“‘What a strange world this is,’ he said to me suddenly when the bus turned into Pulaski Street. ‘Before I’ve even had time to blink, they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit’.” – Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury
Invasion, occupation, partition: Poland’s strategic location between Germany and Russia has made it a target throughout history. In 1990, after the fall of Communism, Lech Walesa became Poland’s first popularly-elected president. In 2004, Poland was one of ten new states to join the EU. Britain’s nationalist-minded tabloids make Poles the enemy, taking away jobs and homes. Post-truth politics thrive on ignorance, breeding fear and hate. We have much to thank Poland for – not least Chopin, Copernicus, Marie Curie, Joseph Conrad, Helena Rubinstein … and Häagen-Dazs ice cream!
Swallowing Mercury brings us life according to Wiolka: a vivacious, adventurous little girl growing up on an impoverished farm in 1980s rural Poland. Her mother was summoned to start a work placement two weeks before her birth; and her father was arrested for deserting from the army.
When he returns home, her father takes over the running of the farm and, “to my grandmother’s dismay, began to introduce reforms, gradually turning our homestead into an unruly and exuberant zoo. It wasn’t just beehives and cages with goldfinches, canaries and rabbits, or a dovecote in the attic, where clumsy nestlings hatched out of delicate eggs that looked like table-tennis balls. Residents also include stuffed “hares, pheasants, martens, goshawks, buzzards and kestrels,” as he is a taxidermist.
Her grandfather, a tile-stove builder, sings old Resistance songs and folk ballads until dawn at harvest festivals, weddings and at the inn. The family is used to “living in constant semi-darkness because of the fuses blowing, or the power station introducing energy-saving measures, or gale-force winds bringing down power lines.”
Her first friend is Blacky, “who smelled of hay and milk and had a snow white map of Africa around his neck. He would come to me in the night, lie on my duvet and start purring, kneading the covers like dough under his paws. Ever since I found him up in the attic, we lived in a strange state of symbiosis. I’d carry him inside my jumper like a baby, steal cream for him from the dresser and, on Sundays, feed him chicken wings from my soup.” When he drowns in the pond trying to “pull a fish head out of a muskrat snare,” the little girl is so distraught she eats “the fringes off the throw on the sofa and some slivers of whitewash from the walls.”
Wiolka’s life revolves around the Catholic calendar and school. The Pope flies by in a helicopter. She wins a figure of Jesus in a Church raffle, and a province-wide school art competition, ‘Threats around your farm’. “I had painted a potato beetle climbing out of an empty Coca-Cola bottle. Nobody believed that I had really seen my grandfather collecting potato beetles in just such a bottle. The jury at the provincial level concluded that my drawing ‘portrayed, in a deeply metaphorical manner, the crusade of the imperialist beetle.”
She has accidents, gets ill and has chickenpox. Lecherous Dr Kwiecien makes paedo advances, “He undid his fly, moved even closer and put his penis in my hand, like a roll of modelling clay. I jumped back and kicked his leg as hard as I could.”
She is comforted by Bob Seger’s “Hey Gypsy”.
As adolescence kicks in, Wiolka and a gang of boys go “wandering around makeshift rubbish tips which the locals had started in disused limestone quarries; we would disarm old lamps and radios with a hammer and blow up deodorant cans in campfires.”
Her father gets falls seriously ill. He is only aged fifty.
Local superstitions and folklore enmeshed with religion hold fast. ‘Spiders are sacred creatures and it’s forbidden to kill them. They saved Our Lady. When the Holy Family was fleeing from Jerusalem, spiders wove such a thick web around the road that the swords of Herod’s soldiers couldn’t pierce it.’ The peasant life we learn about in the book, rooted in the land and ancient traditions, is eroded by Communism and killed off by Capitalism.
Irony of ironies! Now you are likely to find Wiolka’s granny’s buckwheat blood pudding, and her mother’s restorative carrot juice, being sold for exorbitant prices in chic health food shops like Planet Organic and Whole Foods Market catering to London’s nouveaux riches.
Swallowing Mercury is a valuable contribution towards fostering a better understanding of our world, as well as being a great read. Wioletta Greg’s image-rich limpid, poetic prose is lively and captivating. I look forward to reading more of her writing in translation.
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Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak | Portobello Books, Granta | 5 January 2017 £12.99 160 pages HB | ISBN: 9781846276071 | awarded a PEN translates award