When we see “industrial buildings, factories, ports, smokestacks” on the horizon, that means we’ve reached “Żerań Island,” where the Block Dwellers live. Jolanta, the title character of Sylwia Chutnik’s new novel, is a member of this tribe. Her life can be described in a few sentences: she lives in Warsaw’s Żerań district, she finishes sewing school, she gets pregnant, she gets married… nothing but normal. But is it really? We need only hear the mantra she repeats, “Don’t speak, don’t trust, don’t feel,” to see that it’s not like that at all.
Sylwia Chutnik, a laureate of the Paszport Polityki Award, has been steadily following her own writer’s path since the fascinating Pocket Atlas for Women. She takes an interest in the weaker members of society, the excluded, the ones hurt by fate – those more likely to appear on an intervention television show than breakfast TV. In her new novel, Jolanta, Chutnik gives them a voice again. And as always, she’s very good at it.
Jolanta is a bitter-sweet read that is both tender and merciless. Sylwia Chutnik tries to keep close to her characters, and instead of using irony that is so much in vogue these days, she chooses to be compassionate. She wants to understand her characters, not ridicule them. Thus, ono the one hand, we get a sympathetic portrait of the main protagonist, her biography sketched out in contrast to the success narratives so dominant in contemporary discourse; on the other hand, we also get a story of countless people ground up by the gears of Poland’s transformation – in short, we have a story about Poland itself, changing day to day, throwing overboard those who can’t keep up with the pace of change.
It is worth noting that, once again, this is Poland seen from the perspective of Warsaw – a city that is an ever-present character in Chutnik’s prose and her constant inspiration. Looking sentimentally at the prefab housing blocks of the 80s, closely observing the arrival of the new, the author of Cwaniary writes about loneliness, helplessness, maladjustment, and emotional crises. Along with her heroine, she travels the road of Poland’s transformation and its first lessons in capitalism. From the housing enclaves of communist-era Poland, marked with a kind of innocence, where children played on hanging bars, to adolescence in times of “bills, shopping and lack of perspectives,” to the total chaos and lawlessness of the 90s. Economic changes (“Thousands of zlotys, inflation changed them into meaningless paper”) go hand in hand with social transformation and changes in mentality. First Kashpirovsky tries to heal the Poles (“You see how he works, what is a miracle, this is the work of God!”), and later come the precursors to the era of women’s magazines.
Unfortunately, even Kashpirovsky himself can’t help Jolanta’s problems. Her traumas, nurtured for years, can’t be healed. Her sadness, connected with her parents’ divorce, the difficult experiences of growing up, and the feeling of being completely unprepared for the fast-moving and increasingly alien world stubbornly persist in Jolanta, refusing to be exorcised by any popular buzzwords or any products that are stocked more and more generously on store shelves. Jolanta doesn’t know how to be good at anything – not in the role of a wife (although her husband is a decent man), or a mother or a daughter. “How much can a person take?” she whispers to herself. “After all, these times were promised to be good, it was finally supposed to be good.” In the meantime, it turns out that the abundance of goods at the bazaar isn’t for everyone – for people like Jola, a better life is still just a dream.
- Patrycja Pustkowiak
Translated by Paulina Bożek
 Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky is a Russian psychotherapist of Ukrainian origin, hypnotist and a controversial psychic healer who enjoyed great popularity in the Soviet Union.