Sylwia Chutnik (born 1979) is a novelist and city guide. She graduated in cultural and gender studies at Warsaw University. She is also a charity worker and chairperson of the MaMa Foundation which aims to improve the situation of mothers in Poland. She won the “Polityka Passport” prize for 2008. Her first novel was Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet (“Pocket Atlas of Women”), published in 2008. It tells the stories of four people who live in a Warsaw tenement house. It is both a novel and an original guidebook to Warsaw and to women who live there. It is also an uncompromising, feminist study of the condition of Warsaw’s poorest citizens, those most socially marginalised.
In her next novel, entitled Dzidzia (“Diddums”,2010), realism gives way to surrealism and the grotesque. This time Chutnik sets her story in the Warsaw suburb of Gołąbki, where a severely disabled 16-year-old girl lives with her mother. Disturbing and controversial, the novel makes the reader confront the Polish society’s hidden past and its current attitude towards women. In 2011 Chutnik published an unconventional guidebook to Warsaw, entitled Warszawa kobiet (“Women’s Warsaw”). In it she suggests the routes for tours of some of Warsaw’s most interesting districts, but above all she offers a walk about a city that conceals the histories of the women who once lived there, including sculptors, teachers and writers.
Featured Reading Group Title
“There’s no bigger hustler than a Warsaw hustler,” sang Polish bard Stanisław Grzesiuk, the songster of the prewar Polish capital, the undisputed patron of this novel. It is the rhythm of his ballads, quoted throughout, and his personality—and he is mentioned here by name—that lends the whole tale its tone, its charm, its hipness. (…) Chutnik has proven herself to be in possession of an exceptional ear. And of exceptional ingenuity. Inspired by Warsaw city ballads, by The Girls from Nowolipki (a cult novel about the life of young women in the capital between the world wars), and by punk-anarchist feminism, she has achieved a self-standing, original quality, a story that is as entertaining as it is moving. Highly dramatic, brutal, and political. Because—as she demonstrates—there is a bigger hustler than a Warsaw hustler: the hustlerette. The lady hustler. The girl-bandit that no one can conquer. That always fights the good war. Well, almost always. Sometimes it’s just for the fun of it. Above all—the hustlerette never works alone.
Chutnik’s novel sings the praises of the accomplishments of a whole band of lady avengers—a band uniting social classes (because of a class shared long ago at school), neighbourhoods, generations. Celina, Halina, Stefa, and Bronka now play first fiddle, they themselves measure out justice. The main plot—vigilante justice for an evil developer that set an activist woman from the tenants’ movement on fire—comes from the real, most recent history of the Polish capital. Such a thing took place, although those responsible were never found, and the guilt of the developer remained symbolic. In the novel, the girls take the matter into their own hands, and it’s only thanks to them that justice prevails. It all begins in the Bródno Cemetery, and in a way it all ends at the cemetery, too, because such is the fate of the lady warrior. And such—sad, cruel—is the end of the ballad.
From a review by Kazimiera Szczuka (translated by Jennifer Croft)
- Hustlers is featured in our Polish Reading Group Winter-Spring 2013