“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg

Swallowing Mercruy is Wioletta Greg’s first novella is set in the fictional village of Hektary in the 1970s and 80s of communist Poland.  It is about the mundaneness of existence in the village but the sketches which are primarily autobiographical bring out the distinct flavour of what it meant to be in communist Poland. While the narrator’s father is an atheist, her mother and grandmother continue to be practising Catholics at least to the extent of having an altar at home. The clash between the communist government and the ground reality in the village which is still observing rituals learned over decades is a constant undercurrent. Whether it is the women of the village getting excited about the imminent arrival of the Pope and the atheist members of their family scoffing at their piety or sending the wind up the sails of the local school authorities upon being visited by inspectors from the city to investigate the smudged painting of Moscow done by a school girl as they misunderstand it as an affront to their authority!

It is a beautifully written book by Wioletta Greg while recollecting her childhood in Poland. It makes alive a recent past though it seems as if belongs to a different era altogether. So much has changed in the world after the fall of communism in 1989.  The greatest symbol of the fall of communism and end of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall coming down. Today, 5 February 2018, marks 10316 days since the Wall was broken — the exact number of days it was up and has been broken for!

Reading fine literature like Swallowing Mercury today is like reading a sliver of history but not necessarily of long ago — this is history which is very much a part of our living memory.  A time where the concept of individual freedom as we now know it did not exist. It was a period of learning to live with systems that were by nature autocratic and usually accepted as given by the common people. Today many democracies are returning to such a dictatorial order  with the difference being that individual expression flourishes ( although for how long is a different question!).  Swallowing Mercury while entertaining for the story it shares is also a sobering reminder that we should not forget the past. Learn from it. Don’t ignore it.

Wioletta Greg Swallowing Mercury ( Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak) Portobello Books, London, 2017. Hb. pp.150 Rs. 799

5 February 2018 

 

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