Sylwia Chutnik

Photo by  Rafał Leszczyński

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.

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Cwaniary (Hustlers)

“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)

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2 Comments

  1. Julia Sherwood says:

    This story of four young women taking justice into their own hands is set in present-day Warsaw. The district of Mokotów, where the main characters grew up together, wasn’t as badly destroyed during World War II as other parts of Warsaw and has retained its character and neighbourhood atmosphere. However, these days it is increasingly threatened by greedy developers, who buy up old houses and unscrupulously force their tenants (often people who have lived their for generations) to move out, tear the houses down and replace them with shiny high-rise office and apartment blocks.

    Against this real-life backdrop Sylwia Chutnik spins her grotesquely over-the-top story of female rage, combining genres as disparate as the murder ballad with its criminal underworld ethics, and Quentin Tarantino’s violent action thrillers, with feminist ideas (perhaps a bit too thickly laid on) and an intimate knowledge of Warsaw’s history and topography which, together with the occasional infusion of old Warsaw ballads all contribute to making the city almost a character in its own right.

    Chutnik’s central characters have all experienced some kind of trauma: the heavily pregnant Halina and her friend Celina are working-class widows, Stefa is a beauty salon owner and battered wife and Bronka a successful lawyer suffering from terminal breast cancer. Before or after work they are transformed into latter-day female Mack the Knives, vigilantes who vent their rage at the world’s injustices (real or imagined), roaming the streets of Warsaw in pursuit of chosen or random males whom they assault and sometimes beat to a pulp.

    United in their hatred of developers the four desperadas decide to mete out punishment to one particularly nasty specimen, suspected of being behind the mysterious deaths of some stroppy tenants. They join forces with a trio of similar-minded hustlers: a gravedigger, an ecology obsessed body-builder and a crazy thief with a penchant for robbing fruit and veg shops. They also recruit Halina’s grandmother, a doctor who had taken part in the Warsaw Uprising as a young woman and knows her way around the city’s underground network of canals. The violent climax and the book’s ending suggest that the battle against the forces of wild capitalism ultimately cannot be won.

    Chutnik has an ear for spoken contemporary language similar to that of Dorota Masłowska, and has captured her characters’ outrageous exploits, their conversations as well as their more private moments, such as visits to the cemetery, lonely evenings at home or Halina giving birth, in colourful colloquial Polish. Although this is not exactly my kind of book, I thought the Tarantino-esque action scenes work and the author’s sense of humour enlivens this distinctive contribution to the feminist noir genre.

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  2. Ursula Phillips says:

    Thank you, Julia, for your useful introduction, which saves explaining what the book is about! On the whole my overall impression of Chutnik’s book is positive. I think it’s more convincing than her two previous novels, although I do have some reservations.

    I believe it would work in translation. The contemporary language, for which Chutnik does indeed have a sensitive ear and ability to reproduce, might present a few challenges however. The style is vigorous and evocative. The book is also not too long and would have an enthusiastic, albeit fairly limited audience. Despite the much discussed (and in some quarters welcomed…) backlash against feminism in English-speaking countries, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the issues raised by feminist consciousness remain unresolved, especially in the private sphere (notably in the case of the present text: the effects of domestic violence), and notably in Poland. Chutnik’s book is an articulate and gutsy response of a fresh generation of young feminists to specifically Polish conditions, but its spirit I believe would elicit a much more universal response. The “hustlerettes” choose to act, and take the law into their own hands with impressive consistency—although in the end, the law does catch up with them, so the book is not an endorsement of gratuitous unpunished violence (but it does take rather long to make this quite clear?). The book also has its humorous elements (in case anyone is assuming it’s a turgid polemic).

    Although the central plot revolves around the plan to murder a powerful and unscrupulous private property developer and blow up the luxury flats where he lives (a block built on the ruins of other homes, whose residents have been evicted—N.B. it’s important that the hustlerettes are driven by a more general sense of social justice and not only by their personal concerns as women), there are many other themes that give the book depth and greater seriousness, such as pregnancy and childbirth (though it’s rather incredible how Halina fights and sprints in her ninth month!), and in particular Bronka’s coming to terms with the inevitable conclusion to her struggle against breast cancer. The opening cemetery scene is very movingly done, as are little vignettes scattered throughout the novel, such as when Stefka (the victim of domestic violence) sits on her balcony at night smoking and thinking, and sees scores of other cigarettes burning on similar balconies across the estate.

    The novel has a literary precedent: Pola Gojawiczyńska’s 1935 novel Dziewczęta z Nowolipek (The Girls from Nowolipki). It similarly has four heroines determined to stand up for themselves, one of the four (the most sensitive) is also called Bronka, so Chutnik makes this inspiration clear. Arguably, Gojawiczyńska’s book is the one that should be translated. Pre-war Warsaw is likewise evoked through the insertion of songs and ballads associated with the city. The history of the 1944 Uprising is integrated through the grandmother who remembers the underground routes through the sewers, a crucial element in carrying out the girls’ plan of revenge. I also liked the thirty illustrations, by artist Marta Zabłocka, though I realize these are a matter of personal taste (as are the themes of the novel itself).

    My reservations concern the introduction into a generally realistic context of phantasmagorical elements, in fact—the same complaint I raised about the ending of Joanna Bator’s (otherwise compelling) book: towards the end, after the murder of Kossakowski and the destruction of the luxury flats, other new building begin to grow up out of the ruins of their own accord. In my opinion, such fantasy elements are unnecessary and make both books as a whole far less convincing and cohesive than they might otherwise be.

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