As part of our ‘Authors and Translators’ interview series presented by Slovenian translator Tatjana Jamnik, Polish writer Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki speaks about his work, the writing process, engaged literature, the difference between popular and high literature, as well as Iceland, nursing homes, human dignity and parenting.
The discussion was supported by the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Ljubljana.
This series of discussions between authors and their translators was developed by KUD Police Dubove in cooperation with Društvo humanistov Goriške within the purview of the ‘Migrations in Reality’ project and co-funded by the European Union’s Creative Europe Programme.
Series: Authors & Translators
Online discussion: Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki (Poland) & Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia)
Premiere: 21st April, 2021 | City of Books Festival, Nova Gorica
Video with English, Polish and Slovenian subtitles
“Literature pays off if we think about future”
Tatjana Jamnik (TJ): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our series of authors and translators discussions. Today, we are honoured to be host to Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki, the Polish writer and filmmaker, who is also a poet, philosopher and passionate traveller.
Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki is the author of many books. I don’t know if my counting is correct, but I’ve counted eight novels and three volumes of novellas; he also writes short stories and children’s literature. As I’ve just mentioned, he also makes short films. The list of his books is long, and his last novel The Lilac Thieves was published in 2019.
His books have been translated into 14 languages and shortlisted for many awards, such as the European Union Prize for Literature. Three of his novellas will shortly be published in Slovenian: Rose’s Home, Krýsuvík, and Lullaby for a Hanged Man. This Slovenian edition will be titled The Icelandic Triptych.
Hubert, you now live in Vienna, having moved there from Reykjavik, where you’d been living for 10 years, and you interestingly and admirably studied Icelandic philology, and speak Icelandic.
You wrote your Icelandic trilogy, Rose’s Home, Krýsuvík and Lullaby for a Hanged Man, while living in Reykjavik,and this reached a wider readership because it was shortlisted for the prestigious Nike prize.
The primary subject matter of Rose’s Home and Krýsuvík is senility and putting old people into nursing homes, whereas Lullaby for a Hanged Man is a startling story of friendship, of how friends accept each other. Lullaby for a Hanged Man also shines a light on the question of madness and normality; Simon, its protagonist, goes to a psychiatric hospital from time to time to take a break from the world.
How do you find themes for your writing? Where did you find the inspiration for the novellas you wrote in Iceland?
Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki (HKD): Studying Icelandic philology in Reykjavik proved to be the cheapest way to learn the language. Actually, everyone in Poland who had completed studies in a human science, and I had graduated in philosophy, could enrol for Icelandic Philology for Foreigners. There were two philology courses on offer, one for Icelanders, the other for people from abroad.
The prospectus I received stated that first year studies were in English. I was, in fact, the only person who didn’t speak Icelandic that year. There were people from Germany, Sweden, Denmark and England who had already completed two years of Icelandic Philology at their respective universities, so I was a kind of orphan. What was I supposed to do?
I had to find myself a job where people didn’t speak or only spoke poor English because Icelanders spoke English perfectly and it was omnipresent in Iceland. And I found it in a nursing home. The residents there weren’t familiar with English because their origins were in the era before the occupation, the English occupation.
To make things funnier, Iceland was occupied not by the Germans, but by the British, and this is called the ‘Friendly Occupation’. It is probably the only case during World War II where the occupied nation was happy to be so. The Poles and everyone else were unhappy that Hitler’s fascism had inundated their countries, the Icelanders were glad because the British army brought progress, money, roads and jobs.
When the British left, the Americans arrived, who left their base in Keflavík a short time ago, I guess two years before I left for Austria.
I had to learn Icelandic to be able to appropriately fulfil my duties at the nursing home, so I learnt it quickly from the residents there. I’m not saying my Icelandic was excellent, but I was able to communicate and somehow engage in my academic pursuits.
Nursing homes are cash cows
The inspiration for Rose’s Home and Krýsuvík wasn’t my work at the nursing home at all, but the film Children of Nature by Icelandic director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, which was nominated for an Oscar, by the way. This film tells the story of two oldies who, having been been put in a nursing home by their families, fall in love with each other and decide to escape. And I thought it would be great to write a book describing nursing home customs.
And because I had worked in a nursing home, well, I also had some experience. But, heaven forbid, the nursing house described in my book is not the one where I worked, it is, rather a composition of impressions and medleys, a product of my imagination. However, I did have a blind patient, who had a painting or photo of herself and her sister in her room, I thought could star in my film, that is, in my book.
My task was not intended to be a critical exposure of nursing homes, but I think I did a big job. I am, perhaps, not against putting old people in nursing homes because I cannot wholeheartedly attest they are not needed, as it isn’t true. There are situations in life when older people are alone, infirm and ill, and they have to spend the rest of their lives somewhere. But I am against situations where parents are put into nursing homes because they’ve started to hamper their children’s lives.
