Wojciech Nowicki - There is no future or past, but rather chains of ideas and associations that complement each other
Wojciech Nowicki, Salki, Trans. by Jan Pytalski, Open Letter, 2017.
Lying in bed in Gotland after a writer’s conference, thinking about his compulsive desire to travel—and the uncomfortable tensions this desire creates—the narrator of Salki starts recounting tragic stories of his family’s past, detailing their lives, struggles, and fears in twentieth-century Eastern Europe. In these pieces, he investigates various “salkis”—attic rooms where memories and memorabilia are stored—real and metaphorical, investigating old documents to better understand the violence of recent times.
Winner of the prestigious Gdynia Literary Award for Essay, Salki is in the tradition of the works of W. G. Sebald and Ryszard Kapuściński, utilizing techniques of Polish reportage in creating a landscape of memory that is moving and historically powerful. (Read an Excerpt)
“It all blends here unexpectedly: that past and memory with the present and space... At times, your skin will crawl with pleasure from reading.”—Andrzej Stasiuk
“A masterful tribute to Georges Perec... There is no future or past, but rather chains of ideas and associations that complement each other. In that sense, Nowicki’s book reminds one of The Rings of Saturn by Sebald.” —Polityka
Salki is a sort of travelogue, though author Wojciech Nowicki's spin on the genre is very much his own. Nominally, it is narrated by a reisefieberish Nowicki, stuck in his too-short bed -- "why did they make it so small, what kind of punishment is this ?" he complains -- on the morning of his departure from a writers residency in Swedish Gotland (the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators). But the short (sub-)chapters range far and wide -- usually physically ranging (he's travelling), but in all sorts of varieties of circumstances. From memories of childhood trips to, fairly late, a more detailed description of his stay at BCWT in Gotland, Nowicki gets around a great deal -- including, often, tangling with (largely family) history.
Nowicki does occasionally move beyond Central and Eastern Europe -- there are mentions of visits to India and Paris, for example -- but it's the (eastern) European heartland that is his favored haunting ground -- in no small part, no doubt, because it is so haunted, by history and memory. Beginning with his birthplace, Opole, he repeatedly points to places that have had their identities changed by historic circumstances. There's the oppression and brutality of changing regimes, truly subjugating local populations. And while geography is immovable, borders aren't; so, for example, his hometown used to be -- until the end of the Second World War --, a German city, Oppeln, and before that it had been Bohemian, and Polish, too (and even as a German city had a sizable Polish minority population). Similarly, he's drawn to Ukraine, with its changing borders and Habsburg, Nazi, and Soviet pasts, all leaving their (often dark) impressions.
History has also been smashed to smithereens in many of these places:
And in the city I come from there's almost no history left, just a few sandstone tombs and one tower. The rest was either destroyed, flooded, or the wood rotted and didn't last
As a result, too, much that is (again) visible is not actually authentic. He points out that: "'Rebuilding' is a key word in my part of the world" -- but often it's a pale imitation, or doesn't ring true.
Modernity has bypassed most of these distant parts of the European outback, which remain mired in complex (and often horrible) history and the past. Even relatively cosmopolitan Lviv -- now Ukrainian, but formerly Polish, and then Austrian -- is a shadow of its Lemberg-incarnation, and its present condition is manifest regardless of where one looks. So also among the most memorable scenes in Salki is Nowicki's description of a Georges de La Tour painting in the Lviv National Art Gallery:
I found La Tour's painting by accident; it wasn't as much a painting as it was a black, cracked, and convex rectangle barely recognizable at that point. I couldn't leave. La Tour's nocturne was covered with an extra layer of patina. [...] The La Tour in the Lviv National Gallery perfectly resembles the history of the city that stores it.
Nowicki travels to some tourist spots -- such as Lviv -- but for the most part it's more like he's wandering in the outback, the old country -- in Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and elsewhere -- that no one would ever see as a destination. There's little there there, but Nowicki meets and is put up by locals, a stranger passing through, or crosses paths with the migrant streams of workers traveling to and from jobs in (western) Europe.
Scenes and locales jump back and forth -- as if Nowicki was unable to stay in place for too long at any one time -- and include some painful family history, often tied to locales and the battles over them. The languages of the places are significant too: German or Ukrainian spoken in the places that are now nominally Polish; a great-grandfather who escaped to London, whose letter and few holiday cards, in a Polish the writer had little command over, Nowicki reproduces. And Nowicki himself clings to an outside language -- French, which is hardly useful in most of the places he visits -- with Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual the: "one novel that has accompanied me throughout the years on almost every extended trip".
Nowicki explains the title (left in the original for the English-language edition):
Salki are the rooms in an attic
Indeed, one can almost hear the creaking floorboards, and there's certainly enough terrible cold and stifling heat: Nowicki's central and eastern European attic extends very far, and it's a glimpse of a part of the European house that isn't often seen or talked about, the furthest of the hinterlands.
Salki is a traveler's book -- one man's journey in his own (and his family's) past, along with that of a part of Europe that not only hasn't caught up with the EU-polished rest, but seems to have fallen back into a rut of history.
Nowicki's summa is a familiar traveler-conclusion
I was expecting some conclusions, results, some knowledge, anything, but certainly not for the travels themselves to be the outcome.
So too his book isn't one of easy conclusions or sweeping statements of the state-of-this-world. It's a book of travels, of various sorts, the jumble of a journey -- the reading -- is the outcome -- and no less rewarding for that. - M.A.Orthofer