Brygida Helbig’s Angels and Pigs in Berlin is one of the most interesting émigré stories to appear in Polish literature over the last decade, and there have been a profusion of these novels. However, the problem was that of the million Poles who left the country and dispersed about the globe, the decided majority experienced a typical story saying that anyone who earned money in the West either remained a slave to the illegal labour market, or was a criminal, or sold their own body.
Angels and Pigs is a refreshing change in this context. Ironical and sensitive, caustic and sentimental by turns, this book tells a story that’s expressed in the style of personal biography. As a result there is no stereotyping, even if the episodes described are quite ordinary. It is the story of Gisela Stopa, a girl from Poland who arrives in Germany, learns the language while living at a resettlement centre and does some studying. Then she has a modest, but big success – she gets a job at a college. And then more: she finds a husband, adopts a child and produces her first literary attempts. All three events mark her triumph over being foreign – culturally, socially and in terms of language. The heroine has achieved the hardest thing of all – she has reinvented her own everyday life in a foreign country, made close ties with other people and developed her own style of self-expression.
However, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Quite the opposite: her marriage fails, the university closes her department and the literary club turns into nonsense. Despite these misfortunes the energetic Gisela goes on striding the streets of Berlin. For a while she has no job and no husband, but she has achieved the most important thing – she knows she can cope.
Thanks to her literary sensitivity she also knows what an important role language plays. Helbig uses some awful metaphors such as “Polish pigs” or “German precision” because in her story language is one of the protagonists. Brought to the surface and examined under the light, it shows how society lives in terms of metaphors which it uses to label the world. In the early 1980s the Germans were hungry for something different, so they took in foreigners, gave them grants and sent them to university. Now, in the early twenty-first century, they are fed up with strangers.
So should they change their diet? “Savour” their foreigners rather than “devour” them? Brygida Helbig’s tale is more likely to convince them they should refresh their own metaphors. And to do that you need literature.
Brygida Helbig (b. 1963) is a writer and scholar of literature. She read Polish studies at Szczecin and Slavonic and German studies at Bochum University, and worked in the Slavonic department at Berlin’s Humboldt University. She has published a volume of poetry entitled Jasmine Poems (1997) and a novel entitled Pałówa (2000).
Anrath bei Krefeld
In the early 1980s the Federal Republic imported several trainloads of young people from Poland, eager for adventure and prosperity. They were taken to a small place called Anrath in the Krefeld area, to be made useful to German society, which was tired of prosperity, bored with sameness and hungry for fresh impressions. Those accepted –among whom were at least one male and one female Pole of German extraction – were given the status of late migrants and started a relatively carefree life as scholarship students at the Otto Benecke Stiftung, receiving German language lessons each day, and five hundred marks in the bank each month. They were accommodated in a former hospital and a hostel for nurses. Both unrestored buildings were very scary, which reflected the ambivalent attitude of the German administration to all this imported human raw material, so the migrants felt afraid. Huddled in their shabby little rooms they cheered themselves up by watching a serial called Denver-Clan every Tuesday, and Dallas every Thursday, the main heroine of which was the unscrupulous Alexis. There’s no need to despise or mock this habit, because television was their only chance of gaining certain basic qualifications in the German language and culture, though admittedly the students managed extremely well without these particular skills. Nevertheless, most of them invested their first pay packet in miniature colour TVs, where Rudi Carell smiled benevolently, the hit parade boomed away, and energetic women in colourful leggings jumped about.
Another item in constant demand among the young Poles brought up in poverty was cameras. Homesick for the families they had left in Poland, the students squeezed onto each other’s laps and snapped away like mad. There were even some who could already afford to buy a cheap car and go roaring round the streets with a squealing gang of eight on board. This led to occasional clashes and wrangles with the local police, who addressed the Polish newcomers, and for that matter just about all foreigners, using the informal “du”, about which Alois von Wysoki, the boldest of the group and most likely of German extraction, once lodged a complaint. By doing so he aroused deep consternation among the representatives of the German state, who were not used to this sort of interaction, and often used the word “foreigner” as a form of insult. In any case, Alois usually got on the wrong side of officials. Once quizzed at the border as to whether he was carrying a weapon, he snapped “Ja”, because he was expecting to be asked about his passport, and that was how he had understood the immigration official’s question. Pulled from the car, he boldly spat in the German’s face, after which he was led away to a cell in handcuffs. Wild with rage, he kept repeating in Polish “I’ll kill him, the fool”, and called for help by saying “tłumacz, tłumacz” – the Polish word for “interpreter” – which was misinterpreted as an attempt to make himself understood in English (“too much”) – and as a criticism of the degree of repression used to deal with him. He expressed himself just as obscenely with regard to more than one German administrative employee of the “Hausmeister” type, in other words the janitor, who performed the duties assigned to him with the officiousness typical of his profession. He even taunted one of them by saying he wasn’t human, which it took the German a long time to forget.
One of the students at the Otto Benecke Stiftung was a person with Wurst in her blood called Gisela Stopa, who had proof of her German origins, granted her on the basis of falsified witness statements. Gisela insisted that her father was a Silesian German, had played the drum during the war and as a small boy once shook hands with some fascist. This was an obvious delusion or fabrication determined by the desire to gain favour with a society that was essentially alien to her, and to divert attention from the true state of affairs. The girl took it a bit too far, as in fact her Wurst-ian status was not engraved on her forehead, nor did it make her an exceptional creature, especially compared with all the other women from Poland who, because of the way their male compatriots were always on the look out for a tasty morsel, were generally defined as “meat”.
For lack of self-confidence, Gisela never admitted such compatriots to her bed. She only gave asylum there to her friend Edith Jeziersky-Sturm, who was haunted by devils and had suffered traumatic shock, and sought in her bed at night a solid, corporeal counterweight to her own overwhelming spirituality, which sometimes bordered on Satanism. This sort of deviation wasn’t hard to come by in Anrath. The atmosphere in this wilderness full of the stumps of withered trees and the graves of letters from Poland, stamped by the censors and buried in the hospital forecourt, had a strange way of encouraging the development of some esoteric perversions and transformations, especially among the Polish women who were always susceptible to a summons from the other world. Many of them were bewitched by the magical incitement of the place, where so many annual intakes of migrants howled at night from homesickness, grappled with the ghosts of the past and regretted their untimely decision to emigrate. Gisela was saved from Edith’s disastrous influence by Alexander Düppel, a German language teacher. At the first lesson he asked her the following questions: “Do you know conditional mood number one?” and “Do you know conditional mood number two?”. Gisela answered both questions in the affirmative. But when he asked her his third, trick question: “Do you know conditional mood number three?” (which doesn’t exist in German), she hesitated, gave him a puzzled look, and fell silent, startled, embarrassed and so terribly uncomfortable that the German instantly fell in love.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones