From classics such as the sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem, the celebrated reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk, to contemporary queer and feminist writers, see our picks of the Polish novels and non-fiction writings that have charted new boundaries and challenged literary norms.
Following her 2018 International Booker Prize win, Olga Tokarczuk ran the risk of being labelled a “difficult” writer, her fragmentary, meandering Flights often mingling archival research with pure divination. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, published in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s sparkingly witty translation, takes a wrecking ball to this rarefied image.
Set on the windswept uplands between Poland and the Czech Republic, this pacy “feminist eco-thriller” follows Janina Duszejko, a retired engineer and William Blake quoter extraordinaire, as she sets about solving a fittingly esoteric murder mystery. As local hunters start dying undignified deaths, Duszejko — aided by her astrology charts and indignant sense of natural justice — insists that the region’s animals are plotting revenge.
Despite Duszejko’s comic appeal — her perorations on Blake, entomology, and indigestion will send forth gales of laughter — she clearly is a just woman in a broken world, and Tokarczuk’s vehicle for castigating the Polish patriarchy’s excesses. The book’s moral urgency is not fully revealed until its final chapters, and even then, Drive Your Plow never slides into the didactic. With a sly smile and a wink, it questions society’s routine dismissal of the elderly Duszejko, while raising a fervent cry for living more kindly among man’s fellow creatures.
Marta Frej’s graphic history book Dromedaries is an incendiary, gripping memorialisation of the women who fought within the Polish Socialist Party’s paramilitary units against Russia in the early 1890s. With explosives strapped to their bodies under heavy petticoat layers, these women evaded the authorities and played a crucial but often forgotten role in the resistance. Because of the ammunition they carried, they were covertly referred to as Dromaderki, or dromedaries, a type of Arabian camel that transported goods. Unfortunately, many of these women’s names and stories have been lost over the past century, leaving us with little more than this conspiratorial nickname. With dark humour, intelligence, and a flamboyant comicbook style, Frej’s first solo publication is a distinctly feminist book shining a light on women who have been left out of official histories — a radical take on the history of Polish independence and armed struggle.
Published in 2005 to instant acclaim and notoriety, Michał Witkowski’s effusive, big-hearted “field atlas of Polish queens” remains a mainstay of Polish LGBTQ literature. It is also a controversial classic in more ways than one. Far from revelling in the freedoms brought by Poland’s post-1989 capitalist reinvention, Witkowski decries the “plastic”, consumerist nature of contemporary gay culture. He turns instead to the “pre-emancipatory” pleasures of dingy nudist beaches by the Baltic Sea, chasing fresh-faced Soviet soldiers (stationed in Communist Poland as part of a “brotherly” security operation) and snatching solidarity from the jaws of squalor.
In interviews, Witkowski pleads a lack of interest in writing about “middle-class, educated gay men (…) who wear glasses and woolly jumpers” and display an unhealthy preoccupation with civil rights and monogamy. Unsurprisingly, Lovetown is anything but assimilationist. Opening with a portrait of two old-timer “flaming queens”, Patricia and Lucretia, it spins one bawdy, absurd tale after another, its lively, ever-expanding cast probing the joys and sorrows of living at society’s margins. Witkowski’s writing likewise pushes the boundaries of the Polish language, as his characters’ flights of self-expression twist the narrative into dizzying new shapes.
Hovering above this lovable inferno is the spirit of Witold Gombrowicz, grand old Polish modernist and merciless critic of the hypocrisies of convention. While Witkowski has inherited his mordant wit and anarchic sensibilities, Lovetown marked the arrival of a wholly original new talent.
The translator of In Red describes the book as “very far from anything that we would think of in normal parlance as a novel.” Nike Award winner Magdalena Tulli creates a surreal and uncanny cautionary tale of a fictional Polish town called Stitchings and its equally unnerving residents. In ethereal, spellbinding prose, she distorts the roots of the novel — its setting, characters, time, and plot — into something nearly unrecognisable. The town is very cold in one part of the book, yet practically tropical in another; it is plagued by endless night, then endless day. A bullet fired in the early stages unexpectedly returns to assassinate its victim 20 pages later, making several trips around the globe beforehand. It is a deeply pleasurable read, brimming with dreamlike and elegiac imagery. Tulli plays with the very idea of what a novel is, drawing the reader into an irresistible, illogical world.
The lives and losses of Britain’s “new” Polish diaspora — the economic migrants and students arriving since the early 2000s — remain almost wholly uncharted fictional territory. One writer bucking the trend is London-based A M Bakalar, whose 2012 debut Madame Mephisto serves up a rollicking tale of sex, drugs, and questionable self-reinvention.
Bakalar’s heroine Magda is a woman on the make: stifled by familial expectations and the conservatism of her native village, she turns to drug-dealing amid the bright lights of Warsaw, all the while keeping her eyes on a larger prize. Following her move to London, Magda works a series of cover jobs in the City, chafing against the strictures of white-collar English propriety as she builds up her criminal empire. She is also a deliciously unreliable narrator. The novel begins with her shut in a room with an unidentified Polish relative — she claims to have come back for a family funeral — as she tells her story, alternately pleading for help and plying her companion with promises of prosperity.
Madame Mephisto is not without its faults: Magda’s rants against hollow social pieties can feel overly descriptive, and her narrative voice sometimes falters as she chases punchline after punchline. Nevertheless, the book’s raw energy and avowed anti-sentimentalism carry real power. Rarely have underdogs going off the rails been so slyly endearing.
Wojciech Jagielski’s All Lara’s Wars does away with the usual trappings of war reportage: it is without dates and timelines or names of major commanders; geographical information is vague, gestural. The external does not pique Jagielski’s journalistic antennae; rather, he wants to know what war is like, what it tastes of to an individual far away from the battlefield but caught in its terrifying maw. His subject is Lara, a Georgian-Chechen Kist whose two radicalised sons have fled to Syria. “War was like a curse that had dogged her at every step, constantly reminding her of its presence and steadily robbing her of everything she loved or valued,” writes Jagielski. Lara tells Jagielski of her attempts to rescue them — in other words, her war — in a McDonald’s in Tbilisi. It is a peculiar setting, but would anywhere be better for a woman who has lost everything?
A pulsating stream of radiation is detected on Earth, which seems to be conveying a message — some kind of interstellar code. A secret project dubbed His Master’s Voice is quickly established under heavy military surveillance in the American desert to decode the transmission. The project employs a range of scientists, from physicists to psychoanalysts, who put forth diverse and entirely unprovable hypotheses: is it the key to a technological gift? Or perhaps a deadly weapon? They squabble and conspire, each vying for earthly influence and glory, eventually turning to popular science fiction for new leads.
Poland’s most prominent science fiction writer, Stanisław Lem, spent a great part of his career questioning the legitimacy of the genre, and frequently criticised American science fiction, which he held to be unimaginative and “poorly thought out”. Published in 1968, at the height of the Space Race between the USSR and the USA, His Master’s Voice is a densely philosophical book on the ethics of military-sponsored research and a radical approach to the classic “message from space” theme. With characteristic clarity and curiosity, Lem questions whether space exploration itself is fundamentally flawed, as it is in our nature to project human desires and ideas onto any object of study.
Having reported from the furthest corners of the Soviet Union, Africa, and Latin America, Kapuscinski is considered Poland’s greatest reporter of the 20th century. He is a less well-known, but equally talented, writer of allegory. Whereas in The Emperor, Kapuscinski recounts the rise, 44-year reign and subsequent fall of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, many read it on publication in Poland in 1978 as a cautionary tale for Poland’s communist leader, Edward Gierek, who was removed from office two years later. Kapuscinski depicts Selassie’s world through the testimony of remarkable — almost fantastical — characters, most memorably the “cuckoo” who must bow to the Emperor with each passing hour. Told from the hushed corridors of Haile Selassie’s paranoically fortified palace, The Emperor is an expansive meditation of how power accumulates, sustains, and ultimately destroys itself.
At their worst, family sagas can be an exercise in self-indulgence, as cosseted aristocratic types lament lost lives of lurid opulence. Żanna Słoniowska’s affecting portrayal of four generations of Lvivian women steers well clear of the danger. The House with the Stained-Glass Window charts the horrors and heartbreaks of Poland and Ukraine’s long 20th century, as experienced by its fallible, sometimes erratic, always complex heroines.
On the surface, the story has all the trappings of high melodrama. (One of the women is a lapsed opera singer crushed by a love affair gone sour. Another becomes a martyr for Ukrainian independence after being hit by a stray bullet at a protest.) Yet it is also deeply rooted in the Lvivian present: the young narrator is as clear-eyed about the twists and turns of Ukrainian politics as she is about her own “nonsensical” dalliance with her glamorous mother’s old admirer. Precocious and world-weary, her voice is enlivened by a quiet warmth and a keen sense of the absurd.
The women’s long-suffering city — variously referenced as Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, and Lviv, as dictated by shifting borders and shifting political winds — comes to life as a fifth major character, rattled in turn by street clashes and encroaching gentrification. The history here is firmly on a human scale: touching, often tragic, sometimes raising hopes of redemption.