When writers of the so-called peasant school – authors such as Wiesław Myśliwski, Edward Redliński, Julian Kawalec, or Marian Pilot – began to publish in Poland in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Polish village still existed. It was, though, a rather peculiar kind of existence – on the one hand deeply conscious of its own inevitable decline, on the other overlooked and largely absent. In a state constituted by a union of workers and peasants, in the verbal realm at least the emphasis was decidedly on the former; peasants were basically supposed to be peasants only temporarily, in a shameful kind of way, up to the moment when they’d finally put on worker’s overalls and leave their cottages to take the bus to the factory. As a consolation, the powers that be left the modernizing villages folklore: a soulless artificial mishmash of costumes, leaping, and singing, imposed from above. That may have been why the cruel realism of Redliński or Myśliwski’s narrative eloquence, his skaz drawn from the living spring of folk story-telling, came as such a shock to the literary public in Poland. They unexpectedly conjured up all that had been banished from the collective memory: centuries of feudal servitude, an almost sexual relation to the earth, a shallow veneer of religiosity superimposed on age-old fatalism and a fondness for vendettas. There was, however, one topic that this literature did not dare to raise, one which the majority of its urban readers would in fact have found unacceptable – the fact that almost all of us originate from there, from the country.
A cultural readiness to talk about this fact has emerged only among the generation of the grandchildren of the aforementioned writers. Except that it’s an entirely different kind of discussion – one that takes place over the grave. Because the Polish village is by now undeniably dead. As it happens, talking about the dead is somehow easier; still though, the deceased is often idealized. Hence recent attempts in Polish literature to mythologize the Polish village, to portray it as its own autonomous cosmos – including linguistically – to which the outside world has no real access.
This can be observed in Maciej Płaza’s writing too, but he has pursued a rather different concept in his outstanding debut. Sluggy is a collection of interwoven, possibly autobiographical stories set in the Polish provinces in the 1980’s, during the last decade of communism. Politics, however, rarely puts in an appearance here. True, the narrator’s father is interned for his trade union activism in 1982, after the imposition of martial law. But we are not given any further details; the father disappears, then one day he simply shows up again. This literary device – the narrator as an adult trying to see the past through the eyes of a child – serves to underline the (for the moment) unbroken isolation of the villages surrounding the small town of Wierzbiniec on the Vistula.
Sluggy is a warm and colourful story about a young boy growing up – the Polish title, Skoruń, a dialect word meaning a wastrel or idler, is what the nameless narrator is called by his family. Yet the most interesting characters in Płaza’s stories are the hero’s parents: his reserved, religiously-minded, timid, yet also gentle and affectionate mother; and his father, domineering and filled with anger, a megalomaniac and a workaholic with a mission. This father is an interesting sociological type: a first-generation intellectual who has returned to the country, though not in the fullest sense of the term: he has taken a job as a teacher in the nearby town. In the figure of this tireless reformer prepared to improve the world at the cost of all those in it, Płaza offers a grand metaphor for a modernization that brings both wellbeing and destruction.
The author is a theorist of literature and a professional translator; perhaps because of this he is aware that in writing, moderation works better than exaggeration. Sluggy is marked by a discreet stylization of language that reminds us of the separateness of the literary world without creating an insurmountable barrier between it and the reader; it refrains from linguistic kitsch, and at the same time locates its stories in a universal context.