Snow White and Russian Red by Dorota Masłowska
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For years my wife has been telling me about this young (born in 1983) Polish writer, Dorota Maslowska, and about her book "Snow White and Russian Red" (2002) (the original Polish title sounds much better: "Wojna polsko-ruska pod flaga bialo-czerwona", which roughly means "A Polish-Russian war, under the white and red flag"). I have been reluctant to read it; after all what can one expect from a nineteen year old author? While it is obvious that at nineteen one can be a great mathematician, poet, chess player, and the like, it seems impossible to write a great novel at that age. At nineteen one can have the knowledge of structures, but not the structure of knowledge, which takes years and years of living to emerge. For example, I myself at nineteen was a total idiot (like almost all of my friends and acquaintances, boys much more than girls, sorry for the sexist stereotyping); of course I knew about music, games, sports, films, TV, etc., but I knew nothing about the matters that count, I knew nothing about life.
Now that I have read the book (in English translation, because someone has borrowed the Polish original from us and never bothered to return it), I am totally blown away by it. There is much depth in the novel, and the writing is utterly magnificent. The entire ending is a literary tour de force; it is poetic, hypnotic, brilliant. Like, wow, man.
The novel, which some critics rightly compare to "Catcher in the Rye", "Trainspotting", "Naked Lunch", is about gray, depressing, small-town life of young people, the author's contemporaries, in the times of systemic change in Poland, from the so-called Communism to free-market economy. The narrator is a young man, called Nails (Silny, in the Polish original), who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. Nails and everybody else in the novel are constantly on speed. They live from day to day, without any aim, in a country where, as they say, there is no future. They look up to the West and down on the "Russkies".
When I was 19, life was so much easier. We knew who the bad guys were: the government, the press, radio, and TV. They were always lying to us, the good Polish people. In 2002 Poland things are not so easy; it is hard to know who the bad people are. Nails claims to be a leftist-anarchist, but he really does not know what it means and is mainly interested in satisfying the needs of this one special part of his body.
"Snow White and Russian Red" is a biting satire on xenophobia and fake patriotism: "Either you are a Pole or you're not a Pole. Either you are Polish or you're Russki. And to put it more bluntly, either you're a person or you're a prick." Patriotism is measured by respect of the flag.
It is a very funny novel as well. I burst out laughing about every other page. The translation by Benjamin Paloff is totally wonderful. I will soon read the original and amend this review, if need be, but I cannot believe the original Polish version could be any better. The quarter of a star that I am taking off is for the author's failed device (in my opinion) of putting herself, "Dorota Masloska", in the final parts of the book.
Here's a passage that reminds me of some of the great works in world literature; it could have been written by William Faulkner or James Joyce, but it was written by 19-year-old Dorota Maslowska, barely out of high school in Wejherowo, Poland:
"Indeed, we're girls talking about death, swinging a leg, eating nuts, though there's no talk of those who are absent. They're scarcely bruises and scratches that we did to ourselves, riding on a bike, but they look like floodwaters on our legs, like purple seas, and we're talking fiercely about death. And we imagine our funeral, at which we're present, we stand there with flowers, eavesdrop on the conversations, and cry more than everybody, we keep our moms at hand, we throw earth at the empty casket, because that way death doesn't really concern us, we are different, we'll die some other day or won't die at all. We're dead serious, we smoke cigarettes, taking drags in such a way that an echo resounds in the whole house, and we flick the ash into an empty watercolor box."
Four and three quarter stars (five stars for the translation).
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