Joanna Bator
“There are two kinds of good novels: the first are the kind in which authors describe a dark forest from a distance. They give strange names to the familiar in an attempt to forge an even more personal connection, and strengthen borders by delineating them even more clearly. … Now, in the second kind, things become askew, a bit unsettling, and topsy-turvy. … Sometimes you are almost afraid to open the book in the first place, because of the ‘shredded screaming rag’ wriggling between its pages. Authors of this kind of novel enter the dark, impenetrable forest; from there, they look back at their homes to see what they look like turned upside-down.” After reading these lines from Joanna Bator’s self-portrait Die-Welche-Seltsame-Dinge-Bringt, must one even ask which category Bator’s novels belong to? Born in Poland in 1968, the cultural theorist nonetheless did not travel to a dark forest, but to Japan, where she learned to re-train her line of vision and go against the grain in her writings about her homeland’s history. Bator’s literature mines its power from the place she fled: Wałbrzych, a coalmining region in Poland sandwiched between Germany and the Czech Republic, which embodies the region’s historic fault-lines. The reason: this is a place that was continually passed back and forth between different countries and its population, often replaced, became accustomed to switching citizenship. Thus, anyone living in Wałbrzych was automatically foreign – and lived amid an absentee population. Bator’s novels are nourished by the resulting disquiet; in this regard, Wałbrzych serves Bator as the slagheap of history, which she mines to find the glittering veins among the muck. Like a war widow, she digs through piles of junk, carefully extracting the repressed from the heap and shining the light of day on topics like expropriation, disenfranchisement, and the ethnic mix that goes against the notion of a pure Poland. She captures the claustrophobia of everyday life under Communism – complete with its lingering Anti-Semitism and homophobia, alcoholism and Catholicism – and offers a furious portrayal of the long-term damage of dislocation. The novel’s voice is undeniably feminine: the story revolves around women, who serve as the keepers of history. Both Sandy Hill (2009) and Cloudalia (2010) tell the story of three generations of women. The main character is the rebellious Dominika, who is branded a rebel and outsider from the get go because of her dark pallor. Whereas Bator captures in Sandy Hill Domenika’s childhood spent among the eponymous Communist apartment complex on the outskirts of Wałbrzych, Cloudalia portrays her odyssey into the wide world beyond her hometown; setting out at the end of the 1980s, Dominika travels to places like London and America. From this vantage point, Bator’s characters are simultaneously driven from and toward something – because they know that what you have today can be gone by tomorrow. That’s why they hoard everything possible, like objects and goods, but also words and stories. They spew torrential litanies when they discuss their lives, thereby elevating the act of storytelling to the most valuable currency of nomadic life. Her work reveals her boldness and her imaginative wealth: she weaves numerous stories into the frame narrative, creates characters who unexpectedly pop into the narrative, and, weaving together the strands of her stories, she creates a carpet of history that she unfurls right before our eyes. She employs direct speech and combines rich atmospheric vignettes with myth and magic to dizzying effect; while at the same time, her use of language is so tight and sensual, so imbued with corporality. Though she won Poland’s prestigious Nike Prize in 2013, she has ruffled feathers in Poland because of the way she addresses sensitive issues: many have and continue to accuse her of badmouthing her country due to the way she tries to explode prevalent myths and resentments of Poland’s post-war years. In this regard, Bator – an expert on Japanese culture, which she wrote about in her debut volume of essays The Japanese Fan in 2004 – is reminiscent of the so-called itako, or soothsayers, who set up stands at the annual festival of the dead at the northern border of the island Honshu. There they act as emissaries of the deceased and bridge the divide between the living and the dead. Bator’s novels also tell of the maelstrom of Polish history, such as her third novel Dark, Almost Night, which was published in Poland in 2012, yet the author manages to do so without pointing any fingers or being pedantic. For her, revenge is a foreign concept; her stories are instead about reconciliation, which, in the best-case scenario, can forge a path into the future out of the maze of the past, thus leading us from a narrow-minded nationalistic ideology to a broader world teeming with different perspectives. Along with her protagonist Dominika, Bator represents a new generation of Polish writers who strive to connect the local, microscopic view with an openness that encompasses worlds.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
Translation into English: Amy Pradell
Camera/editing: Uli Aumüller, Sebastian Rausch