Interview with Piotr Czerwinski – Justyna Daniluk
They say you are the voice of the most recent wave of Polish migration…
That voice means over two million desperados, if I correctly recall the latest statistics. They speak for themselves, with their own voices. In fact it’s more than speech, they shout, though no one seems to want to listen or is pretending not to. I only speak for some, perhaps unwittingly for others, but certainly not in the name of them all. In fact, I’m pretty sure I only speak for myself! But thank you for the compliment. Without reverting to metaphor, I think it’s quite a responsibility, to speak on behalf of others, especially in the name of a vast group of others. Also, belonging to such a group is a challenge. All my life I’ve avoided being “part” of anything like the plague. I’ve never identified with anyone and anything else, refused to make declarations, display emblems, wear ideals on my sleeve. I was afraid my independence would be lost, which is after all not to be surrendered. But it’s only since I emigrated that I finally realised that I do identify with some kind of “crowd”, that I belong to it, and that I’m actually proud of the fact, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It happened when I was watching the news on British television and heard a newsreader say something about Poles, maybe even “the Polish problem” in this part of the world, as it seems a few people are fans of this phrase. And then I understood that I am one of these Poles. One of them, one of US. This was hard, trust me, it cut me in half. Being cut in half is another thing which I’ve avoided like the plague, for as long as a I could.
In “Przebiegum Życiae” I pose the question: “Are we different? No, hell, not at all. Only our surnames are spelt different, but this means nothing, no one can pronounce them anyway, no one apart from us. We are the union of many in one, one person who’s received a collective kick up the arse…”
Therefore, if people don’t take it as an insult that I am speaking on their behalf and will refer to myself and them as the “union of many in one”, let them see it as me giving them a big pat on the back.
You took on quite a challenge, basing your novel on Adam Mickewicz’s epic poem “Dziady” – one of the most revered works in the Polish literary canon. Was it daunting?
If I said yes, I would end up sounding like a megalomaniac… but in reality this happened without being planned. With all due respect to “Dziady”, calling the two main protagonists Gustaw and Konrad seemed almost laughable for a while, cheap, too obvious and thus not ambitious or high-brow enough. Pressure came later, when the book matured and formed fully inside my head and when I saw what I had created. The trail was consciously chosen and was meant to directly correspond with the narrative thread of inner transformation, but its hidden depth is the more substantial, though this didn’t hit me for a while.
I think I got lucky in terms of time and place, right for returning to my roots and taking up various threads, which our classical scholars left for us, and even to engage in dialogue with them. After all, discussion is supposed to be the driving force behind progress.
You present your readers with a less than noble side of the Polish emigre community…
In many cases this is the only and the most visible part of it. When speaking of the herd, which effectively ruins our standing in the eyes of other nations, you end up having to deal with why sociologists have fallen in love with the phrase “the Polish problem”, which I’ve mentioned before. It’s not without good cause that Brits go to mad lengths to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, that we’ve all gone back and that there is no tangible proof that Poles exist at all and are not just a trick of the eye. Apart from hundreds of thousands of valuable individuals, these shores have been visited by thousands of shits, thanks to which one is often too ashamed to speak in Polish out in public. It’s a whole new sub-species, KurwaPole the Oddjobber, at large in the EU since 2004, bred as a cross between a beetroot bumpkin with a pair of fur-lined wellies. Its habitat is usually marshy sub-basements, in packs of seven or eight per nest, subsisting on cider, communicating with its fellow breed by means of quick punches to the head, and totally avoiding any attempts at engaging with the locals.
If on the other hand you were wondering who we are to the natives of this part of the world, that for many of them we are simply a workforce, used to work at anything which they don’t want to do themselves, and that such a mission was the motive behind opening the job markets to us, then, being honest, this is no news to anyone. To me, it’s painfully obvious. But I also know that many people in Poland, and here, resist such dark perceptions with all their might, insisting that so many of us have made it over here and all that, not grasping that individuals will never dispel the overall image. Anyway, everyone has a different definition of success, and this is what the definition of “having made it” depends upon. For one person it’s a desk job, even on the lowest rung, for someone else just having a job, and so on. Which doesn’t change the fact that the legendary Polish lecturer washing dishes is a reality, an immortal and utterly common reality.
“Przebiegum Życiae” doesn’t only show Poles abroad, but also concerns itself with individual life choices, describing the inner journey its heroes undertake…
Yes, my book is mostly concerned with transformation. This is what Konrad and Gustaw, the whole philosophical aspect of the book, are about. The theme of emigration served the story as background setting, as I think the very fact of migrating anywhere, regardless of cause, and heading off, even for a moment, to the very edges of your own existence, is an excellent opportunity to confront certain sacred precepts, your own conscience, ask oneself about the aim and meaning of life, about real values, and finally to pursue those answers.
“Przebiegum Życiae” is a novel about searching for said answers. About passion, which one can discover within, in spite of harsh realities, passion which can save us from insanity, and yet is strong enough to drive us mad. And, in the end, about passions one can share with others.
Apart from “Dziady”, you make reference to another legendary creation from the canon of world literature, “The Little Prince” – a surprising source of inspiration. Is this why your novel has been referred to as “surreal”?
It’s probably worth mentioning that before this novel, I was haunted for a long time by the idea of a guy obsessed with the need to write the second part of “The Little Prince”. This was one of my many side projects, ones I didn’t particularly treat as serious enough to develop. Only when I found myself in Ireland did I rediscover this idea anew – Dublin as a desert, on which a pilot crashes accidentally, a demoralised, morally corrupt twenty-something Pole in the role of the Little Prince, who has lost all his ideals. And I think I hit a bullseye. This absurd scenario surrounding us, our inability to escape the vicious circle of shit. Surrealism was the only answer to reality, the only sensible response. Which is why the protagonists escape into the world of cartoons, survive by listening to reggae in those dull grey Dublin surroundings, with evening rain as a permanent backdrop. But apart form all that, it is a very naturalistic book. So much so, in fact, that Gustaw’s urinary tract infection plays a key role in the narrative. Evidently realism and surrealism are not so distanced from one another. Sometimes one leads to the other, as if they where wound together in a closed circuit.
For the purposes of the book, you invented Ponglish, a blend of the English and Polish tongues. Why was the use of this linguistic hybrid so key in this novel?
Writing a book about Poles abroad would have been a sin if I hadn’t touched on the linguistic deviations, which accompany all us migrants. I think this is obvious, no matter how much we try to resist, that we become saturated with a certain vocabulary, sometimes only because we didn’t often use it in Poland, and then again in many cases precisely because back home so many English words have infected our native language on quite a large scale. This is what “Ponglish” was born out of, something the media kept going on about, on both sides of the barricades, meaning Polish and British, and specifically Irish. Poles abroad introduce foreign words into their speech, often a “Polished” version of words from so-called professional jargon – all those “taksy”, “offy”, “lanczbrejki” and so on. And this is not only the simplest of Poles, everyone is at it. I recently heard a friend say “Recession is evident in ‘retajlu’”, or that in the evening he has a “viuwing”, probably to check out a new flat. I decided to go a step further and in a more or less artistic sense render the language spoken by Poles who are all the time in the process of forgetting how to speak Polish. Forgetting your native tongue abroad was a very natural process, rather than being some snobbish gesture. It starts with words being introduced into sentences, the ones we use every day and utter automatically, starting with “I mean”, a perfect way to open a sentence, or “excuse me”, which we need to force our way onto a crowded bus, or the unfortunate “kind’a” which is easy to become infected with, especially when watching American movies. Personally, I guard language like a precious stone, but I have moments when some word escapes me and finding it isn’t all that easy. In this way I forgot how to say “top up” in Polish. I needed friends to remind me how to say it. Sometimes I have to do a double-take before I can translate something in my own head, a phrase I hadn’t used in Polish in a long time, maybe never. I suspect that, if I wasn’t extremely careful, I would end up speaking like the narrator of “Przebiegum Życiae”…
As a writer, living abroad – do you feel like an emigre, a Pole, or a citizen of the world?
Honestly speaking, it took me a long time before I could feel like a migrant. For a while, I had the sense that none of it concerned me and that, sure, immigration is talked about, but this does not refer to me, it’s not me, I’m outside of all that, walking my own sideways path. Only later, did I realise that this was far from the truth and since then I do actually feel like an emigre. Another thing is that leaving Poland seemed to me to be quite an positive process, and it came easy to me to realise that I am no longer there. It came naturally, without needing to be forced. I think Poles have it in their genes to leave the Motherland, dating back to the times of Communism, when it was obvious that it’s best to get the hell out, unless you already had it made. The times have changed, the political set up with them, and yet the underlying mechanisms are the same. A pity, because it’s a beautiful country, this Poland of ours. I try and remember it as best I can, and that’s when I end up missing her. But then again I also feel like a man of the world. All people are people of the world, only some are too afraid to believe it or simply don’t want to. If it were possible to apply for a “world passport”, and only in the bit where it says “place of origin” write in “Poland”, I would be the first to apply.
As to whether I am still Polish, of course, this is something you cannot just drop. Also, being a real Pole, of flesh and blood, not a “Polish problem”, but the “ideal” Pole who has honour and charisma and wild imagination and “let me at them” and “live for today” spirit and all that, to be such a Pole is for me an honour and unparalleled ambition. I’m not even sure if I’ll ever deserve such status.
“Przebiegum Życiae” is your second novel, “Desecration” was your first – both have met with excellent reviews. What are you working on now? Are you planning to stick to themes of migration?
In “Desecration” I dealt with issues of youth, immaturity, and in “Przebiegum Życiae” with migration and now I have no further issues to deal with, nor the desire to deal with anything new, and so my head is calm at last. It is flooded with a million ideas a second, just like it was back in my school-days days, when I wanted to write for myself and for my own pleasure alone. I still hope that ahead of me there is something which will be so huge it will surprise everyone, even me. I suspect all writers promise themselves such revelations, though if we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t have any ambitions either way.
I am now working on a new project, very raw as yet, so even if I did want to reveal some details, I wouldn’t know where to start. At the moment, it is a web of various ideas and only time will tell which one triumphs. I definitely don’t want to become enmeshed in further epic adventures about emigration – been there, done that. The concept of a wandering Pole is still close to my heart, but how many times can you cover the same ground?
In fact I’m not bothered by WHAT to write but HOW to write it. Something tells me literature has come to a standstill, because everything has already been done, same as in the world of blues playing or fashion design or anything. Simply writing about simple things is unnecessary and has no further right to exist, so if I can reach the next level and make things happen there, that’s all I expect from my literary future.