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‘Swallowing Mercury’ by Wioletta Greg ****

I was incredibly intrigued by poet Wioletta Greg’s first prose piece, Swallowing Mercury, particularly given that it was chosen for an online book club which I run.  The novella, translated from its original Polish by Eliza Marciniak, is the winner of the English PEN Award.  Sarah Perry writes that she ‘experienced this book like a series of cool, clear drinks, each one more intoxicating than the last’, and Carys Davies compares the ‘freshness and truthfulness’ here to the work of Elena Ferrante and Tove Jansson, a personal favourite of mine.

The focus of Swallowing Mercury is upon a young girl named Wiola, who is growing up 9781846276071in a fictional village in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s.  It is ‘about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days.  In vivid prose filled wit texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s.  From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.’  Swallowing Mercury is a coming-of-age work, and looks particularly at the way in which its young protagonist interacts with the world and people around her.

The book is relatively fragmented, and is made up of many short, and sometimes barely connected chapters.  Its blurb gives only a few, largely unusual details about Wiola, ranging from the fact that her ‘father was a deserter but now he’s a taxidermist’, and that her mother ‘tells her that killing spiders brings on storms.’  Many of the chapters follow a similar suit, focusing on a single element of Wiola’s life, like her fascination for collecting matchboxes.  The Poland which Wiola belongs to ‘is both very recent and lost in time.’  The chapters in Swallowing Mercury are essentially vignettes, many of which have quite enchanting and intriguing titles – for instance, ‘The Fairground Girl’, ‘Little Table, Set Thyself!’, and ‘The Belated Feeding of Bees’.

I found Greg’s prose rather beguiling, echoing as it does fables and fairytales.  ‘The Fairground Girl’, the first chapter in the collection, begins for instance: ‘A christening shawl decorated with periwinkle and yellowed asparagus fern hung in the window of the store house for nearly two years.  It tempted with a little rose tucked in its folds, and I would have used it as a blanket for my dolls, but my mother wouldn’t let me go near it.’  Also in this chapter, in which the fairytale element is arguably the strongest with regard to what follows, Greg writes: ‘She brought me home in February.  Still bleeding from childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my neck to ward off evil spirits and fell asleep for a few hours.  It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back.’

The quite lovely imagery which Greg creates is startling and fantastical; she talks, for instance, of her mother’s ‘head wreathed with a string of little bagels’, a man having the ‘impression that pine needles had grown out of his thighs and that brambles had sprung up inside his boots’, and that ‘woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.’

Swallowing Mercury has a real sense of imagination at its core.  I really enjoyed the unusual quality of the stories here, and enjoyed the interconnectedness which does begin to build once one gets a feel for Wiola’s character.  A real sense of dark humour suffuses the collection, and the social history of Poland has been well woven in.  The author has paid such attention to a lot of Polish customs, both in a familial and religious sense.  Greg strikes a nice balance between realism and things which are slightly out of the ordinary.  Swallowing Mercury held my attention throughout; it has a real depth and flavour to it.  Some of the chapters are like Russian dolls, with stories nestling inside other stories.  I very much look forward to reading whichever of Greg’s books are translated into English in future, and hope to pick up some of her poetry too.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’  It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH.  It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.  It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’.  The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’.  Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.  The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.  The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.  It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’.  A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair…  All we could see of his face were his eyes…  They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.  Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’.  This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’.  This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back’.  The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.  They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured.  Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.  It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.  In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.  A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.  Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.

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One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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One From the Archive: ‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall ****

Chasing the King of Hearts is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is by internationally acclaimed bestseller Hanna Krall.  The novel appears in its first English translation, which has been well wrought by Philip Boehm.  Chasing the King of Hearts is a little longer than the majority of the books on Peirene’s list, but it is a difficult story to put down.  The entirety of it is told rather simplistically, but this technique only serves to make the horrors of the Holocaust which Krall portrays all the more chilling. 9781908670106

The novel begins in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and is told entirely from the third person perspective.  It tells the story of Izolda, a young Polish woman, beginning with the pivotal day in which she meets her husband, Shayek, for the first time.  Izolda believes that she is already ‘in love’ with another man, but when she realises she is not and her friends urge her to become engaged, ‘Shayek tosses out: I’m available.’  Izolda works tirelessly as a nurse, and in this way she views the balance between life and death firsthand.  Krall describes the way in which, ‘She tells her husband what death looks like: no soul, no sign.  Then she adds, by way of encouragement: We’re still alive, though.  To which her husband says: Even that is less and less certain.’

The most poignantly portrayed aspect of the novel is the disparity and hopelessness of being Jewish at such a tumultuous period in history.  Izolda and Shayek are called ‘Yids’ by some young boys who pass them, and this is what follows: ‘Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers: Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they could tell.  He drapes her sweater around her shoulders.  She hadn’t realised it had slipped, exposing the armband with the blue star’.  To draw attention away from herself, Izolda drastically alters her appearance, dying her hair ‘ash-blonde’, changing her name to Maria Pawlicka and saying that she worked for a Jewish family in order to escape from and gain access back into the ghetto.  The narrative style rallies against the inherent fear of Jewishness – many have ‘terrible looks and a terrible accent’, which means that they can potentially be found out and taken away in convoys to the concentration camps.

