Poland has seen more than its share of monstrosities, having been invaded at one time or other by Nazis, Prussians, Hapsburgs, White as well as Red Russians, and even the Mongol Golden Horde. Therofore, if you think of the words monster and Poland in the same sentence it is most likely in reference to a real-life criminal against humanity as opposed to the fire-breathing, supernatural variety.
Yet reading the stories in A Polish Book of Monsters indicates that not only do Polish writers have a good handle on the imaginary breed of monsters but that, as it turns out, the historical monsters the country has experienced have proven to be highly influential in their creation.
These five stories that provide a rare and welcome glimpse into the world of Polish fantasy writing for English-language readers were translated by Michael Kandel, who is best-known for having translated a number of books by Polish science-fiction master Stanisław Lem into English. Lem is one of the writers whose work dissolves the boundaries between science-fiction and so-called literary fiction, proving you can deal with complex themes in well-fashioned prose outside of the accepted realms of Realism or the avant-garde experimentalism that opposes it. This book is further confirmation of this fact, besides being highly entertaining reading.
“Key of Passage” by Tomasz Kołodziejczak is the one story actually set in Poland and combines elements of the future, present and past to create a believable and intriguing backdrop to a tale of perilous passages across borders as well as between worlds. Like Jacek Dukaj’s “The Iron General” the futuristic world is made up of a combination of medieval and high-tech elements, with magic as the overriding force.
In Kołodziejczak’s seemingly near future world it is still possible to refer to communists and Jews, while Poland appears to have returned to the limbo of partition, this time not by Germans, Russians and Austrians but by elves and the much-feared alien barlogs, with their swastika bearing jaeger knights. And while fantasy writing sometimes takes itself too seriously, Kołodziejczak finds room for a sense of humor, such as when comparing NASA satellites to those built by elves:
“The satellites had determined its position to within fifteen kilometers – not bad, considering that the sputniks constructed on elfin specs were mainly of linden wood covered with runic carvings and then soaked in mithril. When it turned out that these in fact orbited and transmitted, at least three NASA employees became clinically depressed and one had to be institutionalized.”
“The Iron General” is probably the strongest story in the book, creating an even more seamlessly recognizable world where magic is used in the place of IT and spells take the place of passwords. The well-wrought main character of General Raymond Schwentitz with his immensely powerful artificial, magic arm stimulates the same reaction in the reader as he does in many of the soldiers who serve him, making the story’s take on political power all the more powerful.
The language of the story is no less compelling, alternating between dense, poetic description, technical and magical lingo and the universal language of political power struggles.
“Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo” by Marek S. Huberath also provides a relevant futuristic take on contemporary issues, and is a good but frightening fit with the current financial crisis. The story shows how society is managed following a nuclear war, where mutant birth is the rule and becoming human is subject to institutional decision making and economic considerations. The story is as chilling as it is moving, in showing the bond that develops between two of these mutants.
“Spellmaker” by Andrzej Sapkowski is a gripping story that represents the most conventional fantasy writing in the collection. This was his first published story in 1986 and the starting point of a highly successful series of the same name (though also translated as The Witcher and The Hexer). Unlike the other writers in this collection Sapkowski has a number of books that have been translated into English.
The presence of monstrous beings is one unifying feature in the five stories in this collection. Another though is the hard-bitten outsider always on the verge of violence, as if a gunslinger from a Sergio Leone Western was transported to a world of magic spells and swordplay. Enkel from Andrzej Zimniak’s “A Cage Full of Angels” exemplifies a character balancing between a ruthless, primitive violence and highly sophisticated supernatural powers.