My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
(Transit Books, 2019)
A gritty portrait of city life in the Wild East, Wioletta Greg’s second autobiographical novel, Accommodations, follows Wiola Regala from her home village of Hektary to college in the small industrial city of Częstochowa in 1990s Poland.
Unable to secure a spot in the dorms, Wiola is forced into makeshift living arrangements. Her stay in a worker’s hostel with a group of rambunctious Russian migrants ends when she has to flee a police raid. She next finds lodgings in the attic of a convent. Disturbed Mother Stanisława is convinced Wiola is her long-dead daughter; Wiola plays along but is pushed out when the game goes too far. She finally secures a run-down apartment of her own, yet it brings little of the freedom or joy she had hoped for.
In the various places Wiola lives, she collides with others also caught in transition. Uprooted and unable to settle down, they are grasping for stable relationships. Yet when these slip through their fingers, they retreat into the past. Waldek the hostel watchman can’t let go of the memory of his dead wife and has even named his dog after her. Mother Stanisława continues to relive the war, dragging all those around her into her malaise. And Wiola, trying to orient herself to the young men in her life, only finds more uncertainty, and she turns to fantasies of Hektary.
Accommodations is about the strange relationships we develop when forced to share living space with people and how this shapes our character. Greg’s view of working-class life is seasoned with a sharp eye for imagery and an offbeat, self-deprecating sense of humor. Her blend of poetry and grit saw her debut, Swallowing Mercury, longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, thanks in no small part to Eliza Marciniak’s sublime translation. Taking over from Marciniak here is Jennifer Croft, translator of the Man Booker–winning Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. Croft’s mastery matches Greg’s trademark lyrical yet bizarre and hilarious descriptions. Take this image from the first page:
Rain streaks across the bus’s windows. The dusk toys with the faces of the passengers and makes them into shapeless gray amoebas. When the driver turns the lights off, the crowd blurs together, looks like an expiring cetacean. Its bulky body heaves and swells and bursts into bundles of chives, dill, parsley poking out of people’s plastic bags.
In Poland, Greg is of a piece with other poets-turned-novelists like Justyna Bargielska or Barbara Klicka, or storytellers of the ’90s working class like Dorota Masłowska or Anna Cieplak. But Greg has a particularly intuitive sense of the spiritual links joining humans to one another, our communities, and the natural world, and the artistic skills to bring those connections to vivid life. This unique perspective, on full display in Accommodations, sets her apart.
Sean Gasper Bye is a translator of Polish fiction, reportage, and drama. His translations of The King of Warsaw by Szczepan Twardoch and Ellis Island by Małgorzata Szejnert are forthcoming. He has published excerpts and reviews in Words Without Borders, Catapult, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. From 2014 to 2019 he was the Literature and Humanities Curator at the Polish Cultural Institute New York.