Greg, Wioletta, Swallowing Mercury, Portobello
[Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak]
Look, it’s not that I regretted reading this book; it was, after all, fairly short. On the other hand, I’m not particularly elated about the fact either. The novel by Wioletta Grzegorzewska (who writes under the name Wioletta Greg) is fine. It’s okay. Swallowing Mercury is a solid entry into the canon of books on growing up. Much like many books in the genre, it’s written in short vignettes, which largely center around the way the world of things shaped this young Polish girl’s early life. It’s actually quite remarkable how overall pleasant this book is despite the decidedly unpleasant things that have apparently happened to Greg’s protagonist, young Wiola, including sexual assault and the death of her father. Part of that impression is due to the calm voice of the protagonist who talks about her life with a kind of detached air of curiosity and equanimity. Much of the book follows story-lines we probably expect from this kind of fiction. The overlap of objects and bodies, the examination of religion in her life, some elements of village humor (a trickster figure, here, the grandfather) and grotesquery and some unpleasant evocation of the discovery of sexuality. The incipient dullness of it all is forestalled by the author’s deft use of these elements and her intelligent connection of various elements, making the novel resonate with its themes again and again. The book is well written – or maybe well edited, that’s hard to tell, because all of the skill in the novel is structural. The writing is lamentably flat. Since I don’t know any Polish, I cannot tell whether the dullness of the writing is the author’s fault or the translators, but the novel exemplifies the worst qualities of so-called sparse and simple writing. Writing simply is, as I probably said before, much more difficult than writing a solid text in ornate prose. Swallowing Mercury’s prose isn’t always bad, but it is always inconsistent, and never particularly interesting. This is the kind of prose narrative where one gets the distinct impression that the author (or the translator) wasn’t extraordinarily interested in how the book works on a sentence by sentence level (in contrast to “genre” writers like Brian Evenson, by the way). This is not necessarily bad, but when that approach is wedded to a “simple” style, the result is not particularly enchanting. And in a book that uses so many well-worn elements, with political asides sometimes awkwardly shoehorned in, the writing is particularly important. As it is, Swallowing Mercury is a light, pleasant read. You won’t regret it, but with so many other books to read, I mean, why would you read this one?
Wioletta Greg is a poet, which makes me think the blame for the writing should be placed at the feet of the translator maybe. But maybe I’m just a bit put out by the “Translator’s Note.” Usually that note explains words and terms, explains why certain choices were made over others, sometimes maybe some background is offered, but in this case, the “note” is basically like a regular afterword, offering a cohesive reading of the book in light of its political and historical background. It doesn’t just explain facts that are unclear to the reader who isn’t well versed in the history of Poland in the 1980s, it also explains and elaborates on suggestions that are clear to the reader. The only real “translator’s note,” i.e. the only remark that discusses her work on the novel, is a short paragraph towards the end: in it we discover that the book’s title, which is also the title of one of its chapters/anecdotes, wasn’t the title of the book when it was published in Polish. It was, in English, “unripe fruit,” which, in hindsight, makes a ton of sense, as the novel consistently alludes to its title directly and indirectly. After I spent an hour reading a book and connecting its various elements to the title and that specific story in my head (after all, it is a book that asks for, even requires this kind of reading, spinning a web like the holy spiders that recur in the novel), I was a bit put out that the structure I imagined was created by the translator or the publisher or both; who knows. So maybe that’s why I suspect a sloppy translation here rather than a carelessly prosaic writer.
The book has two main themes threaded throughout: one are the fruits of the (original) title. Ripe and unripe fruits are present in many moments of Wiola’s life. The sticky juice from raspberries is smeared over her face as she first meets her father after his release from prison, she is arms deep in sour cherries when she meets, dirty and disheveled, an ex-boyfriend at a fair, unripe fruit are eaten, strawberries and finally, her father, who leaves her again at the end of the novel, tells her he always considered himself an unripe fruit on the inside. There are echoes of fruits in the way the body treats bodily fluids and other wet things, most remarkably, her period and the mercury of the (English) title. The insistent, and sometimes quite gently and skillfully done, mirroring of different elements connects these various things in sometimes powerful and interesting ways. The book begins with various Catholic rites, but never allows religion to be a transformative element. Neither eucharist nor confirmation are accorded that place – instead, we have Wiola “swallowing mercury,” an element associated with transformation, and we have the pagan webs of various juices and fluids that are involved in shaping this girl. It is accidents that push her to become who she is. This novel is very emphatically not a Bildungsroman. Wiola is nudged, pushed, and she demurs, acquiesces, follows the paths suggested by others. Not until the very final page do we see her make a firm, autonomous decision, and even then, it is presented as Wiola choosing one current to drag her rather than another. In this, Wiola is certainly her father’s child – he still considers himself an unripe fruit, internally. If you start reading a novel about childhood called “unripe fruit,” as polish readers of the novel did, the expectation is to see the fruit ripen, expectations formed by many other books in the genre. But, the novel suggests, maybe some people always remain unripe fruit inside, aging only outside, from the years and events that the world has forced on them.
The second theme of the novel is the father. His presence and absence form, more or less, the beginning and end of the book, and his travails offer the book’s most potent metaphor: taxidermy. Wiola’s father is a passionate taxidermist, who cannot keep up with the dead animals in his house. As we learned in the 1980s from Donna Haraway’s magnificent essay on taxidermy (“Teddy Bear Patriarchy”), modern taxidermy was put in the service of realism, of creating the magic of epiphany from within the world of modern man’s tools and concepts. If I don’t misremember, Haraway insists that this is a continuation of the enlightenment-borne attempts to contain and categorize nature, but to offer, to the audience, a magic situation that appears to remove all traces of man’s hand from the created product. It is creating a story and then hiding all the elements of creation. Wioletta Greg’s use of taxidermy as the father’s predominant metaphor (much as his daughter’s are fruits, ripe and unripe) is her most impressive trick. It allows her to connect the various single stories in the book, about childhood, about womanhood, as well as the single story of socialism, using the opaque figure of taxidermy as the connecting element. It is also an explanation for the novel’s refusal of the enlightenment genre of the Bildungsroman, built right into the narrative. In many ways, Swallowing Mercury is a novel about secrets, but really, it is a novel about that which we cannot know or contain. The animal elements of our world prove to be uncontainable for the father, who is poisoned by an angry critter; similarly, adulthood, as viewed through the eyes of a young girl, is something that is opaque. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t plan for it. You just go. Wiola, Greg’s protagonist, is pushed, and occasionally resists, but she goes on, inevitably. One wishes Wioletta Greg (or her translator) had found a better language for this the overall interestingly structured book. Grzegorzewska lives in England. Maybe she’ll write her next novel in English and allow us to take a full measurement of her achievement as a writer without the tempering pen of a translator.
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