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He is an author, translator, novelist—and is regarded in Poland as the most important thinker of his generation: in fact, Tomasz Różycki, born in 1970 in Opole in Silesia, writes the kind of world literature that—only names like Witold Gombrowicz come to mind—also once came from Poland. Różycki teaches romance studies at the University in Opole, where the author still resides. This is not something one can simply take for granted. Anyone familiar with Polish history knows that even Opole—like Wroclaw—was, after the Second World War, the scene of tragic expulsions and resettlements where, as result of the reconfiguring of the borders in Poland at the time, thousands of people and others were forced to move into houses newly abandoned by their German owners under pressure from the new leaders. Różycki’s family—originally from Ukraine—was also forced to relocate to Oppeln, the German name for Opole. The fate of a double homelessness—since the old homeland was irrevocably lost, and the new one was irrevocably always a stranger—was inscribed not only in the DNA of his family, but also in his books. Everyone circles around the wounds of history—and the weight these wounds have on the author’s generation. It is not surprising that Opole in Różycki’s body of work—eleven books to date—often forms the all-decisive center of gravity. “This city, my illness! Bacillus of the black bile / sad tumor that proliferates in the soul /—how I hate you, city!”—read the first lines of his prose poem Zwölf Stationen (published in German in 2010, in a congenial translation by Olaf Kühl). The Polish original was awarded the prestigious Kościelski Prize in 2004, and in 2005 the collection was nominated for the Nike Prize. The author ostensibly describes a trip through the Polish and Ukrainian provinces in this prose poem. The first-person narrator—a sort of Eastern European Odysseus—is supposed to bring together the members of his scattered family at the behest of his elderly grandmother, whom he visits in Opole, in order to return with them to the place from where they were all expelled in 1945. The journey through the country becomes a journey into the past. With a love for detail, the author brings the long-vanished worlds back to life in a highly visual and eloquent manner—far from romanticizing them. Even if Różycki strikes a consciously old-fatherly tone and is not a realistic narrator, the order of things is translated into a new poetic order of words: the leitmotif of the war overshadows everything in this poem, on both a large and a small scale—from the feuds among traumatized neighbors to the traumatic war games of the children, to skirmishes unleashed by ants. These are still—as was the case with Maeterlinck—an image of history and point to the fragility of the new political order of a post-Germany Poland. The verse form also ultimately upholds this reckoning (which, together with the historical material, pays tribute to Adam Mickiewicz’s national epic Pan Tadeusz): their cadences are carefully orchestrated; the sentence and line endings do not always coincide. This creates fractures and ruptures that formally reflect the frictions inherent in Polish history. To this extent, Różycki works like a cartographer—but with him Polish history forms a palimpsest. In his books, he lifts his equally absurd and painful layers up into the light of the present, without somberness, always dipped in a humorous light. His novel Bestiarium (2016) also focuses on a mysterious and phantasmagoric journey through the catacombs of personal and collective memory. One morning, after an apparently alcohol-soaked night, the first-person narrator wakes up in a place he does not recognize and only wants to go back to his wife and child. But that, as he is made to realize, is easier said than done: “I was in a dream and everything absurd became possible, the absurd became normality.” In fact, the novel—which casually brings up different eras in Polish history—is populated by all sorts of eerie creatures, especially of human origin. Conceived as a play in a play, the novel follows the aimless dreams of the sleeping first-person narrator with boundlessly inventive narrative pleasure. It focuses on old family secrets, odd keys, and secret hideouts, incestuous love affairs, and family feuds. God and the world are pondered over desolate drinking and smoking sessions. The world is once again the Silesian Opole, but this time—we are in the nineties of the last century—it is the post-socialist Opole. Not just the oil paint is peeling off the doors. With the older shades of paint, the repressed and disowned earlier German history again comes to light. The novel ends with a final battle: it is a battle not only between generations, but also between those who, on the one hand, want to throw out the historical heritage and the memory of it—and those who, on the other, seek to preserve it both for the sake of their own future. Does it still have to be explicitly stated that the outcome of this struggle for dealing with history in a Europe haunted everywhere by restorative and nationalist forces doesn’t only affect the Polish people?


Original German version: Claudia Kramatschek

English translation: Erik Smith


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German-language Publications: Zwölf Stationen. Poem. From the Polish by Olaf Kühl. Luchterhand Literaturverlag, Munich 2009. Bestiarium. Novel. From the Polish by Marlena Breuer. Edition.fotoTAPETA, Berlin 2016.
Events by DAAD
5.-15.09.2018 Autoren des Berliner Künstlerprogramms des DAAD zu Gast beim 18. internationalen literaturfestival berlin

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