I also made some observations while working at the nursing home. I most frequently noticed that those who ended up there as residents were people who had devoted little time to their children; they had been overworked, they had worked to pay off loans and mortgages, and, in fact, hadn’t cared for their children. If connections aren’t established between parents and their children, it should come as no surprise that such children treat their parents as strangers.
But this is not solely an Icelandic characteristic, nursing homes exist here in Austria, in Poland, in Slovenia. I am against using old people purely for profit, that senility is business. But nursing homes are cash cows for those who establish them, as patient care is actually two to three times cheaper than the money charged for their stays.
So, I think popularizing such institutions as being the best solution for older people is a dead end. I think this solution is the worst of all solutions, but it is sometimes inevitable.
TJ: Yes, I agree with you, I look at this issue in a similar way. I can still remember that, let’s say 20 years ago, nursing homes were not so prevalent in Slovenia; at that time, it was rather normal to live with our grandparents; families were multigenerational. Now individualization is ubiquitous.
TJ: And what you’ve just said, that’s what engagement is to me. In my opinion, you write engaged literature; you write about subjects people don’t write about when they want to write blockbusters; you write about social issues and pay attention to what is anomalous; and your characters are often weirdos; for example, you are provocative about political correctness in your novel Loneliness. Do you consider yourself to be a writer of engaged literature?
HKD: Heaven forbid, I don’t even like the term, it sounds political, horrible. I just live and observe things, and I am entitled to my own opinion. Anyway, I wanted to protest against the cult of youth by writing about old people. It can be seen as politically engaged, but I don’t see it that way.
Europe has started to go in the wrong direction. Old people with experience, people that should be cherished, people who should be talked to, people from whose mistakes one should learn, are marginalized, or, even better, disposed of, because they are inconvenient, too expensive to maintain at home.
The funny thing is that behind all of the legislation regarding euthanasia and the like, there are usually people who are middle-aged and young, those not directly affected by senility; but it is something that will definitely come to them. I am convinced that most of us wouldn’t like to get euthanized; it is easily spoken about, it is easily debated; and it is legally practiced in Belgium.
People have dignity when they decide for themselves
HKD: It is wrong to legislate about this subject at all. If someone wants to commit suicide, nothing will stop them from doing so. It should not be legally regulated. And if someone wants an abortion, they’ll have one. This too should not be legally regulated.
Some people argue that dignity must be maintained for people when they die, but such laws actually take their dignity away. People have dignity when they can decide for themselves.
So, I not only wanted this novel to tell the story of a female resident and her youth, I also wanted to protest against the marginalization of old people, of them being almost literally thrown out with the garbage. The story takes place in Iceland, true, but this isn’t a book that solely rails against the social and medical system in Iceland, shortcomings in the care of older people are evident everywhere.
TJ: Yes, such social issues exist wherever capitalism is found. As you previously said, the main motivation for opening such homes is money, and money rules the world.
I become a writer from time to time
You said in an interview for Slovak magazine Rozum, that one isn’t born a writer, one becomes a writer. Could you tell us about your path from starting as a writer to becoming a professional writer who lives off his writing, more or less at least. Could you also tell us a little about the books in which what is essential in your writing is most evident?
HKD: There is something wrong with your translation. I said, ‘One isn’t born a writer, one becomes a writer from time to time.’ I become a writer from time to time because sometimes I’m not.
It is a profession strictly connected to the literary genre one inhabits. One can live well off detective novels, other popular literature forms, cookbooks, guidebooks and the like, because this is what people buy in large amounts. There are also erotic books, a terribly written example of which was published in Poland and even adapted into a TV series or film; it also got translated; and this is a best-seller in Germany!
And by writing such literature, they can make a good living. But it’s like what my wife once said to me, ‘Come on, man, write a best-seller one day.’ It takes a certain something to do it; sometimes, these people simply have no shame; and I would be ashamed of writing such books.
I don’t make calculations when I write, so I never think of how much I will earn from a book, or if I will earn anything at all, and this is not the case for genre fiction writers with their wider audiences. It’s like eating. One eats potatoes more often than caviar, and that’s the way it is. People can afford to eat potatoes more often than caviar, and that’s the way it is.
Well-read people are mentally better-developed
Well, it is obvious that writing is not a sure-fire moneymaking endeavour and writing literature, moreover, as far the arts are concerned, makes much less money than, for example, film. Now, I consider some translators and writers as degenerate, and wonder why they still do it because it doesn’t pay off in terms of money.
But it does pay off. Well-read people, those who read high literature, are simply mentally better-developed. And those who are mentally-developed, in my opinion, have a better quality of life. And I don’t mean the cars one has, apartments, dachas, swimming pools and the like, I mean in one’s head, one’s mind is everything.
TJ: Yes, as we know, reading develops imagination and creativity. To put it simply, imaginative people create worlds that don’t yet exist, and creative people can solve any problem whatsoever. And this is what reading high literature better enables its readers to do.
The writing process
TJ: I know this may be difficult, but I’d like you to tell me which of your books fill you with the greatest pride. I know that books are like children, so one cannot say, this book is my favourite, but could you tell me of instances when you were proudest of yourself whilst writing, or of what you had created?
