SEPTEMBER 15, 2017
WHEN I WAS two months old, my family moved from Poland to Colombia. My father worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and we all had special passports, with blue covers, which allowed us to move freely, as if there were no borders — and so we also visited Panama, Chile, Brazil, and other interesting places. When we moved back to Poland, the other children marveled at me; they would touch my hair, my face, my legs. I felt like a friendly alien. I was only three. My sister, who went to a French school in Bogotá and spoke better Spanish and French than Polish, had it tougher when she returned. Kids called her the American girl from Paris. Her Polishness seemed dubious, tainted as it was by the West, by other languages.
In Salki, Wojciech Nowicki writes about this central problem of leaving one’s country — going east, west, south, north — be it for business, pleasure, or the chance of a better life. In his five essays, he interrogates travel, memory, madness, and the way we narrate our experiences. His family fears going abroad, and, to a lesser extent, so does he. When you travel, you leave your house behind, unattended, open for theft. Travel may not define you altogether, but it will change you. Nowicki is not like his legendary countryman, Ryszard Kapuściński, who traveled unemotionally, almost invisibly, a ghost in his own work. Rather, Nowicki travels like Svetlana Alexievich. He wants to understand the emotional history of his family, and how memories are formed. Like Georges Perec, whom he admires and cites, he accumulates impressions, images. “Another moment of beauty in Perec,” he writes, “is his endless calculations, lists of objects, people, facts, and occurrences […] like smoke over a meadow.” He takes Perec with him: “If I were to count all the trips I probably spent with Perec, it would add up to many months. One time in Arles, in the south of France, we were in a café on a market day — the crowd flowed before our eyes, overloaded with seafood, cheeses, and local wines.”
English speakers are lucky to have Nowicki’s Salki in this skillful and sensitive translation by Jan Pytalski. Nowicki’s Polish is rich — richer than Polish normally is — because the author is partly Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Belarussian, which just adds something. A greater lyrical capacity? An edge? It’s hard to explain. Just take this example:
It was in the apartment where Grandpa Nowicki lay dying for so long that his body finally created a man-sized indent in bed. A year before his passing, he sat on that very bed talking to himself, broadcasting on his own wavelength […] He’d sit on his bed, head heavily propped in his hands, elbows resting on his knees, and kept repeating his mantra: “There was the Nevėžis River and the Šešupė and Širvinta. And there was the Žižma River.” That’s what he said. I’m repeating it here word for word, just like my father repeated it to me. He also told me that he didn’t cry after my grandpa died, but laughed because those names were beautiful, they whispered and swished, creaked like morning frost underfoot, thundered like water against the ice, and foretold the rustle of grasses and the coming of harvest […] That completely unexciting village of Antonowo composes the parish along with Armoliszki, Bobroliszki, Borsukinie, Budwiecie-stare, Brantas, Czysta-buda, Czujniszki villages. But there are also Egliniszki and Egłupie, Gajstry and Girnupie, and Giwałtowo and Gobiniszki, Grzesie and Jodbaryszki. That same parish also includes Kłampunie, Kojaćkiszki, and Kożliszki, and beyond them Krówieliszki and Kwiatkopusze. There are Mołupie and Muryniszki, Nendrynie and Ożnogary, Plople and Pocztaryszki. You’ll find Podziszki, Pokieliszki, Przygrażyszki, and Purwiniszki and Raczyliszki and Rudupie; you have Sanożyszki, big and small, Skuczyszki, Smolany-piec. Finally, Szaliszki, Szalniszki, Tartutyszki, Trakiszki-wielkie, Tymieńczyszki-małe, Wałajtyszki, and Witkiszki. You could run out of breath. I read other lists full of names sounding just as otherworldly and I can’t escape them.
Nowicki embodies the complexity of what Western Europeans often label, reductively, as “Polish.” In Great Britain, for example, “Polish” can be an umbrella term for all things Eastern and Central European, including Moldavian, Romanian, and even Turkish; it often carries with it a disparaging connotation of something mediocre, but also something vast, uncontrollable. To Westerners, it’s all mixed up, and all sort of the same. Borat, the character created by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, ostensibly hails from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, but there are snippets of Polish in his nonsense (“Jak się masz?”). And in Harry & Paul, a popular comedy skit produced by the BBC, two young women, supposedly Polish, work in a coffee shop, where they endure the repeated advances and come-ons of a British man. The thing is, the women speak Russian. All this might suggest that “Poland” is an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Aral Seas, primed to invade Great Britain with ubiquitous polskie sklepy (Polish stores) run by Moldavians, Latvians, and Turks. Nowicki works hard to restore particularity to the varied elements of this fake, homogenized “Polishness”:
Countries that are on the outskirts of the world museum are just different. They still allow entertainment that was quietly banned everywhere else. And these small, dusty collections on the fringes of civilization, in rarely visited cities […] show things elsewhere yet unknown: a collection of ties, glasses, and Siamese twins. They are the essence of the country that brought them into existence, beginning to dig itself out of the mud of history.
