Warsaw Underground

Nine

by Andrzej Stasiuk,translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Harcourt, 229 pp., $23.00

The name of Andrzej Stasiuk is unlikely to be known to most American readers, but in his native Poland, he is something of a literary celebrity. His work is widely read, critically praised, and regularly awarded prizes. To many of his contemporaries, he seems to embody a distinctively Polish style of nonconformist authenticity. He is also part of a lively and diverse literary landscape that has emerged in Poland during the last two decades. Despite some predictions to the contrary, it is safe to say that the lifting of censorship nearly twenty years ago has been good for Polish letters. Released from the constraints of covertness and the duty of high-minded dissidence, writers are experimenting with a variety of hitherto suppressed genres and formal possibilities. They are addressing a range of subjects that were previously taboo or pushed to the margins of collective memory.

In much of his work, Stasiuk writes from, and about, the peripheries of Polish life: outlying landscapes, neglected corners of society, and marginal experiences. Born in 1960, Stasiuk has a freewheeling rebel’s biography: he was expelled from high school, escaped from the army (legendarily—or apocryphally—in a tank), and did time in a Communist-era prison. He is known to be a great drinker.

Stasiuk lives in the sparsely populated rural region of eastern Galicia, near the Slovak border, where he runs a publishing house called Czarne (Black) with his partner, and which he has used as the setting for several of his books. (In this, he is part of an interesting wider trend in Polish writing, which in recent years has been produced increasingly in the country’s borderland and provincial regions.) Several of his books have come out of his journeys through the hinterlands of Eastern Europe and the Balkans—the geographical (and political) constellation once known as “the other Europe.” He has written fiction, poetry, an account of life in prison, a highly unorthodox “attempt at an intellectual autobiography,” and a number of books that hover on borders between genres, combining travelogue, personal reflections, and philosophical quests.

Unusually for him, Nine, published in Poland in 1999, and his third book to be translated into English, is set in Warsaw, rather than one of the remoter regions. Thematically, however, the novel takes us into Stasiuk’s usual territory, “the other Poland”—in this case, a world of lawlessness and danger rarely glimpsed by the casual observer, but embedded right in the geographical center.

In depicting this newly emerged underworld, Stasiuk adapts the conventions and clichés of the crime novel to his own, often darkly comic purposes. Nine recounts a few days in the lives of several small-time hustlers and criminals, following their movements through Warsaw as they seek to reverse misfortune or add to their ill-gotten gains. The main character, Pawel, a fledgling entrepreneur, in debt to loan sharks and struggling to remain on the right side of respectability, wakes up one morning to find that his apartment has been broken into and …

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