Bedside table #35. Wojciech Zembaty: In primary school, I had the nickname “Reader”

Writer Wojciech Zembaty, author of the series Głodne słońce („The Hungry Sun”), talks about his admiration for Reymont's Chłopi (“The Peasants”), books that made him downbeat, reading westerns for pleasure and fantasy books "professionally", aversion to pure science fiction, the topicality of Frank Herbert, and the pleasure of discovering authors that no one has read, as well as about the writer who made him become a fantasy writer.

What are you currently reading?

I'm on vacation now, but I've been recently reading Vonnegut's early stories, which he wrote for money in the 1950s. It is a bit of a different Vonnegut, not so predatory, written for a more standard reader from American suburbs, not necessarily an intellectual.

Right, I think these stories were mostly published in women's magazines.

The women in these stories look interesting. One can risk a thesis that they endured more then. They're all pretty and young - I don't know if you've seen the Mad Men series, there are these pretty girls who are typists, they are like trophies or goddesses. You can see how the culture has changed; now for such prose, he would be simply discredited. But these are cool stories. The best one was the one they didn't allow - that is, at least of the ones I've read so far, and that's a tiny little part- it seemed the freshest, the most interesting to me. I later read that it was not published because, although it was great, it was - at least in the opinion of the editorial office - too much madness for the readers of the time.

Any recent delights?

I'm sure there was something, but I need a moment to think about what it was and when. I'm afraid a while ago, one moment. Most likely Reymont's The Peasants, heavy cannon.

That’s a surprising answer for a reader from this century’s 20s.

I can expand on it.


That was the book I was tentatively gearing myself up for. Of course, I knew the series, the story of Jagna banished from the village, some contexts, but I geared myself up, because I heard from friends, whose taste I respect, that this is something incredible - they even claimed it was a better novel than Lalka (“The Doll”). I've read The Doll many times, so I opined that it was impossible. Yet, I must say that The Peasants is something even richer for many reasons. First of all, it is not so much of a transparent style, it is a kind of expressionism, it is prose that takes time. If you have a holiday, you need more than a week to plunge into it. I haven't experienced such a vividly created world yet, and what's interesting, even in comparison with The Doll, where we have Paris, Warsaw, leaps in time. Here, we only have a microscopic village, but nature lives around it, the seasons also affect minds, it is completely amazing. I can't find anything to compare it to - I haven't read Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, it could be a reference point. Great thing. For example, the scene when Boryna dies in the field is the absolute top of Polish literature for me. This is such an amazing mystical scene... he scatters the seeds and has some kind of illumination, such peasant Zen, so to speak, he looks at the sky and dies like a master of the sword, with a clear mind, without fear. That’s something incredible. And the fate of Jagna - for a week, I was downbeat and I kept thinking. There have been maybe five books in my life that had such an effect.

Which ones?

It’s not easy to bring them to mind now. One of them was certainly From Here to Eternity by James Jones. What I mean is that you finish reading the book and you reflect on it for a few days, you are downbeat due to the fate of these people, you would like to undo it, write another ending, find an unprinted pilot that turns things around. In The Peasants, it ends in such a way that those who have adapted, those who have accepted evil, inevitably inscribed in our lives, they survive, and those who have somehow pushed themselves forward, they die. The community returns to its tracks on the principle of "ok, nothing happened", because the aura has already changed, it's ok, there is no more violence. The worst thing is that Jagna does not die, but - spoiler alert - she is wounded and mutilated and she stays with her blind mother, who is also barely alive, and the only guy who defended her gets ready to emigrate and says "they won't last long". It's terrible. It's worse than if Jagna spectacularly died, torn apart. Terrible book, yet beautiful. Or how people become Poles, how this dramatic, dying culture enters into a wider crowd and those who used to create it are probably not interested in it anymore, and it starts to live in a different social stratum... An incredibly rich thing.

Do you generally enter the book world so deeply?

You mean do I submerge in it to the max? Well, you know, when I get the chance, I really enjoy it. It doesn't happen often, because it must be a very good thing. Sometimes you're skinning that membrane of a piece, you're having fun, you're watching it all murmur. There's this little brook, but sometimes the current carries you away, and that's deep reading. No other medium has ever been so full and complete to me.

And how do you choose your reading?