Nowicki is writing these essays from the Swedish island of Gotland, where he is bound to his bed by illness and bad dreams. The bed is “too short, too narrow,” and generally uncomfortable. But this is where he is recovering. Like his grandfather, he travels now in his head alone — travels to get better, but also to forget “Polishness” and instead to remember, detail by detail, his particular journey. Illness produces an alternative atlas:
I intoxicated myself with Romania, year after year, forgetting — or no, bartering rather — bad deeds over good ones: like this guy at a hotel next to Gara de Nord who tried to screw me over, he was replaced by the memory later that evening when the house of a drunk in Moisei burned down, and the whole village stood watching, smoking and drinking, giving advice to the youngsters who were climbing on the roof, trying to salvage whatever they could.
He remembers who he is by accounting for what he has forgotten:
There was something Tartarish in Grandpa’s face. They said that he used to be as strong as a bull when he was young, that he could climb a ladder with a sack of grain under one arm. My parents, my uncle, they would play cards with their own grandparents too because back then everybody played — it was a fad, now I remember. What else are you going to do in the evening in the countryside, if you already went for a walk by the Vistula River, sunbathed, and waited your turn in a grocery store line for a loaf of bread. You’re done with garden chores and the family is all together. Nothing left but to play cards. But what they played, I never remember.
What could approximate Nowicki’s position vis-à-vis Polishness? A Scotsman of Welsh descent, born in New York? No, there is just no equivalent to the physical closeness and cultural distance of Eastern and Central European nations. They are like feuding cousins — so similar, and yet so antagonistic toward one another. The internal dialogue in Nowicki’s head must be maddening. This is why the essay, as a form, suits his needs so well. He argues with himself, with his predecessors: Ukrainians, Poles, Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Roma. He travels to escape them, but brings them all with him.
“You know I am Ukrainian?” His grandmother tells Nowicki as she is dying. He then explains why she had kept it a secret: “since they killed her mother, she never spoke of Ukrainians other than as dogs, murderers, huncwoty — scamps — Russian scum. She hated her nation and put a curse on it.” In another essay, Nowicki tries to shake his Slavic identity, wants nothing to do with being a Pole. He says he is sometimes attacked by Poles, abused for his darker shade of skin. “Hey gypsy,” they say to him. “You fuckin’ thief!” To others, he is an “Arab, dirty piece of shit.” But also a “fuckin’ Jew.” He is unsure of his exact heritage: “This is my inheritance from Grandmother Kopiec. But she had it easy; she had her Yardley’s face powder, scented flour to pretend she’s local. I have nothing, I’m powerless, my skin color reveals my identity.” In general, Nowicki has a problem with nationality, and especially with borders. Borders are for animals, not people. Borders are something “agricultural.” He finds it strange that people need borders: “Property, land, my country, my weeds, all of it has been properly fenced off. And when I see how solid these walls are, I can’t stop thinking about the old barbed wire, that fence against cows, not people.” He eventually says he might as well be a Turk:
I’m like those Turks in exile, racing through Europe and through the world; Turks who, no matter where they live and what documents they carry, remain Turks, and Germany will remain their European homeland forever. And it was Germany that brought them here first, and who cares if it was only meant for a little while. They acted like the Gastarbeiters of all nations of all times before, like the Italians in America, or the Chinese and the Puerto Ricans. They did what the Portuguese did, or the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Greeks, the Croats, the Bosnians, and the Albanians. They did what so many before them have done — they simply stayed. They took what was offered — a low paying job. They toiled through steam rooms and factories, sending home the little they earned; money that turned into fortunes back home.
When he travels, he may be a Turk, a Romanian, a Moldavian — like Woody Allen’s Zelig — and yet, in so many ways, he is inescapably Polish. A Polish man, who — grumpily — visits one place and then another, who hates and fears to travel, at least before he’s en route:
For me, reisefieber is not merely a foreign word, smuggled into my own language, like nachkastlik — full of melody, but redundant and outdated. No, reisefieber is a condition impossible to overcome, a stab in the heart, pain that goes away only after I commence my journey. The only medicine for the fear of travel is travel itself.
And so, his journey begins, as it does for many of us dispersed Poles. As a Polish immigrant in the United Kingdom, I felt obliged to write in English. I felt that if I didn’t write in English, my voice would be lost in translation in my own country of residence. But I also felt that, as a Polish woman, I had something to say to people in the United Kingdom, to the West. I wanted to say, I know you but you don’t know me.
Before I read Nowicki, I’d never heard the word salki. It means a room in an attic, where memorabilia is stored. Now I feel it is the salki of the world that I want to access. The British salki. The American salki. The salki of my cultural heritage. The collective but variegated salki that stretches over the borders, because memories can’t be policed. Nowicki, a Ukrainian Pole who travels the world in his mind, has opened the door.