The entirety of the book has been split into small vignettes, the majority of them full of sadnesses.  The most powerful sentences are portrayed in relation to Izolda’s own life – for example, when she was younger and learning English from a private tutor, ‘[she] would certainly have mastered English if the teacher hadn’t hanged himself.’  Krall has addressed many themes of importance within Chasing the King of Hearts – the resistance and underground movements in Warsaw, the notion of trust and how easily it can be broken, violence, interrogations, betrayals and deceit, bravery, imprisonment, forced transit to the camps, grief and forgetting – which enable the book to be historically grounded.  In this way, Krall has ensured that her novel does not merely portray the experiences of one woman and her family, but of an entire nation of people.

And now for the not so positive elements of Chasing the King of Hearts.  There are several black and white photographs which have been placed at random points within the text, but none of them have captions, and it is unclear as to who or what the photographs are meant to relate to.  Despite the book’s power, the story does fizzle out a little toward the end.  When the final sections are reached, it feels as though another book entirely has been tagged onto the end, which is a real shame.

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Reading the World: Europe (Three)

Five final recommendations from the depths of marvellous Europe!

97800071774241. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Bosnia)
People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure. When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book. As meticulously researched as all of Brooks’ previous work, ‘People of the Book’ is a gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.’

2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
‘Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.’

3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy (Poland) 9780142003077
‘In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel.” They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.’

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (All over Europe)
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfalll Closes at Dawn As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Reves The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.’

5. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Switzerland) 9780140147476
‘Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating spinsterhood is renewed…’

 

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Reading the World: Poland

I have never visited Poland, but I am absolutely fascinated by the country’s history, particularly with regard to its position during the Second World War.  Here are five books which I would highly recommend if you are interested in reading both fiction and non-fiction set within the country.

NB. I am fully aware that this list is incredibly war-oriented; if you have any recommendations for other Polish fiction, or books set within Poland, please do let me know.

  1. Clara’s War by Clara Kramer (Ebury Publishing, 2009) 9780091924416
    ‘On 21 July, 1942, the Nazis took control of the small Polish town of Zolkiew, life for Jewish 15-year-old Clara Kramer was never to be the same again. While those around her were either slaughtered or transported, Clara and her family hid perilously in a hand-dug bunker. Living in the house above and protecting them were the Becks. Mr. Beck was a womaniser, a drunkard and a self-professed anti-Semite, yet he risked his life throughout the war to keep his charges safe.Nevertheless, life with Mr. Beck was far from predictable. From the house catching fire, to Beck’s affair with Clara’s cousin, to the nightly SS drinking sessions in the room just above, Clara’s War transports you into the dark, cramped bunker, and sits you next to the families as they hold their breath time and again. Sixty years later, Clara Kramer has created a memoir that is lyrical, dramatic and heartbreakingly compelling. Despite the worst of circumstances, this is a story full of hope and survival, courage and love.’
  2. Maus I & Maus II by Art Spiegelman (Penguin, 2003)
    ‘”Maus” is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. “Maus” studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.’
  3. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson 9780141399676
    (Penguin, 2o12)
    ‘”22 Britannia Road” by Amanda Hodgkinson is a heartbreaking and powerful novel about wartime secrets and the difficulties of adjusting to postwar life. It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made them a home in Ipswich. However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has criss-crossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help put his own dark past behind him. But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them unless they together confront what they were compelled to do to survive. ‘
  4. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (Jonathan Cape, 1956)
    ‘Although the silver sword was only a paper knife, it became the symbol of hope and courage which kept the Balicki children and their orphan friend Jan alive through the four years of occupation when they had to fend for themselves. And afterwards it inspired them to keep going on the exhausting and dangerous journey from war-torn Poland to Switzerland, where they hoped to find their parents. Based on true accounts, this is a moving story of life during and after the Second World War.’
  5. The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman (1946)
    ‘The powerful and bestselling memoir of a young Jewish pianist who survived the war in Warsaw against all odds. Made into a Bafta and Oscar-winning film.’

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Flash Reviews: Children’s Books (30th May 2014)

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson ****

‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (Puffin Classics)

Storyline: “Following the demise of bloodthirsty buccaneer Captain Flint, young Jim Hawkins finds himself with the key to a fortune. For he has discovered a map that will lead him to the fabled Treasure Island. But a host of villains, wild beasts and deadly savages stand between him and the stash of gold.”

1. The narrative voice is engaging from the start, and a marvellous array of characters people this novel.
2. The entirety is filled with adventure.  As soon as one thing happens, it sets another event in motion, which keeps the action moving throughout – a domino effect, if you like.
3. Treasure Island is so well written.  This is the first of Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s books which I have read, and I doubt very much that it will be the last.

