Mariusz Szczygieł (born 1966) is one of the leading reportage writers of his generation and a co-founder of the Polish Reportage Institute. Best known internationally for his books about the Czechs, notably Gottland (which won the 2009 European Book Prize), he is also the editor of a three-volume, nearly 3,000-page anthology of twentieth-century Polish reportage. Recently I talked to him about his work.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones: You started your career as a television presenter, the frontman for a talk show called “On Any Topic.” Why did you decide to give up TV and concentrate on books and print journalism?
Mariusz Szczygieł: I spoke to the talk-show guests in exactly the same way as I do to the people whom I go and see as an author of reportage. But television programs involve team work. There was a whole army of people working around me: lighting technicians, camera operators, researchers, make-up artists, editors, and so on. I didn’t feel as if what I was doing in front of the camera was mine, or that I could take personal responsibility for it. Whereas when I’m writing reportage, I talk to the hero of the text in person, without being surrounded by a whole team of people. When I’m selecting the material myself and making my own decisions on what to include in my text, I can take sole responsibility for the whole thing. And that suits me better. The central character is in my hands and no one else’s. If I’m ever unfair to my interviewees in any way, I should take the responsibility. On television I couldn’t do that.
ALJ: Who were your influences? What role have the great reportage writers Ryszard Kapuściński, Hanna Krall, and Małgorzata Szejnert played in your career? How did you develop your writing style?
MS: From Ryszard Kapuściński I learned that everything has to be seen in its wider context—that we’re not alone, meaning that what happens to us has already happened to other people, somewhere else in the world. He taught me to see that we are only a very small part of the world.
From Hanna Krall I learned to write less rather than more. She taught me that all the words have already been used, everything has already been said, which means I must always remember to stop and wonder whether the world actually needs my words.
From Małgorzata Szejnert I learned that reportage should be about whatever it’s about, plus something else as well. She taught me that the story is not everything. There has to be an idea behind it. “Małgosia,” I’d say, “I’ve got a good topic—a woman poisoned her husband!” And then she would ask: “But what’s it actually about, Mariusz? A woman poisoned her husband? That’s not enough for a report.”
Nowadays my style is like striptease. Whatever the topic, I try to present it the way a striptease artiste does her act: first one of the gloves comes off, then the second glove, then the top . . . I never give everything away right at the start, but instead I drip-feed the story, providing the information in small doses as a way of drawing the reader in. Then I’m told: “You describe every trivial incident as if it were the story of a crime.”
ALJ: Your early articles were about Poland in the 1990s, when it first emerged from the communist system. How were they received? Were your compatriots surprised by what they saw in your mirror?
MS: My compatriots are often surprised by what I write about them. Freedom, not just the political kind, but the moral variety too, caused a lot of problems.
I remember writing the following sentence twenty-three years ago: “Lately, some American books have come out in Poland that encourage the public to onanize.” It’s the first sentence in my report titled “Polish onanism.” Gazeta Wyborcza, which in those days was Poland’s biggest newspaper, wanted me to do some journalistic research into whether masturbation was still a taboo topic in the new post-communist reality. Thanks to that report, the Christian Democratic Party added me to their list of authors whom a Catholic should not read.
An imploring letter came in from a female reader, saying, “How can you recommend such vile practices that trample on all that’s sacred!” She’d clearly mistaken a description of the phenomenon of masturbation as propaganda for it. Lots of people declared that they would never buy Gazeta again. One reader sent his copy to the editors, with a note in the margin to say that I should give it to his mom and dad, “who, by failing to onanize, begat a bird-brained marvel like me.” Another female reader, outraged by the section on masturbation within the army, wrote that the glory of Poland’s noble troops had been defiled. Influential Catholic journals published lengthy polemical articles, setting out to prove that masturbation was a threat to the Polish nation. And that was how we arrived at a debate entitled: “Can an onanist be a true Pole?” This involved consideration of the practices, relationships, sexual identities and above all the sort of non-reproductive behavior that could be regarded as natural and healthy, and consequently as normal and “Polish.” So it was a debate about sexual citizenship. Or to put it another way, it was a formative moment for ideas on the theme of “who is a desirable citizen.”
