Long reads, Poland

Xiaolu Guo: Postcards from the Baltic Sea

Guo-XiaoLu

The Palace of Culture

Before heading towards the Baltic Sea, I have to stop in Warsaw and stay in one of those over heated small hotel rooms which stink of smoke. Well, each time I visit Poland, I get a mixed sense of desolation and nostalgia. Even though this time I come here for the Weather Station’s project to do with the issues of climate change, still, I feel I am a cultural tourist – wandering in those foreign streets reminiscent of some old Polish films I watched when I was in China. From a historical point of view, one can say Poland is a sorrowful land, that gives an impression like the solemn landscape of Siberia seen through a Dostoevsky novel. As a Chinese growing up in a communist house, we had some interesting ideological connections with East European countries. Bolesław Bierut’s name is still mentioned a lot in post-Mao era China. As I walk along some stately broad street in the center of Warsaw, I feel I am back again in Beijing, passing through a gigantic brutalist urban space, trying to find somewhere agreeable to sit and think. Actually, the more I walk around Warsaw, the more the city resembles for me Harbin – the northern capital of Chinese Manchuria. Harbin has this particular style of architecture that shows up in Warsaw: a mix of classical European mansions and brutalist socialist buildings.

The Palace of Cultural and Science was the place where I screened my film UFO In Her Eyes some years ago. I thought it was a perfect place (a gift from Soviet Union) to screen a film about totalitarianism. The building itself reminds me of my mother. For about twenty years, my mother worked in the Cultural Palace of our hometown Wenling in South East China. The Cultural Palace of my hometown was not as grand as the one here, but its function and its style were very similar – serve the people with well intentioned entertainment. And my mother was proud of her job, until one day the building was torn down along with other socialist buildings in my hometown. For some nostalgic reason, I do hope this grand building survives in Poland, not only symbolically, but also pragmatically, despite its complex ideological background.

Czesław Miłosz

Last night I was drinking with some obscure Polish artists in Café Amatorska, discussing the gloomy future of our planet. ‘Stop worrying! Humans will die, but the planet is not going to die! That will be the scenario. It’s a good scenario as far as other species concerned.’ They told me in Vodka infused loud voices: ‘Human species are over-rated! The most selfish species should have been wiped out long ago’. Obviously this bunch of Poles was not Christians. ‘You know what’s the most ecological way to live?’ A painter stared at me earnestly: ‘It’s this: we humans must stop giving birth. So the most destructive species can eventually die out. Charge me with the crime of Against Humanity? Oh yes, please!’ He concluded bitterly. Perhaps they were right, and were more absolute than me. The night continued with sarcasm. But I have never been a good drinker, nor do I like to indulge in fantasies of an apocalyptic world. So I left early with a headache.

This morning, on a train to the Baltic Sea, I am clear-headed, and want to write again. I enter the dinning car, ordering a bowl of Zurek – Sour Soup – meanwhile reading a book from Czesław Miłosz. Is there any connection between this sour soup and Milosz? There must be. Both are great stuff. Sour soup is one of my favourite Polish dishes. The thick broth comes with a boiled egg and sausages, a hearty thing to eat in the cold weather. Miłosz, the exiled poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, was someone whose poetry I loved reading when I was still writing poems in Beijing. He was hugely important in China with his books – especially ‘The Captive Mind’ and ‘Miłosz’s Alphabet’. Exiled in France then in the USA for 30 years, his writings examined the moral and psychological pressures of life under a totalitarian regime. In that respect, Milosz is similar to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, except the latter went through a much harder life in Stalin’s gulags. I, naturally, feel akin to these writers, especially when they talk about the dilemma of the impossibility of returning to one’s homeland, and the alienation of living in the western ‘free’ world. Even though Miłosz had a good professorial position in California, he still referred to himself as ‘The Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue’. He returned to Poland after decades of life in the west and died in Kraków at the age of 93. Some of best lines from Milosz in my opinions are these:

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

I close the book, thinking back to the conversation we had in Café Amatorska last night about the end of the world. Yes, no one believes it is happening now, as long as the sun and the moon are above.

Gdańsk

It’s a three hour train ride from Warsaw to Gdańsk. I pass the grey yellow plains of April. Ah, northern landscape, I sigh. How ironic that a southern person like me has ended up in the north. All my adult life seems to be about living in the cold and big northern cities: Beijing, London, Berlin, Zurich. And how I dream everyday about returning to a warm and lush semi tropical land. I miss the heat and those big leaves and smelly flowers. In my eyes, those small-leaved northern trees are never as beautiful as the big-leaved tropical plants. But probably there are fewer and fewer big leaved plants surviving in my tropical land. This is not only a metaphor but a reality: the tropical land is going. It only exists in our memory or imagination. It only remains in an anthropologist’s photo archive. The Amazon rainforest appears only enchanting in those well-angled expensively-produced documentary films. Perhaps the day when Claude Lévi-Strauss finished ‘Tristes Tropiques’, the tropical land had already been swallowed by the northern civilization – the process that began in England with the pre-Victorian era factory chimneys.