I have this rule, maybe a little bit silly, that I read fantasy because I like it – just like most people probably read crime stories, which I don't like so much - I also want to know what's going on in the genre I've been pursuing until now. I read historical novels, sometimes I try to get caught up in something from the recommendations of my friends, to pick out a jewel. The most recent such books have been György Spiró's Captivity and Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers. I'm currently reading a second book of the latter. It's supposed to be even better. Before The Peasants, I caught up with McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and even before that, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, i.e. westerns, I went through a western phase. And, of course, fantasy, but I treat it a little differently.

Does it always have some educational dimension for you?

Yes, you read something you do yourself, and then it's a slightly different experience, because you don't want to jump into this current just like that, you observe. There is an author I highly recommend, and he was overlooked in Poland- his name is Dani Stowe and he wrote a series about a hero named Cain. This is very good fantasy, it was created in the 90s, with an immortal hero akin to Conan. Except that here, we have a penetrating, dystopian criticism of our world, because this guy is the star of the reality show. This show functions on such a basis that physicists have found contact with some other, alternative world, let's say a costume world, somewhat like the world of Game of Thrones, but closer to Sapkowski - I don't think the author was inspired by Sapkowski, but he followed a similar lead. There are other races, elves working in brothels, they are discriminated against and they do drugs, people who are very violent, wars between races, and so on. The guy goes to this world, pretending to be a hero there, and the general idea is for him to kill as many people as possible. The tormented masses in a world where nature is already destroyed are plunged into his dreams, and the rich experience it on an ongoing basis. The entire social hierarchy depends on what access you have to these massacres. This is something very deep, because sometimes I have the impression, reading my beloved fantasy, that this is what we do - we look into some arena, where the corpses cover the ground densely and we read about all of these gutted victims of the protagonists without any compassion. Let’s take Game of Thrones, millions of people are waiting for the next bloody party and another slaughter. It's just a metacommentary, and also incredible criticism of our industrial civilization. We have there, for example, the figure of a blind god, who is such a dull energy of progress, who devours and destroys everything, people are subjected to it, without asking whether we are going in the right direction, etc. A really good thing, very Jungian

And what's the most important fantasy classic for you?

In quasi-artistic circles, where I mingle perforce, people often read nothing and often ask the question: "if I start, then what with?". Someone would probably recommend Lem, but I don't really like him, guilty as charged, I don't like such pure science fiction, where science is the main reference system. But I would recommend two things from such an absolute, noble classic that stood the test of time. The first would be Dune. My friends and I in high school were chronic readers of Frank Herbert. There was a situation when a friend, when asked on his oral final exams for Polish "Tell me about your favourite of Herbert's works", started saying "I like these scenes when the sandworms emerge from the sand and the Harkonnens attack the Atreides' court". And the teachers were like “aaaaargh, but Mr.Cogito, peat industry”. All right, but seriously, Frank Herbert – have you had the pleasure?

No, I just saw the adaptation and played the game, but that's all.

It's not easy to screen. His first volume had the greatest career, which is a kind of an archetypal story like the ones from Japanese legends, in which the hero's family is slaughtered, the hero escapes, then they find allies - this is the Japanese legend about Yoshitsune Minamoto. It is a very common legend - a burnt-out village, a young avenger, barbarians who move against the evil ones. There, we have the planet's ecological awakening. If we were to judge the whole Dune series on the basis of the first volume, it is wonderful, but not so special yet. But Herbert wrote six volumes. It's a weighty thing. You could support a meter-high table with this pile. There are volumes that I could compare to some dramas by Byron or Shelley, volumes about a god who wonders how to stop humanity, which is absolutely subject to him, from inevitable degeneration. You have a reflection on technology that is halted in this world, the idea of the Butlerian Jihad, i.e. people realise that because of technological progress they languish spiritually and socially. It's a dilemma that's still alive and burning today. There's a crusade against the machines. The term "Butlerian Jihad" comes from the writer Samuel Butler, who criticised machines as early as the 19th century. So, this world places importance on developing minds. These are fantasy stories written by an anthropologist, for whom the main reference system was even such issues as the birth of religion. It can be said that this is a civilisation in which people overcome interstellar spaces with the help of modified minds, they actually travel in their own minds. That's very interesting. All the time, there is the question there of how to stop humanity from falling, which threatens it for purely quantitative reasons, so to speak. It's a good thing, very well written, ecological, very timely. The other one is Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, which I don't think I have to talk about so much.

