Let’s start off with two Polish jokes. No, not that kind, these are more like sayings the Poles tell about themselves. They are meant to be revelatory about the Polish mindset rather than funny. The first goes: “The trouble with (us) Poles is that we love in black and white. We don’t get color.” This probably doesn’t mean what you might think. The black and white referred to stands for the romantic way old movies and photographs look at love, versus the more modern colorized versions. A Polish love affair should be compared to the music of its greatest native son, Frederic Chopin. The emotions swell and crest with desire and heart in an intense but innocent way. The color version of love as embraced by the West may be rooted in these black and white notions but are more sophisticated. Polish lovers seek the simpler ideal as the ultimate goal.
The second maxim is more political. This joke was popular during the Communist reign over the country. Why are Poles like radishes: Because they are red on the surface and white in the middle (i.e. Communist on the outside, Capitalist on the inside). The joke takes on an added meaning because the Polish flag is half red and half white. The color combination has poignancy in light of the nation’s dual domination by Communist and Capitalist socioeconomic forces during the past 50-plus years.
These two jokes provide useful perspectives into Dorota Maslowska’s celebrated debut novel, Snow White and Russian Red. On one level, it’s an old-fashioned love story. The first person narrator Andrzej “Nails” Robakoski descends into a sordid world of sex and drugs as a way of dealing with his heartbreak after being dumped by his long time girlfriend, Magda. One needs to understand the Polish exaltation of romantic love to understand why he feels such pain. Of course Maslowska mocks this notion as much as she documents its effects. Human feelings provide an instinctual critique of society that twists them into blind and meaningless lust. Western capitalist culture transformed human relationships into commodities that can be bought and sold, as girls like Magda willingly market themselves to German businessmen for the opportunity to leave Poland and move to the West.
The contemporary Polish social and historical context gives the narrative an explicitly political context. The characters are lost in the global village where Western decadence has overtaken Russian cultural values. The idea of Snow White to which the title refers, whether in terms of the Grimm’s fairy tale, the Disney production, or just common parlance, presumes purity and innocence. The novel presents Snow White as the symbol of Western civilization and she’s a drug-addled whore willing to sell herself cheap.
While this idea may not be new, Maslowska’s postmodern way of presenting the corruption of Polish society is remarkable and she has been celebrated for her literary techniques. The character Nails tells the story in a stream of consciousness narrative, and because of his heavy use of speed, he speaks in associations of thought that tangle into rambling, philosophic rationales for his bad behaviours. Nails finds conspiracies and connections everywhere he looks: between concentration camps and beauty contests, roofing tiles and Russian invasions. He also hallucinates and can’t tell the real from the surreal. He has visions of a girl who throws up stones and typewriters from which it’s impossible to spell the word “no” because the letters n and o are missing. Nails’ wild narration keeps the tone light-hearted, and at times hysterical, because he’s such an ineffectual chump. His observations and opinions may sometimes be vile (in his paranoia he sees everyone and everything as his enemy) but they lack sting. His ideas of revenge are merely playful fantasies, whether against his former girlfriend or real adversaries.
International critics have called Maslowska the saviour of Polish literature, an extravagant claim that reveals more about the paucity of (or maybe critic’s lack of familiarity with) Polish talent than Maslowska’s ability. Her experimental use of language combined with her dysfunctional characters partaking of meaningless sex and strong drugs as a way of escape and self expression in an uncaring world connect Snow White and Russian Red to the American literature of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. Maslowska may energetically describe Polish youth and contemporary life, but her singular novel is more of a good read, than a masterpiece. She knows this, as evidenced by the way in which she makes fun of herself by including herself as a character in he novel. She’s a mousy office worker in the jail of a police department who deludes herself into thinking life is fine although she’s been screwed over in life by teachers and supervisors for her minor rebellions.
But the book belongs to Nails, not the minor character Maslowska. His dim-witted statements of Polish nationalism reveal the stupidity of such sentiments, but the reality of a Poland caught between East and West make him a sympathetic character. He wants to be with the woman he loves in a world that reveres goodness as he fucks anything that moves and commits as many minor crimes as he can get away with. It’s not his fault (re: Poland’s fault); it’s the bad Russians and corrupt Westerners that made him this way. And indeed Communism was evil and Western decadence has not proved much better. Maslowska the author presents modern day Poland, its McDonalds and discos, disenfranchised youth and sell-out politicians, as a society in which there is no place for love, but where it grows anyway. Communism was bad, capitalism hasn’t made life much better, but optimism remains.