Ignacy Karpowicz

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Photo Credit: © Piotr Miazga/The Polish Book Institute.

Ignacy Karpowicz (born 1976) is a novelist, travel writer and translator. His first novel, Uncool , was published in 2006, followed by, The Miracle (2007), and a travel book about Ethiopia, The Emperor’s (and the Bee’s) New Flower (2007) which was nominated for the Passport prize awarded by the weekly Polityka. Further novels include Gestures, Balladynas and Romances, Fishbones, and now Sonia.

Featured reading group title:

Sońka (Sonia)

sonka

 

This is a masterfully constructed, contrary story. It starts like a fairy tale, not just because it opens with the phrase “Once upon a time…”, immediately followed by some animals that talk (a cat and a dog). The main reason is that it’s about the incredible encounter of two fairy-tale characters: an old woman whose owns nothing but a cow, and a handsome prince, who owns a luxury Mercedes. As bad luck would have it, this fabulous vehicle has broken down in the middle of nowhere, “at the end of the world”, in other words, on the Polish-Belarusian border, near a village called Słuczanka, where – and this may be highly relevant – Ignacy Karpowicz spent his childhood. The old woman invites the prince into her poor cottage, offers him milk straight from the cow and tells him her life story. Her name is Sonia, and the man listening is called Igor, a trendy theatre director from Warsaw who’s been corrupted by success. Igor rapidly realizes that Sonia’s fortunes are ideal material for a moving play about great love and even greater suffering, set within the real events of the Nazi occupation. At this moment the reader loses his or her bearings; s/he doesn’t know if s/he is dealing with a shocking story taken straight from real life, or a stage script that’s been edited over and over again, cranked up for theatrical effect, essentially a kitsch “product” manufactured by the crafty Igor, who knows how to win the hearts of the Warsaw public.
Sonia hasn’t had an easy life – she grew up with no mother, beaten and raped by her father, knocked about by her brothers, and chained to the housework like an animal. Nothing but blood, sweat and tears – until June 1941, when the German army came marching through the village on its journey east. Just one glance, and she instantly fell in love with Joachim, a handsome SS officer. And her feelings were reciprocated. For two weeks the lovers meet each night, and love gives Sońka wings, tearing her away from life in the strict sense of the word (all this time she never eats or sleeps, as if she’s in a supernatural sphere). The price of this transgression will be high, but for the time being the sentence is postponed: now pregnant, Sonia gets married to a young man from the neighbourhood, and gives birth to a son, who is the result of her liaison with Joachim. But about a year later she loses everyone in her immediate circle: the cruel father, the insensitive brothers, her devoted husband, the child, and finally her SS-man lover. From then on she lives alone, branded by the village community as a traitor, a whore and a witch, with domestic animals as her only friends.
Karpowicz has had the excellent idea of constantly confronting his main characters with things that are foreign to them and experiences that cannot be expressed. Sonia speaks in Belarusian, and Igor translates her story, not just into Polish, but into the language of the engagé theatre (for Warsaw snobs) as well. In her conversations with Joachim, Sonia is – as we read it – totally sincere, because she doesn’t know German, and he doesn’t know Belarusian, which means that neither of them has to tell lies. Karpowicz “plays out” this situation brilliantly: while she’s listening to the SS-man’s account of exterminating the local Jews, Sonia is fantasizing about their future happiness, imagining an idyll at the side of her beloved, while he, as he cuddles up to her breasts and strokes her hair, can give vent to the nightmares tormenting him. He tells her about the bestial acts in which he has been participating, while she listens and doesn’t listen all at once. It’s an excellent idea. It’s also quite original to include a semi-autobiographical figure in the story. It turns out that Igor is actually called Ignacy, and like Sonia, he comes from the Podlasie area, but has turned his back on his roots and on the Orthodox faith; having killed off his own rural identity, he has been entirely possessed by the idea of an international career. But typically for Karpowicz, all this is placed in inverted commas, tinged with irony and self-irony, streaked with a fear of being too straightforward, artless or sentimental. As a result we trust Sonia, but at the same time we approach it with suspicion – and that’s exactly what Ignacy Karpowicz wants us to do.

Dariusz Nowacki

 

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