Piotr Paziński

Piotr Paziński

Piotr Paziński (b. 1973) journalist, essayist, literary critic and translator, belongs to the “third post-Holocaust generation” . He studied philosophy at Warsaw University, and then wrote a thesis on James Joyce’ Ulysses. From 1992-97 he was a journalist working for Gazeta Wyborcza’s foreign news department, and since 2000 he has been editor-in-chief of Midrasz, a monthly journal on Polish-Jewish cultural issues. Pensjonat not only won him the Paszport Polityki award in 2009, but also a nominated for the Nike, Poland’s top prize for literature. In 2012 Pensjonat won the European Union Prize for Literature

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Pensjonat (The Boarding House)

 

This book from a small publisher has gained considerable popularity and brought the author a prestigious prize from the monthly magazine Polityka.
The plot is fairly insubstantial, because all it contains is the description of a one-day visit to a boarding house in a summer holiday place outside Warsaw by a young man who as a small boy often spent time there with his granny, and now encounters several greatly aged guests who remember him as a child. But it is no ordinary boarding house: the residents are Jews who survived the Holocaust, and so everything that occurs here is like a dream about the past, a summoning-up of ghosts, a resurrection of not just people but also events, debates and ideological arguments from long ago. Thus the plot only appears to be simple, but in fact it is set on several time scales and is bursting with typically Jewish anecdotes and parables, because its heroes thrive on the past, which meets up with the present in a sort of concurrent time. Exactly how the old people see the past, like something so close as to be within reach, but also distorted by obsessions or gaps in memory; they are the last living witnesses to the pre-war world of the Polish Jews. The author shows in what form Jewish tradition exists in Poland today. The book has an unusual atmosphere full of warmth and gentle irony, draws sensually rich images, and at the same time shows the diversity of the Jewish heritage: we see it on the one hand as a dialogue between different fates, and on the other as an endless dispute about the ultimate questions, about the existence or non-existence of God, and about the tasks facing the Jews. This dispute permeates the everyday world and blends with it in a comical way, but gives it meaning even when it is going through drastic changes, and most of the people taking part in the argument are dying. At that point it is taken up by the survivors, who resurrect the dead as partners in the debate.

Jerzy Jarzębski

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  1. Julia sherwood says:

    A return to the boarding house near Warsaw where he spent holidays with his grandmother is a kind of À la recherche de la place or du gens perdu for the narrator of Piotr Paziński’s Pensjonat, a quest for the nearly vanished generations of Polish Jewry. Visiting the now dilapidated and almost empty boarding house – modelled on Środborowianka, the pre-war Jewish resort reopened in the 1950s and run by the Polish Jewish Cultural and Social Association (see the author’s photos here) – brings back to the narrator memories of members of his grandparents‘ generation who used to spend their holidays here.

    The book becomes a meditation on aging, the transience of time and the unreliable nature of memory, as the narrator talks to the few surviving guests, now old and frail, and conjures up the ghosts of many other old men and women he recalls from his childhood. In a recurrent motif the narrator admits: „I don’t recall much more. Sometimes almost nothing. My past is deeply ingrained in me but when I try to reach for it, I find a hollow void, as if I had been born yesterday and everything that happened earlier was just a thicket of shady images…“ The problem is that the effect Pensjonat has on the reader is similarly shadowy and vague.

    As he wanders the Pensjonat’s rambling corridors and overgrown grounds and goes through old family photographs one of the last residents, pani Tecia, has given him, the narrator tries to bring back to life people he remembers from his childhood, admitting at one point: „I don’t have a single photograph of pan Leon or pan Abram. And I’m not sure I would be able to tell them apart if they suddenly turned up appeared before me.“ Unfortunately, pan Leon and pan Abram, pani Tecia and pani Mala as well as the other characters are just as difficult to tell apart for the reader. Rather than vivid vignettes of real individuals they, too, resemble faded and blurred photos. What seems to have got lost in the pervasive melancholy mood of the book is the distinctive Jewish humour, which would have helped make the conversations about politics, philosophy and religion more lively and memorable.

