Archive for November, 2017

14 November 2017

My review of “Król” by Szczepan Twardoch

imagesBorn in 1979, Szczepan Twardoch is one of the most read and appreciated Polish novelists of the young generation. Beyond many stylistic and thematic qualities, his fiction deserves our attention because of the need to combat the widespread stereotype of Poland as a mono-religious country populated with people from the same ethnical and cultural background. Twardoch, who in numerous interviews identifies himself as a Silesian[1], insists on the diversity of Poles, as opposed to being a homogeneous nation of right-thinking Catholic sharing the same origin and axiomatic system. This question constitutes the heart of Twardoch’s last three novels (“Morfina”, “Drach”, “Król”), the heart that pumps life to every single cell of his fictional world and shapes the existence of the main characters, often struggling with their national identity.

Situated in the first days of WWII, “Morfina” (2012) presents a perfect example of this problem. The novel narrates a story of Konstanty, a German-Polish-Silesian inhabitant of besieged Warsaw beset by the new political reality. Under pressure of his relatives and the current situation, he needs to choose between two parts of the conflict, to give up his immature conduct and, as his wife wishes, to become a war hero.

Published in 2014, “Drach” is about members of a Silesian family whose destiny will be determined by the vicissitudes of history. In the aftermath of the post-WWI division of Europe, they will, indeed, become Poles rather by a historical accident than their own choice or a deep conviction. Written in Polish, the book contains numerous passages in German and Silesian. This linguistic hotchpotch embodies the quintessence of the local people torn between three coexisting cultures, which, paradoxically, has built their unique identity: curiously, it seems that being Silesian in the early 20th century meant having elements of both Polish and a German identity.

In Twardoch’s newest novel “Król” [The King] (2016), we travel with the author, in space and time, to pre-war Warsaw rich in its multicultural backdrop that the specificity, the colours, the sounds and the smells the writer tries, albeit a little bit too persistently, to render throughout the pages of the book. “Król” narrates a story of a Jewish boxer Jakub known for his short temper, love for women and fearless acts of valour. Just like in Twardoch’s previous novels, the main character represents an ethnic and religious minority. This thematic specificity enables the author to resurrect the microcosm of this group, which tragically disappeared as a result of the Holocaust. Because the Jewish diaspora, formerly an integral part of Polish society, still seems to be underrepresented in local fiction, Szczepan Twardoch’s endeavour to discuss this topic is, undoubtedly, praiseworthy.


Another substantial quality of the book is surely worth mentioning: the novelist openly raises the issue of the Polish anti-Semitism in the 1930s (a matter often passed over in silence in Poland). He writes about the division between the two communities and the dangerously growing marginalisation of the Jews. He narrates the everyday struggles of this minority constantly subjected to the hostility of the Poles. He evokes the ostracism of the Jewish university students forced to sit in designated places aka “the ghetto benches”. We should certainly point out this aspect of the novel, especially in the shadow of the recent attempts of the Polish authorities to erase the shameful pages of the national history.

It is however impossible not to notice some conspicuous weaknesses of the novel. Firsly, Twardoch’s style leaves a lot to be desired: it is in vain to read “Król”, if you are a lover of literary language full of rich metaphors, sophisticated epithets or subtle allusions. You might be disappointed as well if you like well-structured stories. Even though I admire Twardoch’s capacity to write breath-taking ends, his narrative technique may sometimes seem simplistic, predictable and corny. Finally, you should not expect exquisite irony, the novelist’s humour being quite stereotypical and crude.

Szczepan Twardoch has certainly a great potential to leave a permanent trace in the history of Polish literature. His ideas are often original and captivating: the novel “Morfina” is, in fact, narrated by the eponymous drug used for reducing pain, “Drach” by the land inhabited by the Silesian, the identity of the narrator in Krol is only revealed in the last part of the book. He needs, though, to concentrate more on the quality of his fiction from the first to the last page and avoid easy, Hollywood-like solutions even at the price of displeasing less-demanding readers and, thereupon, selling less books.

Text: Pawel Hladki

[1] Silesians: West Slavic inhabitants of Silesia.