I'd like to bring up the two things you mentioned, namely Japan and the literature there, which is almost absent in Poland, as well as historical literature.

I am not a specialist of Japan, I went there for personal reasons, not because of some deep fascination. I was prepared because I practiced karate, I always liked Buddhism, zen, I know the contexts there. I read Akutagawa, Rashomon was created based on his prose. It is modernist prose, very good, I would compare it to William Butler Yeats - a bit metaphysical, a bit moral. I read Murakami, of course. Interestingly, I understood what his phenomenon was when I went to work for a corp. It's such a pill of weirdness for people who become a unified cog, who live in dry sheets of excel and then want to balance their pH. I didn't need it when I was living a freer life, but when I got to the corp, I started to read it passionately, and it was levelling me out in some way. Recently, I discovered a classic, a little bit like an equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye. The author's name is Osamu Dazai, and this is the prose you read in Japan when you're a teenager, you know, Joy Division kind of thing. It also slightly resembles Houellebecq, but a youthful one - hatred of society, suffering. I had a feeling that when you read it in your forties, it makes no sense, but it's a strong thing, it's memorable. My favourite Japanese artist is Hayao Miyazaki, I really like animation.

And a historical novel?

I'd like to write a historical novel now, so I'm facing this genre. When I write fantasy, history always emerges somehow. For my first book, I had well-reconstructed Brits slaughtered by the Saxons - this is generally interesting, because the English are supressing this topic. I like to immerse myself in a real era. And if you ask me whom I value from the authors of historical novels, I have to say that, even though it's my favourite genre, I have a sad impression that there aren’t many good historical novels. I could name a lot more good fantasy novels.

Have you read Hilary Mantel?


Her series about Thomas Cromwell is great.

I think I watched the series. Are you talking about Wolf Hall? Very good.

There are two volumes in Polish, the third one is not finished yet - she usually takes a long time to write.

Thank you, I’ll have to try.

And do you know The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon?

I read it at a young age, but for some reason, I bounced back. I don't know why, maybe I should try again. As a kid, I was raised on Mika Waltari. I like him very much, he's a model of something that's touching, colourful - a bit like The Three Musketeers. Entertaining but, when there is a need, quite deep, e.g. The Etruscan - a nice, metaphysical novel. If I were to write something, I'd aim in that direction, I mean the weight - to hit somewhere between Waltari and Thomas Berger's anti-western Little Big Man.

Here, it was, for example, Władysław Terlecki who wrote fine things. Have you read his Dwie głowy ptaka (“Two Heads of a Bird”) or Czarny romans (“Black Romance”)?

I haven’t read it. I do know Parnicki.       

Well, then look at Terlecki. A very good post-war writer, forgotten.

Thanks for the recommendation. Two Heads of a Bird rings a bell. I wrote articles about such forgotten writers for “Nowe Państwo” magazine years ago. By the way, I was writing at the same time for "Przekrój" magazine, which is an interesting schizophrenia, so to speak. One of the writers I wrote about was Henryk Rzewuski. He had this great novel, Listopad (“November”), in which he shows a society torn between reformers and Sarmatians. When I worked for TVN (Polish free-to-air television station – translator’s note), I tried to encourage them to reach for it- it would be a series about the Polish present, an irreconcilable axiological conflict, reaching deep. There are scenes where a moustachioed Sarmatian nobleman comes from the provinces to Warsaw and sees that everyone is walking around wearing queues, make-up on, in their tailcoats, and he wants to kill them, he goes to some inn, and everyone there is so non-Polish. It reminded me of scenes from The Last Samurai when the hero is a stranger in his capital. A very good book.

Maybe it's too sophisticated for a series.

Maybe. There is also such a disadvantage that, in my opinion, Rzewuski did not shade his sympathies, he was a very conservative author. His father was a Targowica Confederation supporter, so he defended those who did not want any reforms. His hero, a Sarmatian nobleman, is honest, maybe a bit boring, and his wife cheats on him with a degenerate, perfumed Frenchman who seduces her with sentimental poetry, is golden-mouthed, but has no moral backbone. I had the impression that when writing this, he was moving into satire.

From his point of view, it was probably right.

There's a delight in discovering writers that no one has read. You probably had that with Terlecki - you feel that something is great, and only five people have read it.

