Most of us have had or will have to deal with a situation such as the one described in Wicha’s book: going through things that someone dear to us has left behind. The closer and more intimate our relationship with the departed person, the harder it is – each object seems laden with memories, and each demands to be kept as such: as the receptacle, the holder of those memories. And the fact that the memories cannot be replaced by new ones makes the objects even more precious. Throwing out anything takes such effort.
This process is part of coming to terms with a loved one’s death, which is what Wicha’s book is about: it’s the course his mother set him on.
‘“But you won’t die?” I asked her once.
“I will. Everyone dies.”
“But you won’t?”
“I will, but only when you don’t need me any more.”
I was five, and at first considered this answer satisfactory. Negotiations around death are not easy. I achieved what was possible within the current circumstances, as trade unionists say. I didn’t understand until later that this was her condition. “Only when you don’t need me any more.” Unneeded, she languished. One hundred per cent Jewish mother.’
Marcin Wicha’s book was written after the death of his mother and describes the process of going through the contents of his dead parents’ flat, taking each object, each book, each pen or pencil, each memory, in hand; reminiscing, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, saying goodbye to his mother by saying goodbye to her things. Even though this process has obvious sadness built into it, Wicha’s writing is lively and full of wit and humour, sometimes surprisingly so. Wicha’s memories of his parents are vivid and rich, and devoid of even the tiniest sprinkling of mawkishness. And thank goodness for that. I, for one, found this refreshing.
Another invigorating aspect of this book is Wicha’s honesty and directness. He writes about things that are often – especially in Poland and especially in the current political climate – swept under the carpet or shrouded in euphemisms. In his candour he follows the example of his mother, whom he calls an ‘oversensitive Semitic rhinoceros’. She always refused to hide her own Jewishness and prided herself on saying things as they were, regardless of who she was talking to.
‘She also had what respectable compatriots called “ahem”. Let me repeat: “respectable”. Less respectable ones had no difficulty with pronunciation.
There was something disconcerting about the ostentation of her features. She had the, ahem, look. The look of someone of, ahem, descent. What descent? Ahem. Upf. […]
“I’m an old Jewess now,” she said one day in 1984. In fact, she was younger then than I am today. But yes. She had ahem. Ahem for days.’
I remember reading this book for the first time, in the original Polish, two and a half years ago, while sitting on a beach in Cuba. I was constantly switching between sadness and laughter, and I couldn’t stop myself reading out loud this or that anecdote to my Polish-speaking family; the need to share was so strong, I couldn’t resist it.
Wicha writes with restraint, has a good eye and ear for language, and his prose has a beautiful rhythm. This slim book consists of vignettes sketched with a few, very precise lines, the writing never too verbose, consistently free of cliché or banality. The little scenes or memories often end suddenly and the author switches to the next one, in doing so reconstructing the way memory works. After all, our minds like to wander, go on tangents, branch out, follow side tracks …
Marta Dziurosz’s translation skilfully captures all the flavours of the original. And let me just add that it was a doubly demanding job, because the reality Wicha describes – the Poland of his parents’ times and his own childhood – is rich in time- and place-specific details; always a challenge when bringing such a story to a different language.
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
THINGS I DIDN’T THROW OUT
by Marcin Wicha
Translated from Polish by Marta Dziurosz
Published by Daunt Books (2021)
August 2021 #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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