started to spin. When the parish priest began to read a passage about the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the boat-shaped pulpit sailed off with him into the unknown. I slid from the bench down to the floor. They carried me outside. A woman drew a cross on my forehead with her spit. ‘We must tie a red ribbon in her hair and break the spell,’ she said, turning to the gawkers.”

Following the incident in the church described above – Wiola is taken to the doctor where she is subjected to an unpleasant experience by the creepy, rather predatory doctor. It’s one of the darker stories in the book, one which matters greatly to Wiola, though typically referred to lightly, and never brought up again. Wiola collects matchbook covers – an occupation which begins to get a little obsessional.

Childhood’s end is heralded by a family bereavement and Wiola’s certainty in her place in the world and even her place at home is severely shaken.

Swallowing Mercury was a really enjoyable novel – definitely an author I shall look out for again.

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