Monday, June 06, 2011

Polish monsters

I so wanted to love A Polish Book of Monsters — I'd placed an order for it within minutes of having been alerted to its existence — but I found it to be a huge disappointment. Subtitled "Five Dark Tales from Contemporary Poland," it more accurately should've been labeled simply as an SF sampler.

  • Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo, by Marek S Huberath. This is a futuristic, postapocalyptic, dystopian tale. Nothing particularly original, but I did find it to be the most emotionally wrenching of the stories included here. As one might guess by the title, much of the story is written in "dialect" — personally I find this more distracting than clever or colourful. Part 1 is online.
  • Spellmaker, by Andrzej Sapkowski. This one's a fairly straightforward fairytale, distinguishable from standard bedtime fare only by the hero's rather boastful arsenal of augments. In addition to there being a traditional monster, however, one might view the protagonist as also being somewhat monstrous. The concept here spawned a series of stories, film and television adaptations, and a videogame. Translated variously as The Witcher and The Hexer.
  • Key of Passage, by Tomasz Kołodziejczak. This story read like typical fantasy, and it bored me. Excerpt.
  • A Cage Full of Angels, by Andrezej Zimniak. To my mind, this is the most original of the stories included in this volume. Not that I'm especially well read in SF, but I've never come across an idea anything like this one. I like this one also because it has an urban and "contemporary" feel, even though it's evident that things work not quite as they do in our known world.
  • The Iron General, by Jacek Dukaj. This story has something of an epic space opera about it. As the title might suggest, it is militaristic and political. In the context of this story, the term "monster" is used to depict (moral) character. Excerpt.

Sadly, I didn't find any of these monsters to be particularly monstrous.

Having read The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy, and being familiar with Stefan Grabiński, and aware of China Miéville's admiration for Eastern European imaginative fiction, I had hoped for something better. I didn't find these monsters to be anything special. I'd like to think there are better Polish monsters out there, that it will only take a better editor to collect them.

I fear I didn't give this book, these stories, a fair shake. Particularly offputting to me was the introduction, by editor and translator Michael Kandel, probably best known as the preeminent translator of Stanisław Lem. But the background material Kandel presents was poorly written (it can't have been copyedited) and simplistic, with no clear logic drawing it forward, making me question his abilities as a translator. The blurbs extolling the "virtuoso translations" etc seem to me to be somewhat excessive — after having read the book, they strike me as overly defensive. Despite the variety of the material, there is an overwhelming sameness of tone — a blandness — throughout the stories, a tone that I also associate with Lem (which books I've read were translated by Kandel). In the case of Lem, I'd accepted the detached tone as being part of Lem's philosophical style, but I'm concerned now that it might originate in, or be exaggerated in, the translation (I'm very curious now to read some non–Kandel-translated Lem for the sake of comparison).

Kandel seems to conclude that Polish monsters are generally internal ones, but the stories here do not completely bear this out; nor is that a uniquely Polish stance. I can't say what point he's trying to make, or what he means to demonstrate by setting these stories on the English-speaking world (other than that Poland produces a great deal of competent and diverse creative output).

So. I'm glad I read this sampling for a taste of what's out there in Poland. But here's hoping there are bigger, better, weirder, scarier monsters lurking in the corners of Poland's darker minds.
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