“A deceptively simple read” – Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak

In the early morning of 22 July 1983, the leader of Poland’s communist government, General Jaruzelski, finally declared that the martial law he had imposed two-and-a-half years before would end in a few days. Dozens of people had been killed in that time, pro-democracy movements banned and the media placed under military management. What annoyed nine-year-old Wiola most was that her morning TV programme had been cancelled to make way for the general’s speech. Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury is full of these moments that were of great significance to the adults around Wiola, but she drifts through them, already occupied with whatever was going on in her own world. She could be busy preparing for the school painting competition (which could lead to a trip to the Kremlin) or collecting matchbox labels (one of which was from the Swedish company that bought the State Match Monopoly, from which the government used the profits to build a huge seaport in Gdynia).

It is not only Wiola’s innocence in this time that makes this book so charming. The adults also behave like they wish the outside world would stop invading their rural community.

The book starts with Wiola’s birth, two weeks after her mother had been summoned to work in the cement factory as part of a five-year plan to make paving stones for squares in front of district government buildings. Her waters broke into a bucket of lime. Wiola’s father wasn’t around as he’d been arrested a month before for deserting from the army. Baby Wiola was protected from evil spells by a red ribbon tied round her wrist, and her birth shawl remained in the window of their stone house until her father came home. When he did, he cried for a whole day after seeing Wiola and didn’t fully recover till Poland started playing in the World Cup.

And so this story of late-20th century Poland continues, like a cross between a modern biography and ancient folklore:

‘My mother was terrified of storms. As soon as it began to thunder, she’d cross herself, take down the laundry … bolt shut all the doors and windows, pull plugs out of sockets, hide metal objects and cover the top of the washing machine with a blanket, so that it wouldn’t draw lightning.’

She then asks Wiola if she had killed a spider since ‘you know well enough that it brings on thunderstorms.’ Spiders, she reminds her daughter, saved Our Lady when she fled from Jerusalem, and so they are sacred creatures. Wiola protests her innocence, tells her mother it was Mr Kuzior in biology class who made them put the spiders to sleep with ether, and Wiola’s must’ve breathed in too much.

Although the book runs in chronological order, from when Wiola is still a baby until she’s a teenager, each story could be read on its own; perfect to dip in and out of, as well as being an easy one-afternoon read.

Eliza Marcinia, provides useful notes at the end to explain some finer points of the decisions she made in the translation and provides some context to the setting and time.

Any Cop?: Swallowing Mercury is a deceptively simple read, exploring the secrets of a family, a village and a nation. This thin, little book contains so much more than you might first imagine, and is well worth more than one quick read.

Jim Dempsey

 

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