Prose writer Jarosław Maślanek talks about his latest novel Liczby ostatnie (“Final Numbers”), his youthful fascination with dystopias, an ecological turn in his work, literature about people who have failed, the impression David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson made on him, books published by ‘Nisza’, and worlds seen through someone else's eyes.
I can see favourable reviews of Final Numbers are starting to flow in. Maybe this April isn't as cruel as rumoured after all?
Yes, April - especially for the month that comes immediately after March - has turned out to be quite bearable. And in all seriousness, the reception of the book has been good so far, which, of course, makes me happy.
Well, the interest is probably understandable - after all, you did predict a pandemic in your novel.
I knew from the start that this would be a story about a plague, unspecified, that decimates humanity, and how we deal with it, or rather how we don't deal with it - be it on an individual, personal level, or on a social, state level.
When did you start writing Final Numbers?
In the middle of 2018. The idea had been germinating for several months by then. I finished the first version of the book after about a year and a half, but before the pandemic. After it broke, and before the book was released, I wondered whether I should update the story. When I looked at what was going on around, I found that I didn't actually need to make changes.
In Final Numbers, you create a dystopian world, but the novel itself can hardly be called science-fiction, can it?
There are no science-fiction elements there - especially if we assume, following Lem, that a sci-fi novel is the one which cannot function after being stripped of sci-fi elements. In Final Numbers, there are virtually no such devices, and the technological ‘gadgets’ are more from the present. I have simply developed some ideas that are now in their early stages, such as an exoskeleton for the rehabilitation of paralysed people. I took the current times as my starting point - I wanted to look at how the lives of children who are now a few years old or more might turn out. And, as we can see, the mysterious plague turned out to be not as fantastical as it might have seemed.
Did you foresee the chaos that ensued and the changes in our lives that had to take place?
I’m far from being a futurologist, forecaster, or clairvoyant; I believe that reality is simply unpredictable. Instead, I proposed a scenario, and it turned out to coincide with reality in several places. But what direction the situation will actually develop in is hard for me to predict, and I probably wouldn't want to guess. I just hope not in the way I described in the book.
Did you read anything specifically for the novel?
When I finished writing Góra miłości (“The Mountain of Love”), I started thinking about my next book and decided quite quickly that I would write a dystopia. I have read this genre through and through, novels of this kind used to make a very strong impression on me – genre-wise, they were my first conscious choices. At the time, I had a whole list of books to read, I was collecting and amassing various novels, especially Polish dystopia. The novels of Janusz A. Zajdel, Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński, and Maciej Parowski had such an impact on me in my early reading years that many years later, I wrote my master's thesis on them. I've probably read most of the dystopian classics, but I hadn't refreshed them before I started working on Final Numbers, I didn't even use that master's thesis that's lying around somewhere among scattered papers. I didn't want to copy from these books; on the contrary, I wanted them to be rather a distant inspiration, a vague suggestion from the past, from youthful fascinations.
So, I take it you didn't return to classics like The Plague, or - from film repertoire - Contagion.
No, if I've read or watched something in the past, it's already stuck with me; besides, I didn't want to bring up these contexts specifically for the book. I wanted it to be a fresh take on dystopia. An ecological dystopia, to be precise – I started Final Numbers where I left off in Apocalypsis'89, in which the city starts to become overgrown with forest.
Ecological reflection - at least such a heightened reflection - is actually quite a fresh issue. Has it accompanied you before?
The fascination with nature, with wildlife, has been in me since childhood. I grew up in a block of flats, but on the edge of the forest, the forest was just a stone's throw away from my balcony, and when I woke up on the second floor of a large panel building, I could see squirrels scurrying around in the treetops from my window. As I grew older, these experiences grew into an ecological awareness that found an outlet in the book. What we are doing to the world that has been lent to us only preserves me in this ecological awareness. Trepidation - that's probably the most appropriate term when I think about the future.
In terms of the adopted poetics, Final Numbers differs from your other novels. But in fact, the starting point is similar - it is, after all, a story about people who have failed, devastated, tormented by fear and trauma.
It's a theme that runs through most of my work, probably influenced by where I grew up - a small industrial town that began to die out after the turning point of ninety eighty-nine, and the people with it. Even the first idea from which Final Numbers germinated, I got it from there. For years, I had been coming only to my family home, travelling the same route, until one day, I had to do something in a place where I had not been for a long time. It turned out that the pavements I remembered didn't actually exist - they had been crushed by the roots of overgrown trees, and in places, it was impossible to walk. This is where my idea from Final Numbers comes from, to show nature taking back what we once snatched from it.
You talk about these dying towns. Do you feel that we lost out in the transition of 1989?
I am far from the thesis that the transition has impaired us. But we have certainly lost something. It is impossible not to notice that there are whole regions of the country, social structures, which lost out in the transition, such as industrial towns near factory complexes, which collapsed when the factories shut down. Or the inhabitants of state farms, left to their own devices from one day to the next. For many years, heads were turned away from their problems, they were pretended not to exist, their 'failure' to cope was ridiculed - they did not fit the dominant narrative in a turbo-capitalist reality. This is changing, perhaps because the children of these people are coming to the fore.
Is literature about those who have failed close to you at all?
I don't know, I don't look for the ‘people who have failed' shelf in bookshops. But it is certainly a subject with great literary potential. I've been quite perturbed by Denis Johnson's Jesus’ Son lately, although I don't know if it's the subject matter or the writing talent, probably more the latter. It seems to me that at a certain level, one reaches for some books not because of the subject matter. And thus, the mood I expect from a book influences my choices - in that sense, indeed, books about those who have failed somehow suggest a mood that suits me.
I'm asking because I'm curious to know how much of this classic American postmodernism, of David Foster Wallace, you have in you. Is this your style?
There's an interesting thing about DFW, because he actually has everything that should put me off him; I'm not fond of gargantuan sentences whose beginning you forget before you've read to the end. So, definitely more Carver, or more recently Johnson, rather than Wallace – however, when I first picked up his work, the short story collection Brief interviews with hideous men, it was like an illumination, I rarely yet experience anything like that when reading, and here: awe, disbelief, tightness in my throat. Structured madness, that's what I called this writing for my purposes. I have read everything that has been published in Polish. However, in my writing there is no such thing, I try to trim texts rather than expand them, I look for meaning in brevity.
And what about Polish postmodernism? Słyk, Bielecki, Schubert...?
Not this direction, although Zyta Rudzka, Waldemar Bawołek - I read them with pleasure.
This is, let's say, the next generation from Bereza - and it also includes Janusz Rudnicki, Adam Wiedemann, Marta Zelwan. Have you read their stuff?
Yes, Rudnicki is recognisable from the first sentence, a man of literature - he should be rewarded for his Chodźcie, idziemy (“Come, Let’s Go”) alone. And Marta Zelwan with her Miejsce na rzeczywistość (“Place for Reality”) is still to be read.
What other Polish authors do you read? Is Polish literature something you reach for with pleasure at all, or do you look elsewhere?
I like to browse through new titles from the Polish backyard, there is always something worthy of attention - recently, for example, Małgorzata Boryczka and her volume of short stories entitled O perspektywach rozwoju małych miasteczek (“About the Prospects of Small Towns Development”). Boryczka picks up steam from text to text, the ending is really great, which bodes well. And Igor Jarek's Halny (“Foehn”) is top speed from start to finish. I liked Barbara Sadurska's Mapa (“The Map”), and I also agree that it is a thoughtful and interestingly constructed text. I read it when I was having a rather nasty time, and it unexpectedly pulled me away, transported me back into the mode of cool, youthful reading, when books were absorbed, explored, like the best stories. And for that reason, I will definitely remember her. Ha, I'm looking at my list of Polish novelties and I see that all the books were published by Nisza. This is undoubtedly a quality publishing house; their titles are a safe bet.
From other things, I was very impressed by Mira Marcinów's Bezmatek (“Motherlessness”), it is an unusual farewell to a mother - I approached this book personally, with apprehension, but I was not disappointed. However, first place for me in recent months goes to Wit Szostak with his Cudze słowa (“Other People’s Words”). This multi-voiced story (literally multi-voiced, as each character has their own autonomous language...), like DFW, should not appeal to me; I'm not a fan of stories from academic life, I don't like diminutives or risky synergies between physical and gastronomic pleasures, and yet, I still can't get over my admiration.
Have you read anything by Szostak before? I remember his Poniewczasie (“Belatedly”), a structurally interesting novel in the form of a diary.
It just so happened that I was reading Belatedly at the same time as DFW's The Pale King, and, at the time, I had this reflection that while Wallace works out the text on the level of sentences, Szostak goes lower, down to the words, which can also be seen in Other People’s Words, in the passages devoted to Magdalena.
Do you read diaries at all, or, more broadly, personal documentary literature?
I'm looking through my library after you’ve asked this, and it looks unlikely. I have Jerzy Pilch's Dziennki (“Diaries”), at least in my line of sight and in my memory, but with Pilch, it's actually a coherent narrative with novels and columns, I wouldn't single them out as typical diaries, it reads (and they were awaited) like a new Pilch book.
I take it you were one of those people waiting for the new Pilch?
I certainly reacted with impulse buying. Maybe it’s because Pod Mocnym Aniołem (“The Mighty Angel”) once made quite an impression on me. When the novel came out, I reached for it because of the subject matter, and I ended up already completely drawn into that legendary Pilch phrase. And so it followed: columns, novels, diaries, well, maybe not everything, but I read a lot of Pilch.
Have you had any other enlightenments similar to DFW recently? Has something captivated you?
Denis Johnson's Jesus’ Son, I have already mentioned, made an electrifying impression on me, precisely by the maximum condensation of meaning in a sentence, yes, I had moments of enlightenment while reading it. I recently revisited Flannery O'Connor's short stories (so, also the American scene) on the occasion of a collection of her essays on writing, and again - awe at how one can describe hell on earth, a real hell; she observes, she doesn’t analyse, just reports, and does not explain, convinced that this is an introduction, necessary to know the 'mystery'. And a few years ago, Cormac McCarthy, and even though that fascination has faded a bit, I recently remembered his Child of God - it still works. From other regions: Anthony Joseph's The African Origins of UFOs, translated by Teresa Tyszowiecka-Blask, and Yan Lianke's The Four Books, translated by Katarzyna Sarek – these are the items I will certainly remember. The first one because of the literary sheer madness - improvisation that nevertheless doesn't blow the whole thing apart, and the wonderful translation. The second for its genre weight, the perfectly chosen form of a religious, biblical parable of enslavement.
Asian directions are becoming more and more popular with us lately. Have you had more contact with Chinese or Japanese literature?
Yukio Mishima with Confessions of a Mask, translated by Beata Kubiak Ho-Chi. I have been putting off this reading. An author ending their life with considerable help from themselves is not a unique thing in the literary world, but Mishima's way turned me off from reading for a long time, but I finally got round to it. A very good, albeit painful, unravelling of oneself, probably somehow foreshadowing the finale of life. Also, Yoko Ogawa, whose The Museum of Silence I once found rummaging through a sale bin in a supermarket, and I liked it so much that I reached for the recently published collection of her short stories Revenge. I also read Flying Soul by Yoko Tawada. There is a kind of inner discipline in these Far Eastern readings, an orderliness that quietens one down. I do sometimes like this kind of bookish internal massage, but it has to be at the right moment. That was the case with Flying Soul; I think if I'd reached for it at a different time, it probably would have bored me, instead, it was like a cup of calming herbs.
So, on the one hand the American scene, on the other Polish, and on top of that Asian. And European literature? France, Spain, Scandinavia?
I have always aimed north rather than south, the Scandinavian cold suits me. For a good couple of years, I read, for example, Knausgard or Christensen, really voluminous books. Recently, I was tidying up the library and moving these volumes to another place, well, let me put it this way: you can't do it all at once, especially up the stairs.
The thing with Knausgard's My Struggle is that I don't quite know what fascinated me about it, it wasn’t really the language, certainly not the size, and yet, I read volume after volume, and waited for the next. Maybe some similarity of experience, generational trials and tribulations, although the author is a few years older than me. Certainly, a northern melancholy. With Christensen, it’s a bit different, he is a seasoned writer, stylistically and narratively engaging, and not inferior to Knausgard in the number of letters. I've also recently read Stig Dagerman's A Burnt Child, an absolute classic of depressing Scandinavians, and it has everything I've found in his successors, except volume. Ilona Wiśniewska's books, who lives in the North, have a separate place on the shelf. Her reportage read like top-notch literature - I even mark individual sentences inside the book, often with admiration. And although I don't reach very often for non-fiction, I do wait for her books.
We've actually talked about this a bit already, but what do you look for in these readings?
Great question, though I don't know how to answer it. Because there doesn't seem to be one thing I look for in literature. At the very beginning, when I was finishing primary school and starting secondary school, and when I was consciously beginning to choose my books, reading was for me an escape from reality, an opportunity to immerse myself in worlds, stories, and tales that were able to replace the things that were bothering me. But with time, this means of escape became simply... boring, so I chose readings from other literary regions, in other registers, differently written and constructed, and language became more important. I'm looking for such that would nevertheless surprise me with something, draw me into the text, sometimes delight me, would be a fully fledged (but not dominant) component of the book.
I have the impression, however, that at the source - where sits this young boy absorbed by a book - the most important thing is still his disagreement with reality.
Can such a better reality be found in literature?
Not always better, just different. My readings are worlds seen through the eyes of someone else, through the eyes of a hopefully sensitised, sensitive person. Even a familiar backyard - described, felt through a different sensibility - can be fascinating. It's a matter of finding a literary soulmate and being in sync with the language. Then, literature becomes a kind of virtual reality, a different state of consciousness to which we unexpectedly gain access.
Interviewer: Maciej Libich
Translated by Justyna Lowe