Mother Departs by Tadeusz Różewicz and translated by Barbara Bogoczek was kindly sent to me for review by the lovely people at Stork Press. Described as “a unique mix of prose and poetry” and “a profoundly moving exploration of the joy of life and the agony of loss” it’s not the sort of thing I’d otherwise have picked up, but I’m glad I did.
It was just the right length for the train journey down to London for the Book Fair and offered plenty of food for thought. Tadeusz Różewicz is said to be Poland’s foremost living writer and has won many prizes and awards, as well as being nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Mother Departs was first published in Poland in 1999 and won the Nike Prize in 2000. It brings together diaries, stories and poems to tell the story of the author’s mother Stefania and her family, and wrestles with her death and that of the author’s elder brother Janusz, executed by the Gestapo in 1944. In the introduction by Tony Howard, another of Różewicz’s poems is quoted:
waiting for me at home
Create poetry after Auschwitz (p. xiii, citing Poezja 2 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1988), p. 344)
Unfortunately, I lack the resources to appreciate or assess poetry. It has always left me cold (apart from silly, funny rhyming stuff that doesn’t really count) and I’ve never been taught to study it properly. This means that while an image from the poetry caught my attention here or there, it was really the prose sections that interested me.
There is Stefania’s account of the grinding, desperate poverty and ignorance of the village she grew up in at the turn of the 20th century. Later she talks about a more middle-class kind of poverty in the city in the ’20s. There are snippets and fragments from Różewicz – his own childhood memories, an incident with an ornamental glass vase, the only thing in the house that served no practical purpose but was just there because of its beauty. There’s his desperately honest diary of his mother’s last illness and death:
I see how she’s suffering and I should wish for her release. But I wish so much that she could live, so I could scrounge at least half a year more so I could look at her sometimes. Is this selfishness – but no, love can be like this… she may suffer terribly, but let her breathe, let her eyes be open, let her look, let her speak – there’s still warmth in this poor butchered, tormented, human body. (p. 92)
Finally there is writing from Różewicz’s two brothers, Janusz and Stanisław. It all adds up to a quite remarkable memoir of a family, of Poland in the twentieth century and of life, and death. I had no idea what to expect of it, and I’m still working it through at the moment.
Barbara Bogoczek has tackled what must have been an incredibly difficult translation task. We talk about voice in translation, and here is not one voice but many, not one style but many. Poetry, prose, diaries, letters… Then there’s knowing that the writer is so eminent, which would scare me at any rate! Still, looking at the Translator Reflection that Stork Press always publish on their website, it sounds as though few people could have been better qualified: she is a close friend of the author with twenty years’ experience of translating his work, and has the benefit of a close working relationship with editor Tony Howard too.
Do read her piece in the link above as it offers a valuable insight into the translation process. Meanwhile here’s an excerpt:
It was crucial for me to convey those different family voices, and – odd as it sounds – to do this I had to suspend my own thoughts and voice. This is what actually happens to me when I translate. Apart from the intellectual transfer of the discourse, there’s a powerful emotional involvement, an identification with the original characters there in the text, who ask – need – to be transported into another reality – a new language. (Barbara Bogoczek)
Translating this book made me feel like a member of the Różewicz family – I hope that reading it may give the English audience a similar sensation.
It certainly did for me, and I hope it will for others too.