I think a few more, but it's also on a Polish philology reading list, yet maybe optional.

True, that’s where such writers appear.

But you're right, if I were talking today to someone who is not professionally engaging with Polish literature, they probably wouldn't know him. Let's change the subject a little: did you read a lot as a child? Has anything stayed with you?

The question is where we're going to place my childhood. I remember that when I was eight years old, I was going by car to Cracow and read Krzyżacy (“Knights of the Teutonic Order”). This may be my first strong reading memory. I really enjoyed it. In retrospect, I wonder, either philosophically or anthropologically, how a child's mind absorbs these kinds of things. When I was nine years old, I read Dune, and there is such brutal stuff, adult, connected with violence, power, sex – how this is absorbed by the theoretically innocent mind of a child. My answer is that a child's mind is not innocent, because it understands. And why it understands, not having these experiences, is a question for Plato, not for me. The first, wonderful shock was, of course, Tolkien, probably this is why I became a fantasy writer. I talk about it sometimes at conventions. In primary school, I had the nickname "Reader" - this is the answer to the question whether I read a lot. It was a primary school in Targówek, a bit gangster, very cool, but only me and those in wheelchairs, who were not there, would go to the library. I remember being bored with what I found in the library, reading one after the other, shelf by shelf. My reading was probably different to yours. Puc, Bursztyn i goście (”Bluff, Amber and the Visitors”, Filonek Bezogonek (”Peter-No-Tail”), Plastusiowy pamiętnik (”The Plasty Diaries”). Then, I came across The Gods of Bal-Sagoth by Robert E. Howard, the author of Conan. And you know, I'm opening it, and there's a description of an avenger who stands on the moor and has to attack a Viking leader alone, who kidnapped a woman from his clan, and then, there's just guts ripped out, insides steaming in the snow, smashed skulls, brains on the flooring, limbs cut off…  "Wow, so this is literature and that too?" - I remember that impression well. Then, I read Conan, I felt this power, it stayed somewhere in me that you describe the story as if it was a fairy tale, your perception of reality is expanding. Such a Romantic experience, in the philological sense.

And where does the idea for your dylogy The Hungry Sun come from?

I was imbued with the theme and background during my studies, because I studied anthropology with Andrzej Wierciński, who was this kind of a legendary personality and somewhat an Indiana Jones, who may have sat more on the couch, but he had something incredible in him. A Polish Jung, you might say. There, I was soaking up the Aztec themes - hallucinogens, great performances; I don't think mankind has done things so insane, but somehow theatrical, wonderful. A theatre in Artaud's understanding, a theatre of cruelty. It was fascinating, and I had the impression that it was untouched by culture. There are a million books on the Holocaust, and there are none on the Aztecs. I've always been drawn to somehow lesser known things.

I guess there is no such thing in fantasy indeed, at least I haven't stumbled across it.

There were probably two books in the West; here, Inglot wrote it, but not like me, he wasn't immersing himself in it as much. I really wanted to reconstruct it. Years later, I had an idea based on people and emotions, it was already after my working on a TV series, so maybe I finally gained the ability to build, to put people in it all. For many years, I had been struggling with the problem that I knew quite a lot, but I couldn't "mould the golems", so to speak, so that they had blood in their veins, and when I did mould them, they were just little puppets, indistinguishably resembling myself.

I think that's a prerequisite for writing.

Yeah, it's an essential thing to transcend self-description: I wake up hungover, remind myself of  how a girl broke my heart, how I drank in "Amatorska" or "Jadłodajnia filozoficzna" - I wrote a lot of such texts, and I always dropped it, because I think only Bukowski could do it well. It worked for him, not for me.

Finally, I'd like to ask you about your reading plans.

The new Patrick deWitt. I want to take him to Japan and read it calmly, because it promises to be a real feast, this author really went down well with me. He is light, shrewd and does not sin like literature very often sins today, which means that you have a feeling that every writer generates their product, spits it out like Amica spits washing machines, and so you just buy this man's third washing machine, everything is similar, little surprises you. I don't want to hammer my colleagues here with frustration and bile, but there is something about literature, especially bestselling literature, that it doesn't surprise me, it's not what it's done for. Patrick deWitt is from another galaxy, and I like him very much.

He's a man who doesn't actually use the Internet.

I'd like that too, to be Amish, but it's hard to be Amish when you communicate with Poland via Skype.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe