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Wojciech Kuczok

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Wojciech Kuczok (born 1972) is a poet, novelist, screenwriter, film critic and speleologist. Gnój (“Muck”) was his first novel, and won him rapid acclaim at the age of 30, as well as Poland’s top literary prize, the NIKE. He wrote the screenplay for an award-winning film based on it. He has also published two collections of short stories and a book of essays about cinema. In 2008 his second novel, Senność (“Somnolence”) appeared, and was also made into a film. His latest work of fiction, published in 2011, is Spiski (“Conspiracies”), a set of connected stories about a young man’s adventures in the Tatras. Most recently he has written a travel book, Poza światłem (“Beyond the Light”).

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Gnój (Muck)

Muck is a quasi-autobiographical story of the hero’s nightmare of a childhood described from the distance of his maturity. The main characters are his father, “Old K.”, a bully who gives the child “educational” beatings, and his mother, who defends the child, and to whom the father to some extent defers. The parents bicker constantly, but despite the dysfunctional relationships within the family, they are strangely inter-dependent. Finally the boy grows up and leaves, and the family house, built by his grandfather, caves in on top of Old K.

The novel contains some superb sketches of family life, satirical and lyrical portraits of the household members, and some wonderful scenes from life in Silesia (his family chronicle goes back as far as the pre-war era).

The story is set in the mining area of Silesia (south-western Poland), which before the war was part of Germany. Kuczok makes use of the regional and mining dialect of Silesia for many of the dialogues, giving a strong flavour of a specific place and culture. Extremely successful both in Poland and abroad, Muck has been translated into fifteen languages.

As Kuczok himself explains: “Muck is the story of a family hell, told by a child who already has all that behind him, and can now relate to it as history, but for some reasons has not stopped being a child. It’s about those shivers down the spine that make themselves felt in mid-word; about the lack of hurry with which the whole thing develops; about obsessively solemnising fictional minutiae.”

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4 Comments

  1. Asbjørn Øverås says:

    Dear friends,
    I would like to know if this book i translated in any language I can read. I am a publisher from Norway.

    All best

    Asbjørn Øverås

    Reply
  2. Stefan Tobler says:

    Hi Asbjørn,
    There is the extract (above) in English, but not the whole novel. I’ll put you in touch with the Polish publisher, who can let you know what translations are available.

    Reply
  3. Julia sherwood says:

    This is quite a tough book to read, a powerful and shocking account of child abuse written from the point of view of the victim, relieved by flashes of black humour. The prose is robust and the style is markedly different in each of the novel’s three parts, which, together with the generous lashings of regional dialect, might pose a challenge to the translator.

    Part one, entitled Before, is the entertaining saga of the Silesian family from which the book’s main character (referred to throughout only as “old K”) has sprung and the story of the house his father had built. Vividly drawn family members emerge as basically nice warm individuals tainted with sadness. The only unsympathetic character is old K’s mother, a haughty woman who believes herself to be socially above her neighbours when the family gets into financial straits, forcing them to split the house up and rent out the ground floor.

    As the narrator explicitly states, no one in the family had used physical violence and nothing, including the mother’s character, and nothing in the novel’s first part prepares one for the cruelty that old K unleashes on his own family its second and longest part, entitled Then. It is narrated by his son, an only child growing up in the claustrophobic atmosphere of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage, with old K’s unmarried brother and sister, who live on the lower floor of the house, providing occasional comic relief.

    The descriptions of the sadistic whipping rituals to which old K subjects his son from an early age, punishments meted out for transgressions real, imagined or “overdue”, ring painfully true, so much so that it is hard not to empathize with the child narrator’s frequent fantasies of killing his father. Kuczok brilliantly reproduces the father’s angry tirades and the parents’ increasingly vituperative rows as the mother tries in vain to protect her child from the tyrannical father. The physical violence is accompanied and gradually replaced by more subtle forms of psychological abuse that include such idiosyncratic methods as torture by torrents of cliché or protracted exposure to Haydn, whose music old K prescribes as the best method of curing a cold. The sickly boy looks forward to escaping from the horrors at home during a two-month sojourn at a sanatorium, only to end up being bullied by the other children and running back home, to the hell that at least he is familiar with.

    In part 3, After, the narrator, now a grown man, describes his futile attempts to escape from THAT house and the looming shadow of his terrible childhood, which has left him emotionally crippled and unable to sustain relationships. The centrepiece of this section is a masterly description of the narrator’s dream, a tragicomic nightmare in which, as torrential rain destroys the sewers, the family house is inundated with muck of the title and everyone apart from his mother – his father, uncle, aunt and the couple renting the ground floor flat – is buried alive.

    Consistent with the child’s perspective, the source of the evil remains unexplained, making the account of domestic violence all the more realistic and terrifying, and quite universal. The book ends with the narrator losing his ability to speak, and left able to produce only yawns. The final sentence: “I was, I no longer am” can be read in several ways. A positive interpretation suggests that by writing his story the narrator has exorcised the ghosts of his past and is no longer the tormented child – certainly, the subtitle “An anti-biography” hints at a strong autobiographical element. However, a bleak reading, suggesting that the narrator has been marked forever as a human being is more likely.

    Reply
  4. Just a short comment – Kuczok’s “Gnój” is a tough read. As discussed during the meeting there are flashes of humour, mostly due to the hyperbolic language, but that is not what struck me about the book. On the forefront of my reading experience was the abuse, the unfunny life of a child who sees no escape. It would be unbearable if not for the elevated diction which describes the unsettlingly realistic grotesquery of it all and makes the book such a compelling read. Kuczok is a master at manipulating language – the visceral descriptions of pain and humiliation, the slippages between “standard” Polish and the (aptly used, superbly and amusingly transcribed) Silesian dialect, the proverbs and collocations that squirm out of standard usage. I read almost all of it in one sitting, but felt like flinching more often than not.

    Reply

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