Thursday, 14 May 2009

Kryzys tożsamości

One field trip to the eastern depths of Malopolska* and some new acquaintances later and I've decided to take a more philosophical attitude to the whole Polish learning process. After all, what does being good at something mean? It means being useful to other people. And life's too short to be useful. Somebody pass me a cold beer.

Talking of not being useful, I have been attending a literature course.

I started attending the extra classes because translators and interpreters should always be aware of the intricate cultural references underlying any text and/or speech as well as reading the news in four different languages Every Day even the bits that aren't really interesting... oh all right, I needed extra credits to get my diploma, and I quite like reading.

The course is called 'Historia literatury polskiej XX wieku', and the entire thing is in Polish. Our lecturer is small and voluble and given to twisting out direct, challenging questions with an ironic smile. I suspect he despises us for hurling ourselves against the unforgiving edifice of the Polish literary opus. Or he pities us for our naive belief that we will ever penetrate Polish culture.

On the other hand, there are a lot of pretty Hungarian girls in the class so maybe he's just in it for the banter.

In any case, this semester has been a traumatic struggle through the twentieth century, starting with war poetry, the Warsaw Uprising, moving on through the Holocaust via Tadeusz Borowski's Proszę państwa do gazu before finally tripping up on the hermetic prose of Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk.

This particular volume is only 120 pages long. I am on page 28. This is after three weeks. I couldn't explain exactly why I didn't understand it: most of the words themselves seemed clear enough. But the paragraph-long sentences, the stream-of-conciousness style dialogue, and a disproportionate proliferation of words ending in -ż made it harder than usual to decipher.

In desperation, we decided to go and watch the play, conveniently showing at Stary Teatr last week. The goal: to understand as much as possible, bearing in mind that the actual content of the dialogue probably isn't all that important.

This is what happened:
Act I: Gombrowicz (the main character, not the man himself) on stage with suitcases. Deckchairs. We understand that he has moved to Argentina. We also understand that war has broken out in Poland. So far so good. Although maybe not so good on the war front.
Gombrowicz asks for money from three confusing old men who toast each other a lot, plus one diplomat.
Gombrowicz has to get in with famous and decadent Argentinian writer with a penchant for attractive young boys.
Some other things happen. A lot of people are on stage, talking fast in Polish.
Mild nudity.

Curtain down

Act II:
We lose the plot completely, but there is a sparkly curtain plus lots of topless boys in white trousers, so it doesn't seem to matter so much.

I gave up and asked a Polish friend to explain it to me.

- Actually, that's an interesting question: there isn't really a plot as such, the main point is Gombrowicz playing with language. Why on earth do they want you to read that?!

I showed up at literature class on Tuesday afternoon spoiling for a fight.

The lecture consisted of a snap survey on who had read the book, who had been to the theatre and what did we understand. Having established that the answer to this was 'very little', our lecturer went on to explain the plot and its relation to the concept of Polish national identity. He then turned to one of the Hungarian girls.

- What does it mean to be Hungarian?
She answered, and the question went round the class, while I did some very quick thinking. Not quick enough though.

- So... what does it mean to be British?
- No, wlasnie, nie wiem.
- fife o-clock?
- no... nobody drinks tea at five.
- the Queen?
- ...
- well, why didn't you just fill in the Channel, instead of going to all the trouble of building a tunnel?
- That's easy: we need something to keep the French out!
- So being British means not being French?
- Yes! That's it.
- And Princess Diana?
I tried to explain that this was simply a trick caused by the tabloid press, but my powers of Polish expression failed me.

The discussion went on a bit longer.

The lecturer indicated me to the other students.

- So here we have it: it's sad isn't it? Empire, post-colonialism and now the British can't even express their own identity.

I tried to protest:
- But we've learnt from that! In Britain we're really tolerant!


- well... uh ...ok. We're tolerant to everyone except the French. But it's a joke, ok?!

I am not yet well acquainted with Witold Gombrowicz, but I suspect that the concept of a British person failing to express their cultural identity in Polish is very appropriate here.

* The Polish characters on my keyboard for some reason aren't working with Firefox.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pino:

I was recently totally defeated by "Stara Basn" by Jozef Kraszewski. It is written in the Polish equivalent of "old English". OMG, was I insane? I got to page 21, before I realized I would rather go weed in the garden.

Cultural identity for Canadians, why that's easy: NOT American. Seems to work for us okay. Why can't "not French" be equally acceptable.

Glad to see you you regained your equilibrium.

p.s. one of these days I'll figure out how not to post as anonymous

Norman said...

You could give answer like real "humanist from negation" (those who call themselves humanists, because they don't understand math):
Being Brit is having this special feeling inside, that couldn't be described with words (except: being British) and you woldn't understand (until: being British).
Thank You and good night...

Norman said...

P.S. Basia, I'm wondering, how does this site, where You're living comments, look in Your browser. ;]

basia said...

I called my husband over, (the techie guy) we looked at the various options available, and I think I might just be taking a giant step forward...

Anonymous said...

Pinolona, if yo do not understand Gombrowicz then try Konrad Korzeniowski. ;)

Anonymous said...

It seems you have taken my advice about reading literature a bit too seriously. I myself haven't read Trans-Atlantyk, and to be honest I feel no special urge to do so.

As for literature, I prefer older books - they are generally better. The bad ones, eg all two hundred or however many books by Kraszewski are forgotten.

But if you want to read modern books, I quite liked Ziemkiewicz. He seems to be mostly understandable, and to use everyday expressions.

As for conversation with native speakers - it seems that we live in the same city, so we could meet in a pub some day.

pinolona said...

Basia, that sounds awful, współcuję ci! And I hate weeding in the garden, so that's saying a lot.

Norman, thanks, that's perfect. 'Bo tak'.

Anon - oh I have, I have... only Nostromo and Heart of Darkness though.

Baduin, thanks for the tip, will look up Ziemkiewicz. Meet-up sounds good, I just need to sort out a way of being contactable without sticking my work email address on my blog! :)

Anonymous said...

"way of being contactable without sticking my work email address on my blog!"

try :)

Anonymous said...

My email is:
"sbocian", then at, then "poczta", then dot and "fm"

Norman said...

How about pinolonablogreaders meeting or PinoCon? ;]

Halfling PL said...

PinoCon - yes! At Pinokio, if Kraków has such a Knajpeh!

More: each of us brings a fluffy mascot for Pinolona, one that actually looks to him/her most Pinolonish (teddies with the union jack, judging by Pinolona's last post are right out!)

More: we organise the Con on a day when Pinolona has no salsa class and order lots of salsa sauce...

Who brings the spaniel? Or do we have to organise PinoCon without the spaniel?

PS: I went to Slowacki to see Trans-Atlantyk in my early teens. I remember as much as you described. Mild male nudity included.

Halfling PL

Island1 said...

Ooops, I seem to have accidentally wandered into the Pino Appreciation Society by mistake. Sheesh, get a conference hall you guys.

pinolona said...

Good idea. And hire interpreters! :)

Anonymous said...

There must be a handful of interpreters around here... There's one guy using PL, which I say is a damn giveway. Believe me, because so am I :)


pinolona said...

Yep, I know several :)
Although PL doesn't necessarily stand for the PL booth - it could be a car sticker too (British cars often have GB on the back, and then you can tell who's been on a motoring holiday in France)