Dorota Maslowska’s first novel, ”Snow White and Russian Red,” is a blustery romp through the disaffected world of post-Communist Polish youth. Stranded in a country that’s no longer Communist but isn’t yet integrated into the West, young Poles compensate for their sense of political and economic abandonment with drugs and sex. Maslowska describes their disdainful ennui in free-associative and occasionally absurdist language.
The book’s literary pedigree seems obvious. When ”Snow White and Russian Red” first appeared in 2002, European reviewers celebrated its experimental style and drew comparisons to ”The Catcher in the Rye,” ”Trainspotting” and the junkspeak of ”Naked Lunch.” ”Ferdydurke,” a novel by Maslowska’s countryman Witold Gombrowicz that skewered the sanctimonious conventions of Polish life, also seems part of her inheritance. But ”The Catcher in the Rye” and ”Naked Lunch” were published half a century ago, and ”Ferdydurke” — which was mostly banned in Communist Poland, but available outside the Iron Curtain — appeared in 1937. After decades of enforced literary realism, Maslowska’s postmodern whimsy may seem radical in Poland, but it will be creakily familiar to most Western readers.
Maslowska’s slacker narrator is a 20-something named Andrzej Robakoski (better known as Nails), who unravels into the arms of a succession of young women after his girlfriend, Magda, dumps him. Not much else happens; from start to finish, we’re confined within a freewheeling monologue manufactured by Nails’s drug-addled mind. (”A definitive rise in the level of carbon monoxide in the natural air,” begins his riff on a barbecue, ”kielbasa its usual mother, subject to this holocaust, death everywhere, murder everywhere, hacked-up animals that, if they could, would cry out, but they can’t anymore, their mouths have already been confiscated.”)
Maslowska presents Nails’s internal psychologizing as an extreme antidote to the coerced social consciousness of the Communist period, but Nails can’t free himself from politics for the same reasons Poland hasn’t entirely escaped its Communist past. ”Snow White and Russian Red” winds up being as political a manifesto as its socialist realist predecessors. The difference is that rejection of the political system is now not only permissible but chic. ” ‘No’ doesn’t work on this typewriter,” Nails observes as he’s trying to type out a confession before an interrogation by a police functionary named — in a perfunctory metatextual gesture — Dorota Masloska. ”Actually,” he adds, it ”was eliminated from the font.” ”Snow White and Russian Red” wants to make up for this lapse.
The book is a primal scream of protest — against everything. Nails despises the ”Russkies,” who have adjusted to the liberation of their former satellite states by exchanging political oppression for economic exploitation. (They’ve even cornered the market on the Polish flags being manufactured for an anti-Russian rally.) But the West is hardly superior in Nails’s eyes, obsessed as it is with profit at the expense of morality. As for Poland, it’s ruled by ”aristocrats, dressed in overcoats, in aprons, who, if only the conditions were right, would sell us, the citizens, to whorehouses in the West, to the German Army, for organs, for slave labor.”
Nails’s diatribes are so paranoid and hyperbolic that you assume Maslowska finds him ridiculous as well as sympathetic, but the novel’s unrelenting sulking and ranting makes it hard to tell. ”Next winter there’ll be black snowdrops,” Nails proclaims, and ”the next winter all the lights in town will go out and everything will be in the dark. Pop culture will plant its own fake plants on the scene, artificial gerberas, artificial palms, dummy flowers potted directly on an infertile tray, in fiberglass insulation. Fireworks fly into the air, candy wrappers fly into the air, leaflets fly into the air, soap bubbles pop, the chalices turn over on the tables.”
Perhaps a portrait of what might be termed Poland’s Generation No can hardly look any different. With the pieties of the Communist years discredited and the dividends of European integration still years away, the country’s youth idles in a no man’s land. That will change as Poland gains a surer sense of itself, but until then characters like Maslowska’s are lost, and so are her American readers.
The quasi-apocalyptic landscape of ”Snow White and Russian Red,” stripped of geographic and cultural context except for the occasional cigarette brand or foggy reference to ”the government,” sometimes creates a vague sense of displacement, but for the most part the narrative remains frustratingly elliptical. Though the translator, Benjamin Paloff, does his best, there are certain kinds of native exuberance that don’t travel well. ”Snow White and Russian Red” was a tremendous success in Poland and Germany, but in America it will seem both inaccessible and dated.
MARINA LEWYCKA’S first novel, ”A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,” presents a different view of Eastern Europe. For her narrator, Nadezhda — like the author, a lecturer at an English university whose family left Soviet Ukraine shortly before she was born — it is a distant idyll spoiled by the grotesque rapacity of post-Communist life. One day, that debased new world invades Nadezhda’s in the form of a woman dressed in a ”Lycra denim miniskirt and a fluffy baby-pink jumper with a white satin heart for the pocket.” This manifestation of excess is Valentina, the 36-year-old Ukrainian who has managed to ensnare Nadezhda’s 84-year-old father (author of the work in progress that gives the novel its title), just two years after her mother’s death.
Valentina is everything Nadezhda’s idealized Ukraine — a land of golden cornfields and blue skies inhabited by a people whose language is filled with ”infinite gradations of tender diminutives” — is not. This politically correct liberal takes startling relish in demonizing Valentina as a gold-digging ”slut” unworthy of her good will. But why doesn’t Nadezhda connect the cornfields to the mini-skirt, the roots of current Ukrainian exhibitionism to its years of Soviet privation? It turns out that Nadezha’s parents shielded her from knowledge of the family’s ordeals under the Soviets and during World War II — ”something so fearful that I must never know about it.” Her Ukraine consists of the cornfields of romanticized family lore and the miniskirts of post-Soviet consumerism, but the intervening years are a blank.
Though Valentina is initially so caricaturishly evil that she defies sympathy, Nadezhda manages to overcome her distaste. She even discovers a bit of herself — ”what it is to be the one that’s different” — in the interloper, whose ostentatiousness turns out to be a front for insecurity and need.
Lewycka is an awkward stylist, but the irony of Nadezhda’s conversion is too obvious to miss. The parental silence that provided Nadezhda with a na√Øve view of the tragic country to the east has also allowed her to shed the prejudices of that country. Her father, who, after all these years in England, is still ”scared of the police, the local council, even the uniformed postman,” sees Valentina as a victim. Nadezhda’s sister, Vera, who was old enough to be bruised by Soviet oppression and the war, disdains Valentina to the end. Their historical burdens are Nadezhda’s to transcend.
”I was the lucky generation,” she realizes. Dorota Maslowska would certainly agree.