Wioletta Greg : Guguły (Swallowing Mercury)
Greg is primarily a poet and this clearly shows in this book which can best be described as a poetic novel. It tells the story of a Polish girl called Wiola (and several variants of that name) growing up in Hektary, a village in southern Poland, in the 1970s and 1980s. We learn early on that her father is in prison for desertion from the army. Her mother was punished too, sent to make paving slabs to create new squares in front of office buildings, schools and health centres. Her waters break while she is working and Wiola is born.
Some time later a thin man with curly hair and a little moustache appears – her father. He cried the whole day when he saw his daughter and only stopped crying when the football started.
Wiola can be somewhat wilful. We see this early on when she smuggles in a cat – Blacky – and sleeps with it. The cat later drowns. There is a lot that is transient in Wiola’s life. However, as she is somewhat religious, she asks Jesus to resurrect the cat. He does not. Her religion may not be entirely wholehearted. She is given money to put in the collection and invariably spends it on ice-cream.
Religion is very important to this community despite the fact that they live under a communist regime. Many of the people and particularly the women are religious. They attend church regularly and meet to pray. When the Pope is rumoured to be coming, the women make a lot of bunting. It is torn down by the authorities and the Pope travels by helicopter instead. It is not only strict Catholicism that they follow, but we also see several examples of old-fashioned superstition, again mainly practised by the women.
Wiola’s father is not religious. His favourite hobby is stuffing dead animals, which is messy. He claims that he does it because of his gypsy blood. He likes animals, dead and alive. When he tries to make changes to the farm, it involves gradually turning our homestead into an unruly and exuberant zoo, including bringing in a Tatra sheepdog.
But most things go wrong for most of the people. Wiola, for example, is a painter and acclaimed for her painting but it goes wrong when a schoolfriend sits on her bag and the painting is smudged. She submits it anyway. However, as it is a painting of Moscow and she seems to be criticising Moscow, there is trouble with the authorities. Later she and some friends will collect scrap metal. The group that collects the most will win a prize. Her group looks like winning but, once again, things go wrong. Even when she does win – she earlier wins a local painting contest – it does not quite turn out well, as she is sent to a course in Lubliniec but is mocked by her fellow pupils as Lubliniec is where the local mental hospital is located. Her father seems to be afflicted with similar bad luck in his activities.
Of course sex is involved. The local doctor, when examining her, puts his penis in her hand. She quite rightly screams and kicks his leg. He will not be the last person in this book to try to molest her though by the end of the book, the sex is more consensual.
The book is set in a key period of Polish history. Martial law is declared in 1983, not least because of the activities of Lech Wałęsa. However, though Poland is clearly moving towards a democracy during the course of the book, the people of Hektary and the neighbouring areas do not seem too much affected by these changes, at least as far as this book is concerned.
As mentioned above, the author is a poet and she writes this book like poet, even while telling her story of a girl growing up. Life in the village, Wiola’s observation of the world around her, both the natural world and the human world and some of the colourful characters we meet are all told with a poet’s eye. However, her stories of life in the village and the travails of a girl growing up in the village with a somewhat eccentric father and a determination to be herself all make for a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
First published 2014 by Czarne
First English translation 2017 by Portobello Books
Translated by Eliza Marciniak