Wioletta Greg is frankly fantastic, and Eliza Marciniak has rendered her voice in English delightfully. A good friend gave this translation of Swallowing Mercury for my birthday, and her only concern was that I might have it already, but I might not have read it in English otherwise. The protagonist is about the same age as me, but grew up in communist Poland. So we have some similar memories, but from a different angle.
At the age of about nine, I remember we got new colouring pens in school. I told my teacher that they were really good ones, and we had given the same ones to my Polish cousins for Christmas. She said something irritating like “Oh, they’ll be so grateful, poor things.” I was mildly insulted – but how could the teacher know that those particular cousins lived in a rather nice house Worcestershire?
This Polish schoolgirl didn’t let pens hold her back. She had a glorious art career opening up before her – but she still felt insulted, for rather different reasons:
Another early memory of mine is of my liberal Catholic parents taking us out of town for the day to avoid the pomp and circumstance when Pope John Paul II arrived. The heroine’s village women get a bit more excited about his visit, but they aren’t as pious as you’d think:
The next day, the wind, the rain, and most importantly the security services have taken all the bunting down. The popemobile whizzes by and nobody even gets a glimpse of him.
Swallowing Mercury is by turns riotously funny, delightful, and really rather dark. The villagers know how to make something out of nothing and subvert the corrupt structures of power at every turn; but being a teenage girl isn’t easy anywhere.
Longlisted for the Man Booker International, it’s no wonder that Swallowing Mercury has made the shortlist for the US National Translation Awards. This book is up against stiff competition, including Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey in the poetry category and Perur’s of Ghachar Ghochar in the prose. So long as the prize isn’t an outdoor writing workshop, I hope Wioletta Greg and Eliza Marciniak win…
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