Inga Iwasiów

Inga Iwasiów (born 1963) is a writer, literary critic, professor of literature, editor-in-chief of the bimonthly Pogranicze (“Borderlands”), and organiser of cultural and intellectual life in Szczecin where she was born and has always lived.

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Featured reading group title:

Na krótko (For A Short Time)

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Inga Iwasiów’s latest novel transports us into the near future, to a provincial city in a country which has withdrawn from the European Union and is trying to swim against the current in resisting globalisation. Some of the characters from Bambino, the first book in Iwasiów’s trilogy, reappear in this pensive novel: first and foremost amongst them is Sylwia, the Polish Studies professor, who suffers from a memory disorder and seeks temporary escape from her work. Going abroad to carry out research for her university as part of an EU project forms a pretext for examining her own life, reviewing her own experiences for indications of the direction she should follow and weighing up her life in a way that is typical of middle age. Sylwia observes the development of a regional culture in this ex-European country and slowly becomes involved in the lives of a few of the city’s residents, exchanging her hotel room for rented lodgings. A local hairdresser called Ruta also finds herself at a turning point. Just like the Polish professor and the other characters in this novel, she struggles to make a definitive decision: in Ruta’s case the decision is whether to stay in her home city, where she feels she fits in, or to emigrate to America following in the footsteps of her more enterprising husband. In the meantime she runs a small retro hairdressing salon, an unofficial meeting place and talking shop for both younger and older women, an inconsequential women’s utopia, where they discuss family issues, relationships with men and career choices. To that extent this university-focused novel (an uncommon genre in Polish literature) also examines social norms and human psychology as it focuses on the characters’ thoughts and experiences. Sylwia tries to cope with a technologically mechanised, soulless approach to life, which requires her to communicate by filling in tables and giving points, and shuts off culture and the arts into a museum zone; Ruta shies away from abandoning her home city and hairdressing salon; her brother dislikes the thought of leaving his library collections behind for the sake of making his way in America. The main characters of For A Short Time are disillusioned and weary of the deluge of information and the relentless rush of new technology: they feel torn between the flexibility and modernity of Europe and attachment to their own locality and life at a pace to which they are accustomed. Iwasiów’s novel describes attempts to escape the limitations and requirements of rationality, while at the same time warning of what awaits us just ahead. The calm tone of this novel, the sensuality in many of the episodes and the amusing and perceptive observations of day-to-day life work in perfect harmony with this vision.

Beata Kozak

One Comment

  1. Ursula Phillips says:

    Inga Iwasiów’s third novel ‘For a Short While’ follows ‘Bambino’ (2008) and ‘Towards the Sun’ (Ku słońcu, 2010), both of which are set in her home town of Szczecin, where Iwasiów (born 1963) teaches Polish philology at the University of Szczecin and is a leading Polish scholar in the fields of gender studies and feminist literary studies. The third novel draws on several characters from the earlier two, notably Tomek and Sylwia, and readers familiar with those novels will recognize them and others too, but ‘For a Short While’ is not a sequel, it stands on its own as a separate work and does not require knowledge of the others in order to be understood. Translation of the title is problematic as it has a double meaning: it means, on the one hand, ‘for a short while’ (my choice here, but open to improved suggestions…) as the main storyline hinges on Sylwia’s departure from home (Szczecin) to a neighbouring country for a short while, but also refers to her short haircut, executed in the hairdressing salon by Ruta, the other main female protagonist of the novel, a resident in the city of Sylwia’s destination. Ruta’s salon features as the place where female characters meet, discuss aspects of everyday reality and their own personal lives.

    The action takes place in the future (judging from the approximate age of Sylwia, Tomek, and other figures from the earlier books, in 2020s or early 2030s) in an imaginary country somewhere to the east of Poland, which was once part of the Soviet bloc or Soviet Union itself and where Russian is still the lingua franca, though rapidly being replaced by the global or international English of internet technology and the market economy. It is not Poland, which features separately anyway and is clearly still part of the European Union, nor is it Lithuania, Belarus or Ukraine—yet elements of the historic and ‘present-day’ socio-economic reality, as well as the native inhabitants’ personal memories, place it somewhere in this cultural zone (it is also clearly west of the Urals), or so it would seem: we learn that it was once an EU member-state but decided to quit, preferring isolation and self-governance, and reintroducing visas for foreign visitors. The discourse on whether this country should be in or out, which seems to have both advantages and disadvantages, the emphasis on local preference for ‘tradition,’ references to the hyper-bureaucracy and sometimes absurd directives emanating from the (fictional in this case) EU, are strikingly relevant in June 2014 in post-EU-election Britain… We never learn the name of the country’s language, only that no one from outside bothers to learn it. This country is not identified by name, but we are told its people like to call it ‘New Switzerland’ (it claims to combine tradition with modernity, has its own currency, and wishes to be politically neutral).

    However, it is not like Switzerland; rather it has typical features of post-communist society, yet at the same time we never learn what the current political system actually is—high politics is distant, people are more concerned about their everyday lives in this so-called post-democracy, yet it is remarkably calm, and we learn, for example, that the crime rate is extraordinarily low. Bureaucracy—no longer EU bureaucracy, but a state bureaucracy—bent on subtly enforcing its own national rules and regulations, seems to be the controlling force—as Sylwia learns to her cost on trying to park her (Polish) car on arrival (she has incompatible number plates) and when she attempts to leave the country at the end (her EU passport does not allow her to leave, because it states no specific country where she lives or is intending to leave to…). At the same time, the country and its capital city, where the novel is mostly set, are not unpleasant or particularly run-down, and many citizens are content to remain in it as it is, because it is home (‘swojsko’: homely, cosy, domesticated, snug)—like Ruta, who prefers to stay behind and run her modest hairdressing salon—than to emigrate to the States, like her former husband. To her, on balance, it seems the best of all possible worlds.
    Meanwhile, the city has many of the traditional, historic features of provincial towns and cities in this region, with its Old City (Stare Miasto) at its heart, old churches, central square or marketplace, folk art and crafts, old tenements and sleepy streets, now adorned with pleasant cafes, and surrounded further from the centre by the high-rise concrete housing estates common across the Soviet bloc.

    The atmosphere of the place is masterfully portrayed through many small details, evocative and instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the region. Tourism is the hoped-for panacea for the stagnant economy, offering affordable accommodation in the so-called ‘museum zone,’ while the whole place itself is gradually transforming into one huge museum. The country is neither a ‘utopia’ in the traditional sense, nor a ‘dystopia’ in the twentieth-century sense, but does maintain the essential generic ingredients of spatial and temporal displacement. It has, however, a convincing and quite disturbing sense of down-to-earth realism. This imaginary place of the future could be an allegory for Poland, or for the ‘western’ European Union as a whole; it is at once comfortingly intimate, snug and familiar (‘swojsko’), yet at the same time disturbing and subtly threatening.

    It is into this environment, at once curiously attractive and yet oddly disorientating and bureaucratically frustrating that Sylwia is cast in her role as a researcher for an EU-funded project on investigating and—allegedly—preserving cultural heritage. The programme is known by the acronym FLAK (Polish: fachowość, lokalność, autopsja, książka = professionalism, localism, autopsy, book) known in English (‘translated automatically, in accordance with the new trend, into local languages,’ p. 21) as PLAB. Her trip and hotel accommodation, meanwhile, are arranged by the umbrella organization ‘Odzyskiwanie’ (which I translate here as ‘Recovery’), to which she is ultimately accountable.

    Sylwia’s own position as a Polish university professor of Polish philology and literary studies becomes crucial here. Her basic task is to interview librarians and other cultural curators in the unnamed country specifically regarding Polish literary heritage (it is obvious that at some time in its past, the place had also been in the Polish cultural sphere of influence, many people still understand or speak some Polish), and then write a report to be fed back to the powerful bureaucrats overseeing the project—this in turn may have funding, and indeed survival implications for her own university department and its access to funding streams in the humanities. Put briefly, this element of the book presents through Sylwia’s experience and reactions of others in her department (Małgorzata, now head of the department, and Marek from ‘Ku słońcu’), an insightful critique into the relevance of the humanities, and specifically literary studies, to present-day universities and to society at large, thus also posing questions of public funding (one has the feeling that the ‘humanities’ are themselves rapidly moving into the ‘museum zone’)—by looking at potential ‘logical’ developments based on today’s situation, not only in Polish universities, but also ‘western’ universities in general. It is an ironic portrayal of both international and local jargon-ridden bureaucracy, in which individuals are forced to become complicit, and where, despite their suppressed anger and accusations of stupidity, they remain disturbingly passive and accepting. In this respect particularly, Iwasiów’s use of language is snappy, colourful and ironic, making use most obviously of phrases and terminology calqued from English, i.e. from the kind of ‘international’ or globalized—and rapidly becoming standardized—English of international organizations and their political objectives, but also of academic funding bodies and their discourse of social relevance, to which ‘western’ (including Polish) academic research is portrayed as being increasingly subject.

    On another level, however, this is an intensely personal book, recording detailed memories, dreams and experience, through the intimate thoughts of the main protagonists: of the Polish visitor-researcher Sylwia, her husband Tomek (a character developed throughout all three of Iwasiów’s novels), who remains at home in Szczecin—by now a well-travelled self-made businessman, who took full advantage of the neoliberal political and economic changes introduced in Poland after 1989 (dates are implied) but from whom Sylwia feels increasingly distant, and then the ‘locals’: Ruta, the owner of the hairdressing salon (likewise distanced from her former husband, Kazik, who has made a successful career for himself in the USA), her elderly cleaner Wanda (whose memory stretches back to the ‘communist’ era), and her brother Witek, who is the chief librarian Sylwia has to interview regarding the ‘Polonica’ collections, and whose private flat she ends up renting for a month (independently arranged by Ruta, when he is supposed to be flying to the USA—a lifelong dream which, however, he fails to fulfil, preferring ultimately his far-from-unpleasant daily routines). The narrative is built up from vignettes of their thoughts, largely on the micro-level: very tangible and material, often conveyed through somatic (and sexual) details.

    An important thread, however, is Sylwia’s real or imagined ‘illness,’ which has a fundamental bearing on her own decision to agree to take on the project in the first place (while her colleagues don’t want anything to do with it) and her eventual disillusionment. She is suffering from a form of memory loss, which may or may not be the result of exhaustion, and which (so her consultant tells her) is an increasingly common ailment, distinct from Alzheimer’s or dementia, not necessarily connected with ageing (Sylwia must be around fifty), and which is not depression (Sylwia herself vigorously rejects the idea of ‘depression’). She simply feels exhausted and disorientated for reasons that are not directly explained. The problem begins already in Poland (she forgets where she is in her own department, goes totally blank when lecturing to students, fails to complete an academic literary study she’s been researching for years) and then continues in the strange country, where she resides for a short while, cutting herself off gradually from any commitment to the project as well as to keeping in contact with Tomek. Writing reports for FLAK, and continuing through this international cooperation to serve her department when she no longer feels able to work on her own research, becomes a kind of substitute for ‘real’ work, even a kind of escape. The illness itself is integral to the concept of for-a-short-while-ness, of temporality, of life lived only in the grey present, with low levels of energy. Having originally come for a short while to conduct research for the project, Sylwia finds the country not unpleasant, likes to sit in the relaxed half-empty cafes, develops a kind of friendship with Ruta at the salon, distances herself from any serious engagement with the project, fails to work on her report until seriously chivvied by the ‘Recovery’ organization and then by her own department, does not communicate with Tomek, deciding to extend her stay, moving out of her officially-funded hotel and renting Witek’s flat for a month, i.e. again only for a short while. Perhaps inevitably, she also ends up in bed with Witek, but likewise only for a short while. Her problem at the border when leaving the country, she accepts with resignation (‘Too bad, if that’s what they’re ordering me to do, then I have to go back.’).

    This seems to be the more permanent condition, the result of illness or something more general and fundamental in contemporary society and/or academe, of inevitable and ‘logical’ developments, we do not know precisely. The text comes across as gently humorous and disturbingly moving at one and the same time. It has relevance far beyond Poland. Not easy to translate, it nevertheless deserves it, but its length may again be a problem for potential publishers.

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