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Joanna Bator

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Joanna Bator (born 1968) is a novelist, journalist and university lecturer. Her first publication was an academic work entitled Feminism, Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis (2001). A year later her first novel appeared, A Woman. Her third book, The Japanese Fan (2004), brought her wide acclaim, a book of reportage resulting from a two-year stay in Japan. Her major breakthrough came with the family saga Sandy Mountain (2009), followed by its sequel Cloudalia (2010), about several generations of a family living in Bator’s own home town, Wałbrzych. Once again, her new novel is set in Wałbrzych, in south-western Silesia.

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Ciemno, prawie noc (Dark, Almost Night)

The story is set in the modern day. A young woman called Alicja Tabor returns to Wałbrzych, the town where she was born, which was part of Germany until after the war. She moves into her family’s former home, which is now empty, and from which she set off into the world many years earlier. An investigative journalist, she has come to research the mysterious disappearance of three local children. In an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, the townspeople are behaving strangely. As their growing discontent becomes more palpable, some violent attacks on animals follow, and finally a self-styled prophet appears, claiming to have been addressed by the Virgin Mary in person. After the prophet’s death a group of rebellious citizens forms around his self-proclaimed “son”, Jerzy Łabędź. Alicja’s task is to write a report about the missing children, but her return to Wałbrzych also marks a return to the dramatic events of the past that have severely affected her own family: her parents’ death, and the suicide of her beautiful older sister, who was fascinated by the local legend of Princess Daisy and Książ Castle. As a result, Alicja’s investigation inevitably involves the discovery of secrets from her own past.

Joanna Bator uses a mixture of genres to tell her story, including straightforward narrative, Gothic horror, and chat-room banter.

From the reviews: “[Bator has] an ability that’s rare in modern Polish literature to build up a story, not just an atmosphere, by accurately observing and describing the small details of daily life, where so-called major issues mix with marginal ones.”

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2 Comments

  1. Ursula Phillips says:

    I found this book compelling, difficult to put down, despite its length. The novel can be read on different levels and contains many intertwined and intriguing threads. The journalist-narrator’s hunt for the missing children takes on the aura of a personal mission, as taboo and suppressed aspects come to the fore, such as child abuse, paedophilia, and violence against children perpetrated by adults who were, in some cases, themselves child victims. At the same time, dark secrets from the narrator’s own family’s past emerge. All this within the Gothic setting (with many hallmarks of traditional Gothic novels) of the castle, dominating the town and surrounding woods that lie in its shadow, vibrant with memories of its last owner, Daisy, and of the events of the war. The creation of atmosphere and suspense is magnificent, often very creepy, with strong elements of nostalgia for places, people and objects lost, yet it is never sentimental.

    Set in present-day Wałbrzych (pre-war German Waldenburg), once a model mining town in communist Poland but now a nexus of depression and resentment, unemployment, social marginalization and sense of being excluded by the market economy, the novel gives voice to elements in Polish society that feel abandoned by history. Some of these voices are nevertheless alive and active in the blogosphere! And here Bator works into the novel quotations from a blog, where locals vent their true feelings, fears, paranoia and prejudices in language that shows no restraints. On one level this is very witty and entertaining (though perhaps a little overdone?): Bator, for example, includes the typical typos and misspellings that creep into such messages—but at the same time shows how ‘freedom of speech’ can easily slip into a feeling of complete freedom to be as vicious as possible.

    The book includes many themes that hark back to pre-war life, both good and bad, and to the atrocities—murder and rape—committed during the war-time by both Nazi and Soviet occupiers, seen through the eyes of children. Combined with the violence against children, this makes a very dark world. And maybe here we should take note of the motto (taken from Carlos Ruiz Zafón) that opens the book: “God is in the detail, but the Devil is everywhere.” Indeed. Hope is nevertheless kept alive by those characters who help the journalist with her search for the children—and by those who come into possession of single pearls, left scattered around the place from Daisy’s once priceless necklace. …And, all you Cat Lovers and Wild Women, there is also something for you!

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  2. Julia Sherwood says:

    This was the first book by Joanna Bator I read and it took me a little while to get used to her style – initially I found the mix of the gothic horror with grim family saga and the gritty reality of present-day poor provincial Polish town, and the switches from depressive, dark to parodic mood rather unsettling but found myself drawn into the story and couldn’t put the book (well, my Kindle actually) down for several nights. Here are some disjointed points I’d like to make about the novel:

    Many of the characters were strongly drawn – Albert Kukulka, the narrator’s transgender friend Celestyna, and her older sister Ewa in particular, but also the three people who relate the stories of the disappeared children (the mother, the grandmother and the children’s home director). The close protective relationship between the two sisters was nicely drawn and the narrator’s descent into the horrible depths of the family’s history and her gradual coming to terms with her childhood traumas was quite convincing. I liked the description of the dilapidated, haunted family house with the dark, imposing castle above and the way Bator weaves in the story of the last countess, Daisy. The mysterious “cat-eaters”, symbolizing evil and their benign counterparts, the slightly dotty cat ladies are also a great creation.

    The false prophet storyline was nicely rooted in the realities of a town whose coal mining industry has collapsed (this was the first time I’ve come across biedaszyby, the bootleg mines) and the growing mass hysteria culminating in the grand guignol scene in the town square where the fanatical crowd literally devours the remains of the “prophet” was very well handled and could be of interest even for English readers who might not get the allusion to the conspiracy theories and madness that followed the Smolensk disaster (for example, the row about the cross in Warsaw’s Krakowskie Przedmiescie). The strip bar for communist party officials run by the local butcher above her shop was hilarious and Bator’s use of disintegrating language to suggest the growing madness of the crowd was quite ingenious. Bator has a great ear for spoken language, which comes to the fore in the mangled radio broadcasts, in the exchanges among people in the crowd as well as the narration of the people responsible for the disappeared children, and especially in her imitation of Internet chat-room talk, with the grammatical mistakes and rampant nasty xenophobia and misogyny.

    Having said that, as much as I enjoyed (and shuddered) reading the first chat-room chapter, I thought the other two or three were really not necessary: they felt repetitive and boring and I found myself skimming through them and looking for messages from the mysterious Homar (Dawid). I also felt that Bator overdid it with the child abuse, perpetrated by generation after generation – the back story of the child abducted from the children’s home, with her abusive alcoholic incestuous parents, went far beyond the plausible. There were also a few things I found rather unsatisfying in narrative terms: for example, the back story of the narrator’s love interest (Marcin) is left blank and it’s never really explained why he and Celestyna, the narrator’s closest friends and allies, team up against her and keep her in the dark about the lines of investigation they pursue, and also the way they fill the gaps in the story is rather perfunctory.

    All in all, Joanna Bator is an author to watch and Ciemno, prawie noc is an unusual novel, fascinating and gripping but also frustrating at times. It might interest English readers who want to explore contemporary Polish literature. It would, however, pose quite a challenge for the translator.

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