HKD: I’m never proud of the writing process because it is most often merely toil. Writing doesn’t go smoothly for me. I write slowly. It takes time. People think, ‘He wrote a thin book, he must have written it in a fortnight.’ My thin book took me two years to write.
What is on paper is already secondary; the most important thing is in the head. The process of putting it onto paper only takes place when it is already arranged in my head.
Of course, I have written books which are, in my opinion, better or worse, books that I’m prouder of, books I’m very proud of, books I’m less proud of.
But what is strange is that my books are mine alone during the writing process. After they are printed and distributed, they are the readers’, they belong to them. They may have different opinions to me; I may think the book is average, they may think it’s wonderful. And this is interesting, there are as many interpretations as readers.
However, I am not fully satisfied with any of my books. When one reads one’s book after printing, one may want to change or add something; but, tough luck. Films can be re-edited. But once a book is published, revision is no longer possible.
Not being able freely re-edit and produce new versions of literature is the worst thing. Literature doesn’t work this way.
Book as an effective parenting technique
HKD: I’ll tell you which of my books is most important to me. You may be surprised here because what’s most important to me is my fairytale Bangsi, a story about a polar bear drifting on a floe from Greenland to Grimsey Island, a part of Iceland. Why? Thanks to this fairy tale, I had pedagogical success. My son was railing against the Polish language, saying wouldn’t read in it anymore; now, he is about to finish high school, soon he’ll take his school leaving exam. He was a child when I wrote this book, and I wrote it on purpose.
And my book, with beautiful illustrations, was published; it was a beautiful edition. My publisher posted some pages to Vienna for me, they arrived and I opened the envelope. My son asked me what it was. And I said, ‘Fairy tales. I dedicated the book to you, but you don’t read in Polish. Why did I bother?’ I left my fairy tales on the table, and at night he came and took one, then another, and then another; the next day, my son was late for school because he had read the whole book, and did so in Polish.
So, I must admit there are two key efficient parenting techniques, there are others, but frankly speaking, corruption and intimidation are key. I corrupted my child, but I corrupted him with literature. I am, therefore, not ashamed of my corruption. So, this fairy tale is very important to me and I think, also, to my son.
A book about power mechanisms
HKD: My most recent book, The Lilac Thieves, is also very important to me because I had been writing it in my head for 30 years before I put pen to paper. It is a historical novel about Polish-Ukrainian relations, but it is also about Poland now, why this is the case, who makes it, who has come to power, what mechanisms are at play, why capitalism sometimes succeeds and sometimes not, who are Poland’s so-called elite, where do they come from, and why is everything so wrong. In this book, everything is explained in one person’ life story. One person’s story, my protagonist’s, tells the story of a nation from before World War II until 1989.
The Lilac Thieves should be translated, like Rose’s Home, into dozens of languages because it explains a lot, for everyone, not just Poles. Anyway, this book was quite successful: it was my publisher’s best-seller. It also explains a lot to the people of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, the former members of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, it’s all the same, East Germany, we have all been on the same journey, Ukraine, Belarus, the Soviet Union, and the train keeps rolling.
A book about Greek Civil War refugees
HKD: And there is another book which is very important to me, and that’s The Greek Go Home to Die.
I come from a town where five thousand Greek Civil War refugees lived. I was raised among Greeks, I attended primary school with them, high school, religious education. Many of them were officially communists, but, as I explain in this book, many Greeks and Macedonians joined the partisans in socialist countries, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland, because of poverty, not politics. They just wanted to leave Greece. And they converted to Catholicism in my home town without any problems, so I attended religion education classes with them.
I had a Greek friend, Aris Hadzianikidis, to whom I have dedicated this book. Aris was two years above me at high school; he was a brilliant person; he died tragically in Cracow.
And in this book, I tell the story of a person of Greek heritage born in Poland who goes back to Greece and cannot find his feet there because to the Greek he is just a Pole speaking Greek. This is actually a typical situation described by people of Greek heritage born in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia who moved to Greece when it joined the European Union. And even though they speak Greek, they are treated as intruders.
Plans for the immediate future
TJ: My final questions. Since you are in all probability working on a project, could you tell us what it is? Is it cinematic or literary? What are you doing at the moment? What are your plans for the immediate future?
HKD: I have five weeks to submit my new book to the publisher, so I’m focusing on this. It’s a hybrid collection of short stories and novellas with common protagonists and a common bone, and I think it is written in quite an interesting way.
I don’t have much to do with the film at the moment, apart from lecturing at the Krzysztof Kieślowski Film School in Katowice. I don’t know when I will make my next film because one needs money, luck and connections. I don’t have money; I don’t have luck; I don’t have connections.
TJ: I hope things improve. I don’t have much luck either, but is it so important?
So, Hubert, thank you, it was a pleasure talking with you.
HKD: Thank you very much. All the best.
Translated by Anna Galińska
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