#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews I’D LIKE TO SAY SORRY, BUT THERE’S NO ONE TO SAY SORRY TO by Mikołaj Grynberg

This is a real bomb of a book. In fact I think it should come with a warning on the cover, something along the lines of ‘Handle with care. Highly explosive’. It simply whacks the reader on the head and leaves him/her stunned and gasping for air.

Grynberg’s book consists of a thirty-one very short stories, mainly monologues, in which people talk to a reporter interested in the Holocaust, Jews and Jewishness – not just in an historical, but also in a contemporary context. They talk about living double lives, hiding, fear, their life in Poland, in Israel and elsewhere. Some are proud of their roots, others deny their identity, and some go as far as telling antisemitic jokes. Poles and Poland also feature heavily in the book; Poland, where Poles and Jews are so fused that one is not able to exist without the other. There are Poles who hate the Jews; there are also Poles who miss them, pine for them, for what was. There are Poles who somehow managed to combine both.

‘Please keep painting a beautiful picture of that forgotten Jewish world for us, because we miss it. Talk about those people who lived in our beautiful country, our neighbours. You can bet everybody would love to hear something about them. (…) I’m a history teacher and I always try to give my students an objective view of a situation. Regardless of the subject, I make sure historical truth is their guide. It’s the same when it comes to the Jewish issue. (…) Who helped the Russians kill our people? You did. Who ruled us after 1945? You did. Are you surprised that in ’68 we cleansed our country? There was no other way; we had to fight so our people could rule themselves. That was the final moment – any longer and we’d have become an Israeli colony. That’s the reality.’

Grynberg did indeed conduct many interviews, and he does admit to using them while writing this collection of short stories, but this book – despite its startling intimacy – is and should be treated as fictional. We can think of the factual side of it only in the sense that the attitudes presented in the book are true, but not necessarily the particular stories and characters. Or rather, the particular stories were processed in a creative way by the writer.

‘I’m a Pole with a Jew living inside him, and a Jew who doesn’t exist without that Pole. Now and then I play chess with myself and you know who wins? Sometimes one, sometimes the other.’

Everything here is written with an amazing eye for detail, with crisp conciseness. And a lot of wit. Grynberg’s pen has the sharpness of the sharpest of knives, it cuts very deep indeed. I found his unrelenting honesty, his unsparing bluntness rare and ingenious. And everything here is seasoned with a heavy sprinkling of spot-on black humour. It’s all highly refreshing, even if bitter and shocking. In fact, a shock is a welcome thing. Grynberg brings up things we would most likely prefer not to hear about, shows how surprising the memory of the second and third generation can be. Some of the stories are so stupefying that there simply has to be an element of truth in them. How could they be invented? The reality seems to far surpass the imagination.

‘The kids asked why I had such a weird last name, but before I could think of an answer, one boy said it must be German. I said yes and so I became the German boy.

I ended up having a very German evening and night. I learned first-hand what we did to them. The kids weren’t aggressive, but they were the victors. Meanwhile I was the one who’d lost the war. Since in my short life I’d already experienced being the Jew who killed Jesus, I thought maybe I was better off being a defeated German.’

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak

I’D LIKE TO SAY SORRY, BUT THERE’S NO ONE TO SAY SORRY TO

By Mikołaj Grynberg

Translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye

Published by The New Press (2021)

January 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.

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Category: January 2022Reviews

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