Country Focus: Poland (Polska in Polish)
Marzi: A Memoir
By Marzena Sowa with art by Sylvain Savoia
Translated by Anjali Singh
Originally published in France as Marzi- L’Integrale 1 – La Pologne vue par les yeux d’une enfant and Marzi – L’Integrale 2 – Une enfant en Pologne by Dupuis, 2009.
My edition: DC Comics, 2011.
Genre: Memoir/Graphic Novel
Time period: 1980s
To make a long story short: Marzi is a little girl living in a drab apartment building with her parents in 1980s communist Poland. Her father, a factory-worker, becomes one of the thousands who puts their lives at risk by participating in the anti-communist Solidarnosc movement. Her mother works in a dairy and constantly criticizes Marzi’s penchant for wool-gathering. On weekends and vacations the family visits their relatives in the country and helps harvest the crops that supplement their meager diet. Sowa has recorded her life in brief vignettes, touching on topics as various as the embarrassment of having to walk home with rolls of toilet paper draped around her neck, drinking medicine to counteract the effects of radioactive drift from Chernobyl, and the fall of communism.
Our communism’s fall wasn’t spectacular. There was no splat! No boom! The fall didn’t harm anyone, not even the “bad guys,” which didn’t make some of the “good guys” very happy. But are they really good if they want others to suffer?
It wasn’t like the Berlin Wall. Blam! Slam! Crack! Clear out, it’s collapsing!
A leaf dies quietly on a tree, simply detaches itself and falls. That was the way our communism ended. Who remembers a fallen leaf? A gardener rakes it up, a squirrel grabs it, the wind carries it away – unless it’s a child collecting leaves to make bookmarks.
It flies towards the east and others say: Look it’s fall in Poland! We should be experiencing the same season too! And they’re all connected, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria..by blood, and spectacular falls. Everyone’s fall arrives in its own way.
Ours was very natural.
We were the first leaf.
The armchair travel experience: Sowa’s reminiscences combined with Savoia’s straightforward and endearing illustrations make for a clear view into Marzi’s world. Whether it was the episode about using window putty as chewing gum stand-in, keeping a live carp in the bathtub or her father sticking an electronic resistor in his lapel to signify that he was a communist Resistor, Sowa reveals her life so openly that I felt like I was her close friend.
A number of books featured in World Lit Up have depicted the violence and terror wrought by communism (most notably in Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father). In Marzi, Sowa describes the smothering and deprivation felt by its victims: the routine of waiting in lines for limited rations, forced marches, and the feeling of being watched. The Marzi in this installment of her memoir may be too young to know why life in Poland is this way, but she senses the inherent indignity of it.
The author’s relationship to Poland: Marzena Sowa was born in 1979 in Stolowa Wola (Steel Will), Poland and attended college in Krakow. Marzi is the first (and only one translated into English so far) in a series of six memoirs that chronicle her life in Poland. In the book’s intro, she says, “I was born in Poland at a time when it was undergoing some big changes. I watched it rebel. I watched it dream. And saw its dreams come true. This allowed me to believe that through perseverance, stubbornness and force of character, you could change the world.”
My opinion: I loved Marzi. The vignettes are written in easily digestible lengths and the drawings are appealing and easily navigated. Savoia’s choice of muted color scheme (predominantly browns and greys) imparts an appropriate glumness to Poland; he lights Marzi up by bestowing her with orange hair and red shirt. Fascinating and endearing, Marzi‘s only (minor) fault is that occasionally the translation seems muddled. I can’t wait to read the next installment.
In my book (or what Poland has meant to me and maybe you, too)
“Dumb Polack” jokes flowed through my elementary school as thick as Elmer’s glue at craft time. For a while I wasn’t sure what a “Polack” was, and after I found out, I still didn’t understand why we were making fun of Polish people. Of course neither one of these knowledge gaps stopped me from repeating my share of these offensive jokes. Those 1970s put-downs supposedly originated from Hitler, who was the first to publicly criticize Polish people’s intelligence. His insults took on life of their own and eventually made their way into mainstream American living rooms via loudmouth TV characters like Archie Bunker and then trickled down to me during recess.
“On behalf of the camp administration I bid you welcome.”*
Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka…the Nazis scarred Poland with their evil concentration and extermination camps. These places harbored masters and deeds too terrible for me to want to read about. What I little I know of these camps I learned from movies like Escape from Sobibor and Schindler’s List.
*the beginning of a speech given to Jews arriving at Auschwitz for extermination
I was reading the marquee menu at one of the County Fair’s concession stands when I had a complete junk food brain fart and stupidly asked my husband, “What’s a “Paw-lish?” For the life of me, when I saw the word “Polish” I could only think of the cleaning-related verb and not the patently obvious noun for spicy, red sausage from Poland. If only the sign had just read kielbasa, the Polish term for their gourmet hotdog consisting of smoked pork sausage flavored with garlic, pepper and marjoram.
He had the whole world in his hands
750,000 miles. 129 countries. 26 years. During his tenure as Pontificate, Karol Józef Wojtyła, better known as Pope John Paul II, saw way more of the world than most folks and he could talk to a good number of them, too – he was fluent in at least 13 languages. A running (and unoffensive) joke about this world-famous Pole was “God is everywhere, and Wojtyla has already been there.” He visited more than double the number of countries covered in World Lit Up so far.
And I’ll end with a nocturne from a certain famous Polish piano composer…