Sunday, 14 February 2016

Zachłannni - book review

The book is unlikely to stand a chance to be ever translated into English, but if it accidentally was, I posit its title to be “The Lustful”. Needless to say, words such as greedy or avaricious seemingly fit better as English equivalents of the Polish word zachłanny, but would not render what the characters of the book are like.

The blurb at the back cover informs a reader the book is the first story of słoiki (literally jars, a deprecatory nickname for those coming to Warsaw from provincial Poland who work in the capital but often travel to their hometowns and on their way back bring stocks of food packed into jars by their families), while I would argue the characters in the book are universal and what befell to many of them could have happened to people aged 30 born and bred in Warsaw.

As time passes by, your mindset is, as I believe, less about your descent, more about where you are. Of course those who have spent their formative years in small town somewhere in Poland are less self-confident and shier than those who have grown up in Warsaw, but some problems and complexes are common no matter where you ancestors have lived.

One character, Paweł, is frustrated, since he cannot become a flat-owner. For ten years he and his girlfriend have been renting several flats with no prospects of buying their own one, since because they both work under junk contracts, they are not eligible for a mortgage. Another character, Ewa, is frustrated, since she has turned 30 and unlike her friends she has not got married, does not have children, nor even has a boyfriend. Her material status is enviable (parents have bought her a flat, she does not even have to care about mortgage repayments), she has a well-paid job, but she feels her life is empty and heads nowhere.

What distinguishes the two from their peers from Warsaw is the disdain for Warsaw-born inhabitants of the capital. Paweł hates them, because many of them have inherited flats after grandparents and many possess assets sufficient to live off rental income. Had Paweł been from Warsaw, he would live with his parents and would be frustrated on account of not affording to move out. Ewa, instead of travelling to her hometown for the weekend, would spend Saturdays and Sundays at her parents’ as many singles do when their friends have raised families and have less time to foster friendships.

Truth be told, usually migrants who came to Warsaw have it uphill. No matter what their social status is (usually it is not low, as had it been, they would not have even dared to move to the capital), they suffer a shock as they encounter a big city which a bit different that other big cities in Poland. For some the financial struggle to make ends meet is the biggest challenge in the capital, while for many mental adjustment to Warsaw-like lifestyle is the toughest test they are put to.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the book is not about migrants from provincial Poland. The essence of all three stories told is the price to pay for attaining what you yearn for. The characters face a question how low one can stoop to get what one covets.

Paweł aches to be a flat-owner. Upon overhearing a story of a couple who looked after their lonely, childless neighbour who out of gratitude bequeathed them his flat, Paweł begins to search for a lonely old man, finds one and hits it off with him, only out of hope for a bequest. Ewa craves for a man by her side and desperately tries to find one. The price to pay for means she uses in the pursuit of her end turns out to be ultimate. Aśka, Paweł’s girlfriend, the third character, longs for easy life. Sick and tired of “sweet nothing” Paweł has offered her for ten years of their relationship, she quits him and on the same day moves in to Paweł’s best friend and Ewa’s brother, Marcin, a well-off entrepreneur. In the pursuit of carefree, copious life she destroys two relationships Paweł had been building and caring for years.

I found Paweł’s story distasteful. He overstepped boundaries to achieve goods he thought would give him and his girlfriend happiness. Ewa’s story was most fascinating to me. Realising the tale could have been simplified and stereotypical, I strived to gain insight into the mindset of a single woman aged 30 (could theoretically come in handy if any woman at such age I meet is not single) and somehow sympathised with her. Aśka, a mercenary materialist, totally heedless of people around her, was the one I held in contempt.

The way three słoiki are portrayed is more or more simplified, but the down-to-earth plot makes the book easily readable. Definitely not a work of art, nor something which would go down in the history of Polish literature, but if you are at the loose end, worth reaching out for. By the way, at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to read more. Currently I’m reading the fifth book this year – would not hurt to keep up the pace and read at least 30 books in 2016 and thus beating by a long shot an average Pole (60% of Poles declare they have not read a single book over the recent year, sadly).

PS. Seven years of blogging (my first post on PES on 17 February 2009), time to move on instead of looking back!

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