The Polka: What’s Riveting in Polish Literature by Anna Blasiak. Joanna Bator and her bears

I first encountered Joanna Bator’s writing when, just before my first trip to Japan, a very good friend gave me a copy of Bator’s The Japanese Fan (Japoński wachlarz, 2004), a non-fiction book on Japanese culture and customs. It served as a brilliant introduction and helped me understand what was going on around me on that first trip to Tokyo. This book was later followed up by another non-fiction volume about Japan, A Shark from Yoyogi Park (Rekin z parku Yoyogi, 2014), which is, as Bator said in an interview, proof of a mature love for the place where she spent four years of her life

After The Japanese Fan it took another five years for Bator, a cultural anthropologist and non-fiction writer, to become a full-blown novelist, but what a striking metamorphosis it was! Her first ‘big’ novel, Sandy Mountain (Piaskowa góra) is an absolutely thrilling, fully-hatched, very mature fiction debut. Sandy Mountain and its follow-up Cloudalia (Chmurdalia) tell a story of three generations of women living on an estate in a post-mining city in Silesia in Poland from the 1970s onwards. Both are written on an epic scale, they are, in a way, a history of changing Europe seen with a macro lens, told from a curious angle and in a one-of-a-kind language, with quirky, flesh-and-blood characters I felt were very much like people I have met and known. But more: I myself felt like one of the characters… I still remember reading those novels for the first time and the huge impression they both made on me.

After Cloudalia came Dark, Almost Night (Ciemno, prawie noc), winner of the biggest Polish literary prize, the Nike, a philosophical treatise dressed up as a crime novel sprinkled with some bits of gothic and supernatural. Next was Bitter, bitter (Gorzko, gorzko), a sweeping saga about four generations of women living in Silesia near the Czech border, a region which passed from the German into the Polish hands after the Second World War. Some reviewers compared this book to Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Mann, and I can only agree. It’s beautiful, cruel and tender at the same time, a story which cuts to the very bone. One of the main protagonists of Bitter, bitter is a dog which looks like a bear…

Bator has also published Purezento, another trip to Japan, but in a novel form this time, as well as, most recently, She-Bear Escapes (Ucieczka niedźwiedzicy), which at first reads like a collection of short stories but at some point they start coming together and interconnecting. Here, again, Bator’s meaty language is evident, as is her magical realist touch and her very special way of exploring memory, both individual and collective. A real treat, this.

Sandy Mountain was a revelation not just for me – the book has gathered many nominations and awards in Poland (and outside Poland too). It has also been translated into many languages, from German, French and Italian, to numerous Eastern European languages, as were Bator’s other books. But, mind you, not into in English. In fact, so far none of Bator’s books have been translated into English, which is an oversight I find very bewildering, to say the least, especially when in some other countries, notably in German-speaking countries, the writer has a highly visible presence and gets one significant award after another (let me mention the Usedomer International Literary Award and the Stefan Heym International Literary Award, granted every three years to an author writing socially and politically engaged fiction, as well as the International Hermann Hesse Prize.). So, please, can somebody explain it to me: What is stopping English-language publishers from picking up Bator books?

Anna Blasiak

Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer, translator and Managing Editor of the European Literature Network.

Photo of Joanna Bator by Magdalena Hueckel

Category: The Polka: What's Riveting in Polish LiteratureBlogs



  1. Amen to that, Sister! (if you don’t mind me saying:)) And I often ask myself the very same question. What strikes me in Joanna Bator’s writing is the ability to combine international themes that apply to many people living in this world with our Polish culture and history — always done incredibly gracefully!
    And my fave Purezento is an amazing fish-out-of-water novel with true healing powers.
    I’d like to think that the world is not ready yet for Joanna’s works but I believe, deeply!, that one day she’ll explode on the literary scene just like Szymborska and Tokarczuk did.
    The work has been done, we just need to get more and more eyes looking at it!

  2. I read the above and felt I immediately wanted to read them all. Such a well documented review can only mean the actual books are beautifully written and well worth reading. To come to the last paragraph and find they’re not translated into English was such a disappointment. This needs to be rectified soonest.

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