Short story collection
Marta Kwaśnicka
Mistake

A portrait of a generation living off loans and “junk” contracts, house moves and emigration

The man I was watching was rather dapper. He was nothing like those tramps whose appearance on a tram or bus causes panic to break out among the other passengers, who

bring with them the stench of such great misfortune that the vehicle empties at the next stop. This poor wretch smelled only of alcohol, and not too strongly. He clambered onto the tram with great difficulty and sat in the first free seat, right by the door. He clearly had trouble walking. He wore an old, baggy jacket that had been mended in a few places, and a woollen beret with buttons, pulled down low over his ears. This strange get-up indicated that the man lived in a shelter and someone, perhaps the nuns, had got him dressed, because he seemed too muddle-headed to have done it himself. I had the impression someone else had put the beret on him like a child, and he’d been walking around in it like a little scatter-brained tot, forgetting he had something on his head. He was holding a large, half-empty cotton shopper. It was hard to say what was inside. Probably he was a can or bottle collector and, despite his evident mobility problems, he was going into town to try and make some money.

‘Sit down, madam, don’t validate your ticket,’ he said to a woman who got on after him. ‘Why should we? We don’t owe them anything.’

He moved over to make room for her to sit down next to him, but she had no intention of doing so. Casting him a suspicious glance, she walked past him, heading towards the back of the tram.

[…]

Silence fell in the carriage. The man’s raised voice had shaken everyone from their apathy. Conversations ground to a halt.

Eventually, a woman sitting nearby broke the silence. ‘Such profanity. That’s Poland for you,’ she said in disgust.

‘Traffic disruptions on Długa Street,’ came the voice of a controller from the depot.

‘Shut it, you scumbag. Don’t be making a noise here,’ replied the tramp angrily, not taking his eyes off the Basilica. ‘Yes, Wyspiański’s buried there too. A great man, I saw a photo of him once when he was in Paris. I’ve also been to Paris.’

Some of the passengers started exchanging amused glances, but the poor wretch in the beret, his eyes still fixed on what was outside the window, kept talking: ‘You oaf! You had the Golden Horn! You oaf! You had your feathered cap which was stolen by the breeze. The Horn resounds among the trees – you’re left with nothing but the strap! All you’re left with is the strap!’ His hoarse, breaking voice contrasted strangely with the words he was speaking. He sounded like an old, malfunctioning contraption playing a familiar melody off-key. The young lad sitting opposite him pulled his hood down over his face; someone else got up and moved further down the carriage, as far as possible from the man and his monologue.

‘He had a good friend, Rydel,’ continued the tramp. ‘I remember that because I had a good friend once too. They called him “Rome” even though he only drank beer and smoked cigarettes. There was nothing Italian about him. Nor noble, as it turned out. But all the same, they called him “Rome”, that was the nickname he got, the scumbag.’

He shook his head nervously, turned away from the window and looked around the tram.

‘There was a student as well,’ he said to a young woman sitting nearby. ‘They called her “Muriel”. Beautiful, like you, I liked her very much. Very much. We used to go to the Basilica together.’ The young woman didn’t reply. She pretended to be occupied by something outside and kept staring through the window.

‘Then Muriel had Rome’s baby, a son. The weather was like today when they whisked her off to the hospital on Copernicus Street. Scumbag. Her hair was auburn.’ The lights that illuminate Wawel Castle at dusk were shining on the Vistula, so the tramp looked in that direction too.

‘Oh, that’s where they should have buried Wyspiański,’ he muttered and fell silent.

Excerpt translated by Kate Webster

Short story collection
Marta Kwaśnicka
Mistake

A portrait of a generation living off loans and “junk” contracts, house moves and emigration

Publisher: Tyniec. Wydawnictwo Benedyktynów, Kraków 2019
Translation rights: Translation rights: Marta Kwaśnicka, martakwasnicka@gmail.com

Mistake is a collection of thirteen stories by Marta Kwaśnicka, a highly-regarded writer and essayist born in 1981. The book can be read both as Kwaśnicka’s secret autobiography and as a portrait of the generation that entered adulthood following the fall of communism in 1989. Post-communist Poland was supposed to have been a brave new world for this generation, but reality soon dispelled those illusions. The biography of this generation is riddled with “mistakes”: living off loans and “junk” contracts, house moves, emigration, a sense of defeat and uprooting, breaking with history. Kwaśnicka’s volume is thus a short-story version of the tale of a lost generation that must meet the world’s ruthlessness head-on, shedding its childish naivety and embracing maturity.

Kwaśnicka tells this classic story in an original format. She invites the reader to see things through a young woman’s eyes, reconstructing the past with a realist’s precision, and displaying her interest in the spiritual dimension of generational disillusionment. The protagonist of Mistake explores issues of identity, evil, love, the meaning of art, and the place of women in a male world.

