in review: Salki
Salki by Wojciech Nowicki (translated from Polish by Jan Pytalski) Publication Date: June 13, 2017 Publisher: Open Letter
If you google Wojciech Nowicki, you’ll find a Wikipedia entry for Wojciech Nowicki, the Olympian hammer thrower. If Wikipedia entries in foreign languages reveal something about notability, the other Wojciech Nowicki—the author—appears to be unknown outside of his home country of Poland. Thanks to the literary press Open Letter and translator Jan Pytalski, perhaps this will change.
Salki is Nowicki’s first novel to be translated into English. While lying in a small Swedish bed at a writer’s conference in Gotland, the narrator is sickened by his desire to travel; he begins to recount his trips through Eastern Europe and tries to work through his family’s traumatic stories. Unpacking his memories becomes an unbearable addiction, told in a series of vignettes loosely tied to one another.
The novel resists being defined by a fixed genre as it swings between travel narrative, historical memoir, and poetic realism. Praising it for creating its own genre (as some reviewers have) seems counterproductive—it has the potential to reveal the imaginary divisions we draw between genres. Through this flux, it questions not only how we approach stories, but also the layers upon which these stories are archived, layers that have to be dug up.
In the novel, memories are stored in memorabilia, museums, a city’s narrative, and in salkis—physical attics that store trinkets, and the symbolic attics of our minds. Nowicki seems to point to an urgency in investigating and preserving memory, particularly in the Eastern European context, where suppressing and reshaping histories served the political machine and where places from the past disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union. And so the narrator obsessively reminds us of the importance of both of his preoccupations—unearthing memories and traveling—to the point that his repeated utterances sound more like insecurity than conviction.
Despite our instinct to read the individual stories as parts of Polish or Eastern European history, the stories do not serve to place themselves within history, but question the process of memory-making and consider how words attempt to give memory a permanent shape. In the same way that the narrator claims “memory is better than reality,” the memories he retells have to negotiate the language that conveys them. As a writer, his urge to manage the memories that burden him, and to re-experience them, is at the mercy of words. In fact, considering Nowicki is also a curator of photography, it’s interesting how this novel investigates what texts, as opposed to images, are able to convey.
It seems clear that the inventive expressions that the novel so naturally puts in place are not matters of translation (though Pytalksi’s great translation shouldn’t be overlooked). It’s also no surprise that the prose is invested with rich imagery. This comes through especially, like other contemporary novels set across the former Soviet states, in its dark, situational humor. One vignette features the story of the execution of François Ravaillac and the man who fried his flesh up with some eggs; in another, the narrator remembers his fear of going to the name day party of a legless aunt who cuts her lover out of photographs and bakes perfect cakes.
While most of the chapters are equally as delightful, there are sweeping religious references throughout that confuse and occasionally disturb. And yet, in doing so, they challenge the reader to either see them as a mark of Polish religiosity or to decode them. Perhaps this is what the novel is asking of us—to delve into not just our pasts but, ultimately, our impressions.
—Katie Lauren Bruton