Laugh, Nastka!

Marian Pankowski
Laugh, Nastka!
  • Korporacja Ha!art
    Kraków, 2013
    128 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-62574-96-4

This book includes eight short stories which Marian Pankowski (1919-2011) published in literary journals in the last few years of his life. This particular collection wasn’t selected by the author, so we should regard it as a sort of tribute to the great writer by his final publisher, the Krakow-based Korporacja Ha!Art. This book undoubtedly gives an excellent insight into Pankowski’s later work, which seems to centre on the issue of memory. “Years on, that story returns from behind the barriers of memory,” we read in a tale called At My Older Brother’s Cottage. In the last story, My Snow, we find: “All at once the mad rush of years! And backwards to boot!” This trip back in time might lead to events from the early childhood of the autobiographical main character (as in the title story), or to things that happened during or just after the war. Pankowski revolves around several crucial experiences that determined the course of his life. Without going into detail, I should mention his finest years, when he lived in his hometown of Sanok, his most harrowing years, when he was a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, his first few years as an émigré in Brussels, and the slighter later period when he consolidated his position as a professor at a Belgian university and an ever more highly rated Polish writer. Here we can trace the themes which frequently came up in his earlier prose, such as his obsession with an almost mystical concept of femininity, or his judgment of Polish martyrdom (as in the story The Battle Trumpets Aren’t Playing for Us). Here time scales merge, separate worlds overlap, and some everyday incidents which did actually occur (e.g. the social gathering featured in An Evening at Dr and Mrs B’s) evoke something between memories and associations combined with fantasy. The result is an intriguing illusion: as if past time never existed at all, but as if the opportunity did exist to encompass some very different, widely separated situations with a single gaze.

The anecdotal material which runs through these stories is eye-catching. Pankowski’s hero is happy to listen to other people’s chatter – people he meets by chance, as well as his closest relatives (his mother and brother, whom he regularly visits in Poland). He usually registers the sort of uninhibited speech to be found on the border of correct language, which has regional features and is close to the sort of private language spoken at home. He often stresses that what prompted him to become a writer was the voice of “our land”; he goes into a state of euphoria as he remembers the sort of remarks he used to overhear, such as: “The orchard has fruited with coarse-coated rennets”, “That year the saffron milk caps were so lovely and creamy you could milk them” (in the story called On Sisterly Love). Marian Pankowski’s inimitable, idiomatic language is without doubt a major “character” in Laugh, Nastka. Reading this book makes it easier to understand why he wanted his final prose works to be read like epic poems, where the word always takes centre stage.

Dariusz Nowacki

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones