This collection of short stories by Mariusz Sieniewicz is a querulous, provocative book that offers the reader a good many challenges, but also guarantees him plenty of enjoyment. In these stories, Sieniewicz, who is from Olsztyn, raises the highly sensitive topic of being different, alien and excluded. In the title story, which is the best in the entire book, he uses the convention of a dream to tell the story of a metamorphosis that happens in a supermarket, changing a young man into a Jewish woman, and the subsequent persecution of this woman as she is treated like a commodity. Here Sieniewicz entangles some traumas from the past and some present-day fears into one single, painful knot. Apart from the Jewish woman, the book features a whole gallery of more or less persecuted and marginalized misfits, such as the vagrant-performers, or Filip Piszczajko, the “Poor man’s Banderas” in “A pain in the rear from ear to ear”.
What’s important and exceptional in recent times is that in his new stories Sieniewicz resolutely departs from the realist convention that is prevalent in Polish fiction, in favour of parody. In fact, every single story starts with a normal, realistic scene, but soon moves on to some strange and disturbing images. The dominant force behind We Don’t Serve Jewish Women is an unbridled imagination, at times absurd and perverse, and at others sinister. Sieniewicz has an aptitude for creating strange, uncanny situations and themes that is rare among Polish writers, and he also knows how to build a coherent, consecutive narrative out of them, so the end product is excellent.
In We Don’t Serve Jewish Women Sieniewicz ruthlessly vivisects the collective Polish consciousness, and also his own – it’s a painful, but cathartic procedure, and one that takes a lot of courage. If only to familiarise yourself with the work of a truly uncompromising writer, this book is well worth reading.
- Robert Ostaszewski
If you keep going back, keep trying to get there in such unfavourable conditions, maybe you’d better not get there, better not fall asleep. Better turn back, because you can easily get recruited for something dodgy, when a whole cataclysm of scandal erupts, defying reality and logic. However, if you go back and lie down to sleep, it’s already too late. IT’s got you cornered! You become a bad actor performing for a nocturnal aggressor. You become an epileptic version of your own ego with a spoonful of sense between your teeth to protect you from going downhill. The jokes are over. You’re balancing on the border of consciousness, walking barefoot along a narrow knife edge that’s shredding the safe zone between sleeping and waking. The dwarf watches from the sidelines, disloyally declaring: “It’s no concern of mine. It’s nothing to do with me.”
A moment’s confusion and bang! it starts again from replay, as if the dream thinks you’re a thicko and knows it has to keep pressing home this obsessive theme like putty into a draughty window, for as long as it takes until you fully understand, to the very last detail. It hasn’t got much sympathy. Your many-armed sub-conscious reaches for the well-worn hand-holds, creates another nightmare story and throws it into your head, stirring it as if turning an enormous mangle. And so… And so you’re standing in a queue at the supermarket. You’ve got some mineral water, two Chinese soups and some olive oil soap. The familiar check-out assistant with the large mole on her neck is putting some money in the till, handing over the change and some throwaway shopping bags. All quite normal, nothing unusual. You get to the till quite quickly and chuck the contents of your basket onto the conveyor belt, admiring for the nth time the impressive size of the mole. From a distance it looks like a cow pat, and close up it’s like a tarantula stuck to her neck… She only has to tot up how many zlotys you owe for the water, soap and soups, but instead she gives you a look of disgust and raises her hand in a decidedly negative gesture. “We don’t serve Jewish women!” she barks, shutting the till drawer with a crash. And your moth opens like an empty drawer. What cultural and genetic absurdity! What on earth do you mean, you wart-ridden hag?! You look round at the others, seeking affirmation that the old bag with the mole has got a screw loose, but the “others” are casting equally malevolent glances at you. What’s wrong, dammit?! You, a Jewish woman?… Instinctively you peek at your arm and… you break into a sweat, the blood starts thumping in your head, roaring and pounding in your veins… There’s a Jewish star on your sleeve … For fuck’s sake, it’s not possible! You take another look in complete horror… and there’s a star of Zion on your sleeve! Two triangles drawn in black, no more nor less! They’re linked together bottom and top, top and bottom, neatly ranged against a dirty yellow background… As if that weren’t enough, just above the star on the right there’s a little R in a circle to confirm authenticity. As if the Great Consortium of Race were guarding its property, and you, as you stand among the nice, shiny goods, had become part of it, a branded piece of livestock. What a shambles! “Sod off, you Yid!” growls a git in a red vest and flip-flops. “Come on, sod off now!” he repeats, painfully elbowing you out of the way. One of those fine specimens of a nationalist-chauvinist pig that should really be hauled round the world in a cage, raking in the dough for tickets with no discounts. The news travels like lightning, and you can hear an excited voice coming from the loudspeakers: “Attention! Attention! There’s a Jewess in the store! Pre-special offer viewing at till number one! Roll up! A Jewess at till number one!” People are abandoning their baskets and trolleys and hurrying there out of a curiosity that at once gives way to anger. “Attention! Attention! There’s a Jewess in the store!”, the announcer’s shrill voice rings round the building. “At till number one! At till number one!” The folks stand round in a semi-circle facing you. They jostle each other and stick their heads in front of each other to get the best view. For the time being they do nothing, just stare. They’re waiting for a rash move. And they longer they wait, the quicker it gets through to you that you’re a Jewess. A Jewess! Nothing can change that – this time a nightmare really is a nightmare. Just a moment longer and your throat will let out a howl. You stand facing them helplessly, as if in front of the Wailing Wall, beating at the severe, cracked wall of cold eyes with your fear. Your identity has so unexpectedly landed you on a mine of otherness. The Alien has caught up with you. You’ve been carrying it inside you for years, and it’s been feeding off you like a parasite, only to show its ugly features now! The Great Consortia of Race and Gender have struck a deal, the level of profits and losses has equalised on the ranking list. The Great Consortium of Poles and the Great Consortium of Males have discovered your inability to cope with the demands of your species and have put you up for auction, and the Jew-woman has got you for a song – no one even looked at your teeth! But where are you-the-man, you-the-Pole and your little dwarf, so benign in this situation? Where are all the chicks, the babes and the honeys? Where’s “who are you?”, “what’s your sign?”, “where are you from?”. The past can’t just have burst like a soap bubble! My love is sincere, it really is! I believe in Poland, a country won at the cost of blood! You feel like the victim of a racist conspiracy. You don’t know how it has come about that you, a person of the male, Polish sex, of Polish citizenship and origin, whose grandparents herded geese by the Wilia, have suddenly become contaminated with the female gender and the Jewish race. It’s simply not worth saying, mentioning or reminding them. Seventy Polish years lived by grandma and grandpa, fifty Polish years lived by mother and father, aunts, uncles and relatives – all just for you to turn out Different?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones