Tuesday, 28 May 2013

'Mother Departs' by Tadeusz Różewicz (Review)

Stork Press is a relatively new London-based publisher, one with an eastern-European slant, but focusing particularly on Polish books (the name is a very Polish one!).  So far, they have published in several genres, and the first book to really catch my eye was the winner of the 2000 Nike Prize (the Polish Booker).  It's by a famous poet, but, as we'll see, it's actually more of a family affair...

Tadeusz Różewicz's Mother Departs (translated by Barbara Bogoczek, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short book, encompassing several different styles of writing.  There are some childhood reminiscences, short poems, diary entries, prose fragments... a bit of everything really.

It's also fragmented in another way.  While Tadeusz is the writer of the family, Mother Departs features the joint efforts of four family members: Tadeusz; his mother, Stefania; his younger brother, Stanisław; and his older brother, Janusz, a member of the Polish resistance who was executed in 1944.  Interspersed throughout the writing are family photos, many of which feature the focus of the collection, Stefania.  Despite their variety, all the pieces circle the topic of the mother (either abstractly or concretely)

In the first couple of pieces, Stefania describes the village she grew up in, sketching a picture of the lives of the farming labourers.  Their abject poverty (and their poor hygiene and diet) is set against the traditional celebrations for holidays and weddings, and a dependence on superstition. This was the time of partition, where the village fell under Russian rule.  While the middle classes seethe though, the peasants aren't particularly bothered by foreign rule - provided the Tsar helps to supply them with more food...

The next section sees Tadeusz take over with short, plain poems, mostly about mothers and grief.  In 'dead fruit', we see a mother grieving her dead son:
"The poor mother steps across the room
 adjusts the photograph and cries

 The gold suns on the table darken
 as does the dead fruit of her life" 
p.42 (Stork Press, 2013)
When we know what happened to Janusz (and the excellent introduction gives a detailed account of Różewicz's family history), the poems take on a more solemn, personal tinge.

While Różewicz is known as a poet, I much preferred the prose fragments.  One of my favourites, 'Red Stamps', a story of around 150 words, describes the visit of a bailiff who has come to decide which household items are to be confiscated to pay off debts:
"It was not until my brother and I crept into the creaking bed and hid our heads under the thick eiderdown that we dared speak out loud.  We prayed for a miracle.
But in the cold light of the morning, five red stamps bled like five wounds." (p.69)
It's an excellent story, evoking powerful images of a stressful event - I suppose you could even call it flash fiction...

Perhaps the pivotal section of the book, 'Gliwice Diary' is an honest, weary account of the last few months of Tadeusz's mother's life.  As he struggles to come to terms with her inevitable death (and, at the same time, cope with the recent death of close friend Leopold Staff), he recounts his inability to focus on his writing, and the suffering his mother endures over the final days of her life.  Ostracised by the mainstream literary society in Poland (for political reasons...), he finds himself trying to justify his methods:
"What the 'critical' or 'literary' fraternity labelled 'repetition'... - 'Tadeusz R. keeps repeating himself', they said - was and possibly still is the most valuable thing in my work.  The dogged reworking, repeating, returning to the same matter, and so on... to the very end.  Other things will get written by somebody else.  There is no alternative.  Or you end up with literary chit chat." (p.88)
Grieving a close friend, preparing for a life without his mother and struggling to carry on with his work - it's a lot to take for a young man.  At the time he was 36, a couple of years younger than I am now...

The collection ends with contributions from Tadeusz's two brothers.  Janusz's piece is a fragment from a man whose life was cut tragically short, a short description of coming home from school to his waiting mother. Stanisław's is a childhood memoir, again with a central focus on his mother.  Together, the assorted texts form both a portrait of, and a homage to, a woman - but also to a country and a time.  You see, as much as it talks about Stefania, Mother Departs talks to the reader about a shared past.  It's easy to see why it won the Nike Prize - it's not so much the private memories of a mother, as a collective, nostalgic look at what has been lost.

While I'm not a big fan of the poetry here, the collection as a whole works surprisingly well.  Bogoczek's translation is very smooth, with no obvious clumsiness (to my British eye, anyway!), and it's a book which you can dip into when the mood strikes.  I'd have to take task with the publisher over one thing though - I'm not sure you could claim that this was by Różewicz.  This work is most definitely a collaborative effort - or, as I said above, a family affair :)