I started my 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist reading journey with the bleak “fairy tale” about the sex industry in Germany, Clemens Meyer’s “Bricks and Mortar” and a lot further along in my reading travels for the prize I have come across another fable, Wioletta Greg’s “Swallowing Mercury”.
Originally titled “Unripe Fruit”, in the Polish version, this is a short, sharp, dark fable, dreamlike in its presentation, with poetic sentences, this is an hallucinatory dark and grim coming of age story.
She brought me home in February. Still bleeding after childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my wrist to ward off evil spells and fell asleep for a few hours. It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back. (p2)
A very short book, running to only 146 pages, this is Wiola’s story, told in twenty-three short vignettes. We learn about her father the taxidermist, her black cat, local fables and old-wives tales, along with details of her match box label collection, all set during the era of Poland transitioning from communism to democracy.
In May 1984, I set out for church carrying a bundle of sweet flag, which I had picked that morning by the pond and adorned with ribbons. Water dripped from the bouquet onto my Sunday shoes. The church was filled with the smell of sweet flag leaves and silt, like a drying bog. My head started to spin. When the parish priest began to read a passage about the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the boat-shaped pulpit sailed off with him into the unknown. I slid from the bench down to the floor. They carried me outside. A woman drew a cross on my forehead with her spit. (p45)
We have memorable historical events, like Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland, the preparations (and division) within the community, told through the innocent, honest eyes of youth. Wiola connected to the natural world, an internalising youth, exploring bogs, swamps and the flora and fauna, observing her immediate family with a wry honest eye.
Then I sat at the table which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread. (p 19)
The language creating a vivid scene containing the small village sounds and smells, expertly taking the reader to 1980’s rural Poland. It is no surprise to learn that author Wioletta Greg has previously published six volumes of poetry, with her collection “Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance” being shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize, a Canadian Prize with a $65,000 first prize (with $10,000 for each shortlisted poet), it is self-proclaimed as the “world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English”, and gives two prizes, one for living poet residing in Canada and an international prize. Although the Griffin Poetry Prize website says “a…collection of poetry written in English” Wioletta Greg’s work was one of two translated works on the shortlist of four, it was translated by Marek Kazmierski, and lost out to Michael Longley’s “The Stairwell”.
The book is resplendent with the sounds, sights and smells of rural Poland; “After the rain, the air smelled of watermelon pulp.” (p 70)
This is a highly readable and enjoyable work, and given my past dislike of coming-of-age stories it has managed to jump a significant subconscious bias with my reading. A welcome inclusion on the 2017 longlist, this is a book that I would like to see travel at least to the shortlist.
Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? The brevity may go against it when it comes to the main gong, however it is a very assured work, a folk tale that subtly presents the political changes in Poland through messages on match box labels, or innocent views of a town preparing for the Pope’s visit. I think the darkness will not appeal to all audiences and therefore think a shortlisting is probably as far as it will travel, but it is a book I urge people to explore, one to add to your “Women in Translation” reading lists, you will not be disappointed.