Kwaśnicka – or rather, the narrator – spins tales around apparently banal events from the past, be it a game of chess with a second-hand bookseller in London while waiting for a coach to Poland, an optician’s appointment, or meeting a beggar on a tram in Krakow. Specific objects play an important role: a vodka bottle in Moskovskaya or an old piano in Ignaz. Most of Kwaśnicka’s stories also strive for a discreet moral, in addition to employing different variations on the short-story format. The Fruit mirrors quasi-biblical apocrypha, Moskovskaya resembles a vignette of society, Scumbag is a classic short story, and Lava is somewhere between a self-portrait and an essay.

Drawing on the best traditions of Polish short-story writing, Kwaśnicka perfectly describes the atmosphere of modern cities such as Warsaw, Krakow and Rome. Her interest lies in the mystery hidden in everyday life. Mistake was the winner of this year’s Marek Nowakowski Award.

Maciej Urbanowski

Translated by Kate Webster

Learn more about other New Books from Poland

Selected samples

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Szczepan Twardoch
Wojciech Chmielarz
Robert Małecki
Zygmunt Miłoszewski
Anna Piwkowska
Dominika Słowik
Wojciech Chmielewski
Barbara Banaś
Rafał Mikołajczyk
Waldemar Bawołek
Julia Fiedorczuk
Jakub Szamałek
Witold Szabłowski
Jacek Dukaj
Grzegorz Górny, Janusz Rosikoń
Paweł Piechnik
Andrzej Strumiłło

69

Marta Kwaśnicka
Piotr Mitzner
Paweł Sołtys
Wacław Holewiński
Anna Potyra
Wiesław Helak
Urszula Zajączkowska
Marek Stokowski
Stokowski
Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki
HKD
Jakub Małecki
Malecki_Horyzont
Łukasz Orbitowski
Orbitowski
Małgorzata Rejmer
Rejmer
Rafał Wojasiński
Olanda
Wojciech Kudyba
Kudyba
Włodzimierz Bolecki
Bolecki
Jerzy Liebert
Liebert
Wojciech Zembaty
Zembaty
Wojciech Chmielarz
Chmielarz
Bogdan Musiał
Musiał
Joanna Siedlecka
Siedlecka
Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski
Drozdowski
Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz
Marek Bieńczyk
Bienczyk
Leszek Elektorowicz
Elektorowicz
Adrian Sinkowski
Sinkowski
Szymon Babuchowski
Babuchowski
Lech Majewski
Majewski
Weronika Murek
Murek
Agnieszka Świętek
Swietek
Stanisław Szukalski
Barbara Klicka
Klicka
Anna Kamińska

She climbed her first peaks in a headscarf at a time when women in the mountains were treated by climbers as an additional backpack. It was with her that female alpinism began! She gained recognition in a spectacular way. The path was considered a crossing for madmen. Especially since the tragic accident in 1929, preserved … Continue reading “Halina”

Wojciech Chmielarz

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Anna Kańtoch

A young girl, Regina Wieczorek, was found dead on the beach. She was nineteen years old and had no enemies. Fortunately, the culprit was quickly found. At least, that’s what the militia think. Meanwhile, one day in November, Jan Kowalski appears at the police station. He claims to have killed not only Regina but also … Continue reading “Penance”

Marek Krajewski

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Ks. Tomasz Stępień

This question is closely related to the next one, namely: if any goal exists, does life lead us to that goal in an orderly manner? In other words, is everything that happens to us just a set of chaotic events that, combined together, do not form a whole? To understand how the concept of providence … Continue reading “Order and Love”

Jakub Małecki
Szczepan Twardoch
Wiesław Helak
Maria Wilczek-Krupa
Anna Kańtoch
Rafał Kosik
Paweł Sołtys
Dorota Masłowska
Wiesław Myśliwski
Martyna Bunda
Olga Tokarczuk
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Marzanna Bogumiła Kielar
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Bronisław Wildstein
Anna Bikont
Magdalena Grzebałkowska
Wojciech Orliński
Klementyna Suchanow
Andrzej Franaszek
Natalia Budzyńska
Marian Sworzeń
Aleksandra Wójcik, Maciej Zdziarski
Józef Łobodowski

The work of Józef Łobodowski (1909-1988) – a remarkable poet, prose writer, and translator, who spent most of his life in exile – is slowly being revived in Poland. Łobodowski’s brilliant three- volume novel, composed on an epic scale, concerns the fate of families and orphans unmoored by the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war and … Continue reading “Ukrainian Trilogy: Thickets, The Settlement, The Way Back”

Piotr Zaremba
Wacław Holewiński
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