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Rafał Wojasiński: Olanda (Olanda)

A casual reading of this book might suggest that it is about nothing much but as we have known at least since the days of Flaubert, there are some very good books about nothing much. This is one of them.

It consists of two longer short stories, a few shorter short stories and a radio play,all seemingly set in a remote part of Poland and peopled with characters who have not got much going on in their lives and probably never had. They are a mixture of local philosophers and the elderly, many of them for whom life has passed them by but, somehow, they still keep going.

Our first narrator, of the eponymous Olanda story, is a case in point. He has performed a number of menial jobs in his life – he lists them all – but seems to have more or less enjoyed them all. Indeed, he was employed emptying sumps but enjoyed it, despite the fact that, as he says, he smelled of human excrement. He enjoyed being the cleaner at the school, as, by the time he got to the school, there was nobody there. He would walk out and look at the abandoned houses, those where people had died and those abandoned by the German who had lived here till 1945.

His start in life was most peculiar. As soon as I was born, I died. Apparently, when he was born the doctors thought he was dead so his father put him in a suitcase and carried him home on the train. When he got home, the child was still alive. His parents died when he was young and he lived with his grandmother.

He sets the tone for the later stories. Firstly as he, like most of the others, is elderly (sixty-two), death stalks his story. He dreamt all his life that he was in the cemetery in the village where his family comes from. His parents died, his grandfather died and even he died as soon as he was born. Like the others, he does not seem to particularly fear death but takes it in his stride.

He is lonely or, perhaps, more accurately, solitary. A person can go loopy from the fact of being a human. Man is insane with his solitary existence. He now works for Olanda who runs a shop and he seems to be very much attracted to her but this attraction does not seem to be reciprocated but, as we see the story only from his side, we do not know what she thinks.

The war sort of hovers in the background as a memory as it does for the others. Our narrator mentions the nearby death camps as well as the fact that it seems that this part of Poland was probably the part of Poland that was actually part of Germany till 1945 and which Poland got in compensation for the Russians stealing their Eastern territory.

God (though not much religion) also makes the occasional appearance. He is treated more like some relatively benign (though not always) distant feudal lord or political leader. How was it that God, in creating man, also created Nike, Adidas and Wrangler? and Does God have choice? In other words, God can be challenged and criticised (from afar) but nothing much is going to change.

Above all, our narrator seems detached from the world. I don’t know what life is but I am holding onto it and All of us have to just stand here like flowers, like foxes or goats or old dogs freezing in the winter with no roof over their head, no owner. There is a sense that the world is going on but he is struggling to keep up with it but, ultimately, it does not really matter whether he does or does not.

He observes others and like all people who are at the bottom of the pile, there is always someone he can look down on. He mentions his great-grandfather who lost his wife at cards. There is Basia, a fat, ugly young woman, whom no-one wants to touch, not even she herself, who goes to the Chinese bar opposite Olanda’s shop, orders a coke or a beer and always says that Marek will pay for it. There is Waldek who has a sick son Szymon who makes a speech where he states Stupid is always proven true in life and concludes with moaning and whining says it all about man. He talks to these people, visits them but seems (somewhat) superior to them. There is a way out. The secret of survival is his narrating the world to himself. Once you stop you get disappointed, he states. He does not stop.

Other stories include the widow of Stasiu, the sexton – we never learn her name – who states I like sadness. Sometimes I even think that because of sadness I understand more and appreciate more all there is in the world and who criticises her late husband. Like most of the spouses in this book, alive and dead, the couple were distant, even when living together and sleeping together.

The other longer story is about Stanisław Hiacynt, the gravedigger. He too is married but his wife seems distant from him, even though they share a bed. Death is, of course, omnipresent for him. I am a witness to the progressive extinction of a species (the species being humans) and Life is an event. Death is nothing at all. Like the others, death and his poverty are things he takes for granted. All he wants is to bury himself and even give his own eulogy at the graveside.

The final story is a radio play and features four characters: an unnamed shopkeeper (actually a bar owner), Alinka, an elderly woman with a speech impediment, clearly going senile but still quite capable of holding her own, a politician and Romek, who comes later. We soon work out that the shopkeeper is Olanda and Romek the unnamed narrator of the first story.

The politician was on his way to a political rally and his car has broken down so he is awaiting rescue (which never comes). He talks the way you would expect a politician to talk. I stopped in here to have a nice talk with some simple folk. Real people. The kind that are the truth, the hope of this country, of the whole world.

Gradually they break him down, not consciously or deliberately but just by being themselves. You people don’t get it, you live kinda like animals. Without consciousness and while we cannot agree with him, as we have got to know them better and we know that ordinary people they may be, they are still individuals with their own minds, their own views and their own world, we can understand why he thinks the way he does. Quite simply, he does not get them. I’ve never been able to understand people like you. People who don’t want anything, don’t dream, don’t develop their talents. I’ve never been able to understand people lacking character

However, they are stronger than him. They know what they are and who they are and they are firmly rooted in their way of life. He is just a politician trying to win the votes of the idiots, cretins, dopes, perverts, sex maniacs, drunks, sadists he has to meet. But here, in this little village, he has met his match. He will become one of them.

Nothing much happens in this village but what does happen, what makes this such a fascinating work, happens inside their heads. This divine head of mine has exposed itself to so many thousands of galaxies Romek comments and inside the heads of these people, there are as many worlds and more as in any novel with lots of action and lots of plot. Wojasiński has written a work which must surely become a classic of Polish literature.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Nisza
First English translation 2020 by Glagoslav
Translated by Charles S Kraszewski