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A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley ***
Storyline: The novel’s protagonist is a young girl named Penelope, who lives in London in the twentieth century.  She visits her family home, Thackers, in Derbyshire, and mysteriously finds herself in Elizabethan times.  ‘Her sixteenth-century family is scheming to free their beloved Mary, Queen of Scots’.  Penelope is catapulted into the past and present throughout, and both stories run concurrently with one another.

‘A Traveller in Time’ by Alison Uttley (Jane Nissen Books)

1. Penelope’s world, with particular emphasis upon her surroundings, has been wonderfully evoked throughout.
2. A Traveller in Time is a rich novel which has been filled with history, and its story has clearly been well thought out.
3. Had I read this as a child, I am sure that I would have adored it.  It has just the right amount of time travelling and history alongside its rather sweet protagonist, and had I been eight or nine when I first stepped into Penelope’s world, I doubt that I would have ever wanted to leave.  As an adult, I sadly found the novel a little disappointing, but I did still enjoy it.

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After by Morris Gleitzman ****

‘After’ by Morris Gleitzman (Puffin Books)

NB. This is the fourth novel in the series which features Felix (a fact which I was entirely unaware of when I requested it from the library), but Gleitzman writes that each is a standalone novel.

Storyline: Felix’s parents have both been killed in a Nazi concentration camp when this novel begins.  After is set in 1945, where Jewish Felix, after having been sheltered by a kindly man named Gabriek for two years, finds himself joining a band of partisans in a Polish forest.

1. Felix is an interesting construct.  In terms of age – thirteen – he is little more than a child, but when one takes into account the awful things which he has seen and has had to do, he seems very old indeed.  He is a marvellous narrator, and is endearingly naive.  One of the character traits which I found the most compelling about him was the way in which he continually prays to British author Richmal Crompton, merely because her Just William books kept him company whilst he was in hiding.  He is a likeable character, and is both earnest and persistent.
2. The way in which Gleitzman has crafted Felix’s first person narrative voice, which has been written entirely in the present tense, makes everything almost urgent, and this suits the story perfectly.
3. The story is both believable and well-imagined, and the twists and turns throughout render it an unpredictable novel.

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‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall

Chasing the King of Hearts is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is by internationally acclaimed bestseller Hanna Krall.  The novel appears in its first English translation, which has been well wrought by Philip Boehm.  Chasing the King of Hearts is a little longer than the majority of the books on Peirene’s list, but it is a difficult story to put down.  The entirety of it is told rather simplistically, but this technique only serves to make the horrors of the Holocaust which Krall portrays all the more chilling.

The novel begins in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and is told entirely from the third person perspective.  It tells the story of Izolda, a young Polish woman, beginning with the pivotal day in which she meets her husband, Shayek, for the first time.  Izolda believes that she is already ‘in love’ with another man, but when she realises she is not and her friends urge her to become engaged, ‘Shayek tosses out: I’m available.’  Izolda works tirelessly as a nurse, and in this way she views the balance between life and death firsthand.  Krall describes the way in which, ‘She tells her husband what death looks like: no soul, no sign.  Then she adds, by way of encouragement: We’re still alive, though.  To which her husband says: Even that is less and less certain.’

The most poignantly portrayed aspect of the novel is the disparity and hopelessness of being Jewish at such a tumultuous period in history.  Izolda and Shayek are called ‘Yids’ by some young boys who pass them, and this is what follows: ‘Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers: Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they could tell.  He drapes her sweater around her shoulders.  She hadn’t realised it had slipped, exposing the armband with the blue star’.  To draw attention away from herself, Izolda drastically alters her appearance, dying her hair ‘ash-blonde’, changing her name to Maria Pawlicka and saying that she worked for a Jewish family in order to escape from and gain access back into the ghetto.  The narrative style rallies against the inherent fear of Jewishness – many have ‘terrible looks and a terrible accent’, which means that they can potentially be found out and taken away in convoys to the concentration camps.

The entirety of the book has been split into small vignettes, the majority of them full of sadnesses.  The most powerful sentences are portrayed in relation to Izolda’s own life – for example, when she was younger and learning English from a private tutor, ‘[she] would certainly have mastered English if the teacher hadn’t hanged himself.’  Krall has addressed many themes of importance within Chasing the King of Hearts – the resistance and underground movements in Warsaw, the notion of trust and how easily it can be broken, violence, interrogations, betrayals and deceit, bravery, imprisonment, forced transit to the camps, grief and forgetting – which enable the book to be historically grounded.  In this way, Krall has ensured that her novel does not merely portray the experiences of one woman and her family, but of an entire nation of people.

And now for the not so positive elements of Chasing the King of Hearts.  There are several black and white photographs which have been placed at random points within the text, but none of them have captions, and it is unclear as to who or what the photographs are meant to relate to.  Despite the book’s power, the story does fizzle out a little toward the end.  When the final sections are reached, it feels as though another book entirely has been tagged onto the end, which is a real shame.