Angelika Kuźniak

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Angelika Kuźniak (born 1974) is a journalist and reporter, three times a winner of the Grand Press award. In 2009 she published a well-received volume of reportage entitled Marlene, which is about Marlene Dietrich’s final years.

 

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Papusza

 

papusza

 

 

The story of Bronisława (or Bronka) Wajs, known as Papusza, is branded with exotic otherness. Born in the early twentieth century, this Gypsy poet has always been a curiosity from the world of folklore, a bit like the ‘bearded lady’, a fascinating figure from the freak show, but has she ever been taken seriously? Is she a ‘Gypsy poet’, or just a poet? This book clearly shows what influences shaped Papusza – of course the world of the gypsy camp was raw material for her, but so was popular literature.

‘Papusza’ means ‘dolly’, an unofficial name born from the little girl’s prettiness (by using the name Papusza instead of Bronka, Kuźniak not only gives her a voice, but also releases her into the world of her ‘own’ tradition). But here the name ‘Papusza’ has more important significance; gender, social origin and family relations caused her to become a ‘dolly’ in a more dramatic, literal sense, as she was passed from hand to hand, and reacted to instructions in an almost robotic way.

This book gives us insight into the history of a culturally excluded group which was exterminated, but the memory of whose genocide has faded – for who on earth was going to record it? In her statements about the Holocaust, as cited by Kuźniak, Papusza stresses the division between ‘normal life’ and the war, which forced people to function outside their principles. The unique state of living among corpses and with corpses allowed Wajs’s camp to survive. As Papusza says: ‘If the Gypsies had retained their entire memory they’d have died of distress.’ Papusza did remember. Sometimes not remembering is the price to pay for survival.

In Papusza, Angelika Kuźniak presents a multiple portrait: of a person, a poet, a reader, a daughter, mother, wife, artist, and lover. The figure of Papusza shimmers, sparkles, and never ceases to amaze. She is ‘stupid’ in the eyes of her greedy, cruel husband, ‘a traitor’ in the eyes of the Gypsy community, ‘a great, primitive, innate talent’ in the eyes of the Polish poets, and in her own eyes she is helpless and weak, furious and desperate. This account of an ‘accursed poet’, who prompted great pride as well as great shame, and an ocean of pain, this book about a superhumanly strong person may be the start of a longer conversation. Above all, it might give an opportunity to Papusza’s own Songs to be seen as more than just exotic gems, but as poetry testifying to her life and times.

 

Anna Marchewka

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One Comment

  1. I like the multiple time-effect, accomplished with parentheses, and later through the memories recalled by the protagonist.

    I generally enjoy such a plainly told narrative, no fuss about the language, although I imagine this to be a roughish draft, with an anticipated polish to be put on the bare boards of the text. And a puzzle or two to sort out: “In a room that had a tiled stove instead of a floor, which was heated red-hot.” My pedantry (as usual), but a room without a floor was what I saw as I read through it. And I’m imagining it did have, and of the kind that’s normally tiled; but this one isn’t, which left me wondering what kind of tiling such floors normally had… and didn’t help me “see” the stove. And presumably the floor wasn’t heated red-hot, although it reads to me like that. – A distraction in my reading, anyway.

    The anomalies in my reading of this excerpt are:

    “A woman is unclean from the waist downwards. Whatever she touches, even with just the hem of her skirt, becomes unclean as well…” (1); and: “They didn’t understand the need to learn for your own sake…” (4) The former is of cultural interest, but might be more coherently read into the narrated world if it arises rather more naturally at some point within the story. The second case ought not to need saying?

    The subject matter matters to me, and the “familiar” tone of the mixing of the voices creates a literary interest that would lead me to read on.

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