Nowadays the word “onanism” appears on television and in the press without making any impression whatsoever.
ALJ: Why do you write so much about the Czechs?
MS: When I wrote my book Do-It-Yourself Paradise I wanted to find out if it’s possible to be happy without God in a country where the majority are non-believers. I myself had lost my faith, and I was worried about what that might entail, so I was looking for support. I asked the Czechs, “How do you live without God?” When I wrote Gottland I wanted to show how another nation had survived its turbulent history in a different way from the Polish method—without rebellion, without any uprisings. Of course I don’t know how to write about historical processes, I can only write about individuals, so each of my books tells the story of particular people and their lives. Láska nebeská (a title literally meaning “heavenly love” in Czech, though I prefer to translate it as “love not of this earth” to move away from the religious associations) is different from the rest. It’s a collection of impressions—amusing ones, as I see it—gained from various famous Czech books. The Czechs interest me because they have all sorts of characteristics that you never find among the Poles. The best proof of this is that when Miloš Forman’s movie, Loves of a Blonde, was released in Poland, the advertising posters were labeled “A psychological drama,” while in the Czech Republic they said “A comedy of manners.” How can the same film be given such different billing? That’s the mystery of these two societies, and in my reportage I try to get to the bottom of it.
ALJ: Please tell me about your new book about the hijacked plane. Why have you chosen to write about Poland again?
MS: In the early 1980s, following the introduction of martial law in Poland, our country was a world leader in hijacking. Most of the Polish hijackers just wanted to defect, usually to West Berlin. One of these incidents, when thirty factory workers from a small town hijacked a plane although not one of them had ever traveled by plane before, seems to me an excellent story. Nowadays, most Poles are not in favor of accepting political refugees in Poland. I’d like to remind them that once upon a time we were refugees too.
ALJ: In your weekly newspaper column you often write about the truth, in various forms—the truth as perceived by all sorts of individuals you encounter in daily life. Do you always write nothing but the truth?
MS: Always! Except that the truth is like a butt—everyone’s sitting on their own one, as Lech Wałęsa once said. There’s nothing more subjective than the truth—I know it sounds iconoclastic, but each pair of eyes sees differently. At meetings with readers I often ask a simple question: what color is the top worn by someone in the front row. Various color names come up: red, raspberry, salmon, brick, orange, pink, maroon . . . though they’re all talking about the same top. And then I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, who is right? Who is the most objective reporter? Which one is telling the truth?” And we come to the conclusion that they all are. Jesus only had one life story, but there were four evangelists. Did any of them fail to write the truth? Reportage is the most subjective form of journalism.
ALJ: Is Polish reportage really a distinct genre? How, if at all, does it differ from the work of travel writers or foreign correspondents from other countries? How has its range developed in recent years? Why do you think it is such a strong genre in Poland, often gaining more resonance abroad than many works of fiction?
MS: The journalists from other countries who travel around the world usually write about what they see. And that’s where their work ends. They often include lots of things that aren’t essential. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård’s article about his journey to Newfoundland, where he was sent by The New York Times, would have no chance of being published in any of the Polish newspapers. He describes getting into a cab, and losing his wallet, but maybe that happens because worldly matters don’t interest him much—his mind is on writing a masterpiece instead . . . that the editor suggested he make this journey . . . that he got in a cab with a nice driver . . . Jesus wept! Who cares about all that? The only thing missing is that he brushed his teeth that morning. You could write like that in the days when nobody knew anything about the world, when there was no Internet, most people never went abroad, and the reader was curious about everything. One of the forefathers of Polish reportage, Melchior Wańkowicz, scolded his daughter, who wanted to be a reporter too, but who put everything into her texts, whether necessary or not, “If you want to write about every last thing, why not become a court stenographer!”
In Poland reportage is more than just an ordinary newspaper article. It’s a combination of “facts and beauty.” It’s the truth—usually told along literary lines. The author of reportage can apply any of the devices that a writer uses in a novel or a short story, apart from one: he can’t make anything up. Reportage should have added value, in other words it should tell the story of what it’s about (the facts) but at the same time it should be about something more than that. In short, it should have what the great Polish reporter, Hanna Krall, calls “a surplus beyond the facts.”
When my book of reportage, Gottland, was published abroad, in France it was described as a book of essays, in the United States as a book of novellas, in Germany as short stories, and in Russia as historical sketches. I kept having to explain that these texts were originally published in a daily newspaper, which people found quite surprising.
Not long ago, one of the Czech weeklies gave Polish reportage an excellent write-up: “Among our northern neighbours, where something is merely suggested, in our country it is stated in full, where the Poles produce something like literature, the Czechs stick firmly to plain factual reporting, and where in Poland something remains a mystery, in the Czech Republic it has to be rammed home with a moral message.”
So what’s the source of this tradition in Poland? It’s thanks to the writers. The Polish writers of the 1920s and 1930s, who were busy helping to build the new, independent Poland, knew that influencing the minds of Poles via novels would take too long. A novel takes a year or two to write, whereas a piece of reportage can be written in a week. Reportage gave them a quick way of making public statements about important social issues. They treated this genre like a sort of “espresso machine.” So the Polish weeklies were full of reportage, penned by the greatest writers of the day. Hence the attention to form that we are still cultivating today.
There are some excellent American authors of reportage who write factual novels. My favorite is Erik Larson, who writes for The Wall Street Journal. His books include both facts and a “surplus.”
ALJ: You are a co-founder (with Wojciech Tochman and Paweł Goźliński) of the Reportage Institute. What inspired you to found it, what are its aims, and what results are there so far?
MS: We wanted to open a bookstore that would only sell non-fiction. Then we came to the conclusion that a bookstore wouldn’t be sustainable on nothing but book sales, so we should offer the customers coffee too. And if there was coffee, there should also be cakes and sandwiches, and maybe wine as well. And if there was wine, there should be beer too. And if ours is a small, alternative bookstore, that has to compete with all the big commercial chains, maybe we should sell alternative beer from small, local breweries. And that’s how “Wrzenie świata” came into being, a very fashionable place to hang out in Warsaw. [“Wrzenie świata” means something like “World uproar,” “World in turmoil.”] Ryszard Kapuściński is responsible for the name. In the 1980s, several of his books were published in Poland with the series title “Wrzenie świata.” So we borrowed it.
We decided from the start to found a school as well, where we would teach people to write reportage. In other words, what the newspaper editorial offices no longer do, because they haven’t the time. We work with the student reporters for a year, just as we used to work with the editors in the past when we were starting out. In just the past year, some of our graduates have gone on to publish seven books of their own. For the seventh year of the school we’ve had to organize two groups, because we have so many talented students.
When the china store opposite our bookstore went bust, we applied to the local council to let us have it, so that we could turn it into a cultural center, with an auditorium for literary events, talks and performances.
Then Wojciech Tochman and I realized that we didn’t have to find publishers for our work, but could set up our own publishing house. So we founded one, publishing non-fiction only, which has been up and running since September 2014. Since then we have published 17 titles. [The publishing house is called “Dowody na istnienie,” which is taken from the title of a book by Hanna Krall, and means “Evidence of existence.”]
It all started in 2010. We’re still just a non-profit foundation. Our motto is a quotation from Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński: “We all know a little about everything.” The whole point of non-fiction is to know and understand more, and that is our aim.
ALJ: Thank you very much for the interview.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a full-time translator of Polish literature, and twice winner of the Found in Translation award. She has translated works by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists including Paweł Huelle, and authors of reportage including Mariusz Szczygieł. She also translates crime fiction, poetry, essays, and books for children. She is a mentor for the BCLT’s Emerging Translators’ Mentorship Programme, and Co-Chair of the UK Translators Association.
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