    Although the faded, blurred effect may have been a deliberate attempt to convey the fragmented nature of memory, I found Pensjonat vague, repetitive and, ultimately, unsatisfying and wonder if the book’s acclaim in its homeland can’t be attributed, at least in part, to the the sensitivity of the issue and the fact that the author is considered the voice of the “third post-Holocaust generation”. But whereas the Polish reader can be expected to read between the lines, English readers not so familiar with the details of the 20th century Polish Jewish experience will look in vain for some clear pointers to seminal events such as the Holocaust in Poland, or why so many Jews were genuinely attracted by the communist idea. Without a specific reference to the 1968 anti-semitic campaign and the resulting Jewish exodus from Poland, they might also be quite baffled by references to „those who have left“.

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  2. Ursula Phillips says:

    My reception of this book is more positive. As it was I who suggested that the Reading Group should read it, because I would like to see it published in English, I should perhaps try to present another perspective here rather than waiting until we meet on Monday. I was impressed (moved) by its contemplative, timeless and poetic qualities—above and beyond the subject matter and quite irrespective of how the book has been received in Poland (in other words: I regard it as “good” literature, which non-Polish speakers could appreciate and enjoy). I wanted to translate it myself. Having met the author, however, I discovered that he himself is translating it along with a friend—Tusia Dąbrowska (see the first of the translated passages above on this site). At the time of speaking (late January) they had no publisher lined up.
    I will not repeat here the qualities of the book as described by Jerzy Jarzębski. I am neither Polish, nor Jewish, and although informed concerning the cultural context that inspired it, I am not someone personally affected by the events of 20th-century Jewish history, or by issues of present-day Jewish-Polish relations: yet the book spoke to me, and I am inclined to believe other English-speaking readers would find it equally satisfying (both for the Jewish elements, which might surely appeal to the large Jewish audience in Britain, the States and elsewhere, and for its more universal qualities: I can imagine it, for example, being featured and well-received during the annual Jewish Book Week in London). Also, on the Jewish subject matter, e.g. on the Holocaust: I wonder whether it has to be “explained,” ditto the 1968 events in Poland. However, the historical and political contexts of many Polish literary texts (not just contemporary ones) require such explanations in order to be fully understood (but doesn’t this issue also affect the reception of literary works translated from other cultures? Why is Poland so often regarded as an exception in this regard?). Maybe instead of assuming this experience is not accessible to non-Polish audiences, and therefore the books won’t be understood (and hence it’s not worth publishing them), translators and publishers should think of ways of making it accessible, if indeed it’s not already. In this case, for example, a short “Afterword” could be provided (which readers could ignore if they wish) explaining the key events referred to obliquely in the book.
    That said, it’s partly the “vagueness” of the references, and the wistful contemplative style of reflection, which is sometimes nostalgic but not (I emphasize) sentimental or banal, that appealed to me. I was also intrigued and drawn into the religious perspective and impressed by the way the Biblical references are woven into the story—again, these are not inaccessible to readers who are generally culturally informed, familiar with the Old Testament, for example, if not the Hebrew Bible (Biblical references and short quotations are inserted into the Polish narrative in transliterated Hebrew, as are bits of Yiddish—a possible translation challenge, but not insurmountable, and also one where discreet endnotes could also be provided, if considered desirable). The novel is also an interesting reflection on the functioning of memory, its limitations (as Paziński suggested in his recent seminar in Cambridge, we don’t actually remember very much precisely or in precise chronological order, when we start trying to do so)—perhaps this is why it feels “inconclusive.” Does it have to be conclusive?
    One thing that is discreetly hidden in Paziński’s book is violence. It is a refreshing contrast to many novels published recently in Poland (in which I include “Muck” as well as Joanna Bator’s “Dark, almost night,” which we discussed last time, although—unlike in “Muck,” it’s not an overriding feature) where violent scenes of abuse and hatred are portrayed, which seem to me as much an emanation of the authors’ pent-up frustrations and even complexes as a reflection of present-day Polish reality. But maybe I’m a naive wishful thinker: is it violence that sells?

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  3. Literature, the form as considered as the story. Understated; but always on the move. The sense of an unstoppable trajectory, with notes dropped in to tempt us on: “Jauntily, as if the world were not marching toward the catastrophe. […] and the guests booked rooms for next year.”

    I’d like to see this in English. The best of the four excerpts I could get on to my screen.

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