Truth Illuminates Fiction in a Poet's Autobiographical Novella :
A Review of Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
by E.T. Cooper
It begins with flowers: roses and periwinkles on a christening robe that wither and fade over time. A procession of girls scatter lupins beneath their feet. The luster and color of the imagery in Wioletta Greg's Swallowing Mercury might draw comparisons to jewels, but the truth of this collection is far more organic, riotous, and messy than any stone. There is a hardness here, but softness too. These pages are suffused with living nature, both flourishing and in decay: starlings and poppies and buzzing flies. This is unmistakably the work of a poet. Greg has published six volumes of poetry, and this is her prose debut, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak.
Greg's autobiographical novella takes the form of 23 chapters that can be read as separate stories. Each one is an entire flash of experience, complete in itself, but together they all form a greater whole, beginning with her birth in the 1970s and ending with her young adulthood at the dawn of the 1990s. The end result is not unlike a series of startling snapshots of a young woman growing up in unexpected ways. Though brief, each piece is charged with energy. The text is rich with images that pile upon one another, but Greg raises them to a height that's heady rather than heavy, utilizing skillful pacing and appealing to every sense. There's an almost childish simplicity to the stream of visions, but they are arranged with an adult's clarity:
Greg's touch is deft, and her autobiography plays on the fringes of fiction—or vice versa. Greg's narrator shares her name. The Polish village of Hektary may be fictional, but it has its roots in Greg's real childhood home. It is a small town, but never truly sleepy. Life and entropy are ever present, making themselves felt on the quietest days. There are church raffles to win, drunks to rescue from the cold, and bug hunts to embark upon. Around every corner, there's another small wonder, another moment of magic.
Greg's magic does not arise from supernatural sources or ancient folklore—there are no wizards or elves. The mystical elements are more universal: the powerlessness and incomprehension of childhood, the uncertain state between waking and sleeping, the vagaries of memory, and the fervor of religious faith. It is a twist of perspective that makes the world appear suddenly, irrevocably altered.
Swallowing Mercury, with its dreamlike recollections, conjures memories of the work of another Polish author. Like Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, these tales—tales feels like the right word for them—have a surreality that turns toward both the dark and the absurd, but is also a brand of strangeness that resembles illumination. Like Schulz's stories, Greg's are by turns haunted and brightened by a quixotic father figure surrounded by birds, yet Greg's work is in no way derivative. It is personal to the point of being singular.
There is no confusing Greg's father with any other father. An atheist who deserted from the army, he raises hawks from the dead through taxidermy. With enthusiasm, he creates a world that "...wasn't just beehives and cages with goldfinches, canaries and rabbits, or a dovecote in the attic, where clumsy nestlings hatched out of delicate eggs that looked like table tennis-balls." Her father is only one of Greg's mythical family figures. Her mother believes that storms can be summoned by the deaths of spiders, and one of her grandmothers now exists vividly only in photographic form. Even her grandfather is capable of disappearing acts, as when he's expected to perform in the Director's play. He escapes to the privy, and by the time someone comes to look for him, he's vanished altogether. "The door opened slightly. Apart from flies flailing about in spiderwebs, there wasn't a soul inside. On top of a dried-up Easter palm hung my grandfather's hat."
Along with this cast of relatives who appear and disappear, there are beasts in Hektary, as in the most frightening tales of childhood. Unscrupulous adults are predators more dangerous than wolves, monsters outside of any child's reckoning. Greg conjures them with a suddenness as shocking as it is authentic. The greatest of these sinister figures is not human: the Soviet State. It raises its head once or twice, but even when it slumbers, it is present, affecting the world in a host of ways. Hektary exists in its shadow.
In "The Little Paint Girl", young Wioletta enters an art contest to paint her vision of Moscow, but there is an accident when a classmate sits on her bag and her pen cartridges burst. "The picture was ruined. I went to the toilet and smudged the ink on the page with a tissue. It looked as if the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was being engulfed by a viscous ocean of indigo."A month later, a stranger sent by the provincial government office appears in the village to ask her who inspired her painting. "Nothing about him matched anything else: he had gentle facial features and pointy ears; he was dressed in a black turtleneck and a light-colored suit jacket; his trousers were neatly creased but his shoes were muddy." This figure of contrasts, serving a master so distant from the mind of the child that he might as well have come from a fairyland, puts both her family and her school into the path of a danger she only dimly recognizes.
Greg carefully captures the Poland of her youth with all her details. The State is countered by the the Church, which colors Hektary's landscape, much as the flowers do. The worlds of nature and religion bleed into each other. "The forked light of the setting sun pierced the clay Jesus standing on a pedestal in a light blue robe, with a crown of thorns around his heart. I stood in an aisle, watching a mouse wander around the intricate labyrinth of gilded stucco decorations." Flickers of politics and the wider world appear at the periphery of the maturing narrator's vision as her awareness dawns and expands. It is when when she starts to look within the people around her that she finally approaches adulthood. She sees her flawed father and mother as people, but in doing so, finds them no less magical.
The original Polish title of the collection has more to do with this, the narrator's evolving empathy, than with mercury. It is Guguły, a dialect word meaning "unripe fruit." This is an image that Greg and her characters cannot escape. The sense of existing in the midst of an agricultural community is omnipresent in Hektary. The fruits either over-ripen or fail to ripen at all, and, humans, the cultivators of these fruits, fall into the same patterns of forestalled desire. The progression from childhood to adulthood is rife with the potential for wrong turns and disasters. This is as true of Greg's narrator as it is of her wounded father and the rest of the world.
Werner Herzog once famously distinguished the rote "truth of accountants" from the "poetic, ecstatic truth" that does not depend on facts. Swallowing Mercury may not be strictly factual, but it taps into this ecstatic truth, making the personal past into a legend that feels more true and more real than history.
. . . I let go of her hand and ran after the procession as if it were a royal entourage. I didn't stop until I reached a market stall with a blown-up silver whale. The whale wasn't able to float off towards the clouds. The sun caught it in red and purple rings and blinded me, burning my cheeks. Gilt figures kept disappearing between the cars and the britchkas, leaving elongated shadows on a wall.
E. T. Cooper's short fiction has previously appeared in Confrontation, Eureka Literary Magazine, and Lullwater Review.