Gdańsk is another sorrowful place. The most famous thing in recent history about the town is perhaps its German character. After the World War One, Germans formed a majority in the city and Gdańsk was not under Polish sovereignty. In accordance with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, it became the Free City of Danzig. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the attack began in Danzig; later on the Soviet Union trashed the city entirely. Double rape! No wonder the country has produced those incredible poets and artists in the last century. But the future of Gdansk looks uncertain – the houses have been re-built after the war but most of houses are empty and unemployment is high. People are poor here, with all their good qualifications fading in their drawers.

I stand by the once famous port, now abandoned, with broken ships and messy cranes lit along the bank. The area by the water is waiting to be ‘developed’, to ‘shine’ again. I try to stretch my imagination, visualizing the newly built budget hotels one after another along the harbor in the next five years, with the holiday makers from all over the word coming here to kill their summer days.

Sopot

This is where the famous ill-tempered German actor Klaus Kinski came from. One could not be totally convinced that the eccentric German cinema icon actually was born in this calm and pretty little Polish beach town. Now the city has a population of 40,000. Most are elderly people, and then many tourists. On the beach, the Royal Hotel stands proudly on the white sand facing the peaceful blue bay. Somehow, those grand family houses remind me of the rich town of Deauville in northern France. Maybe Poland’s Sopot is the Deauville of France, if you restrict the comparison to landscape.

In the local library I meet a little group of readers who were given some photocopied pages of my novel. In fact, three pages out of my four hundred page long novel. They admitted that they didn’t have time to read through my book. One woman told me she hadn’t read a single book for years after she had her baby. ‘Of course, I understand that,’ I reassured her and everyone else: ‘Don’t worry, we will just chat.’ So we talked about the reality of being Polish, being Chinese, being in between German power and Russia power. It seemed to me that everyone preferred to be under German influence rather than Russian influence. ‘And what about Communism?’ I asked. A blonde woman shook her head violently: ‘No, communism kidnapped our freedom. We prefer to hide in the religious’. Then a man from East Germany added: ‘And capitalism. It’s better. There is no freedom anywhere anyway.’

Hel

Hel is a pine-tree covered beautiful peninsular. ‘It is the end and the beginning of Poland’, as the locals jokingly claim. It is so long and slim that nearly every house is located right next by the water, with a great sea view.

We stay in the Marine Station where they have kept members of many endangered sea species in their lab. The grey seal is a big thing in the Marine Station. They even have four infant seals in the pool at the moment. As I stare at one of the large, fat, young seal babies diving in the water, I am almost sardonically surprised that this big sea mammal has managed to survive alongside human world for so long. And their great whiskers! I can only admire them. I am told that when they sleep, if they are in the water, half of their brains remain awake, so they can detect any danger around them. But if they sleep on the land, both sides of their brains go into sleep mode. I wonder, given human’s barbarian nature, wouldn’t the seals be killed more often on the land than in the water? In order to survive, perhaps they have to learn to not sleep at all.

In the noon, there are about 20 middle school students around the age of 15 walking me through the forest by the sea. Most of them are local, born in Hel with their parents working on the island for the fishing and tourism industry. The boys impatiently want to show me all the war remains on the peninsular. The girls are talking to me about the pollution in the sea. We enter the ruins of bunkers which were built during World War II and look at the burnt forest in the southern end of the land. Young, beautiful, but vulnerable, they seem to be hopeful but also fearful to leave this place and to enter the big cities for their future.

‘Hel is the most beautiful place in Poland. Look the sea and the forest here! But I think maybe California is better.’ A 14 year old boy remarks while I gaze into the shimmering sea shore.

Standing by the edge of the water, a naïve but profound question rings in my ears: where is our future? What is our future? Well, I think the sea is our future. The sea is the place that gives birth to everything. Yet, humans don’t want the sea, Humans want the land, the useful land. One of the ancient folksongs from the Baltic Sea region goes like this:

Now I’ll sing the sea into grass, the seashore into fish,
The sea sand into malt, the sea bottom into a field.

‘Can we imagine a human world without the sea? Or, the Planet without the sea?’ I ask the students around me. They look gloomy when hearing such a question. We wander about some more, strolling by the abandoned fortifications one after another under the bright burning sun of Hel.

 


Weather Stations is an international project that places literature and storytelling at the heart of discussions about climate change.

Five partners in Berlin, Dublin, London, Melbourne and Warsaw have each appointed a Writer in Residence to work together to explore how literature can inspire new ways of living in the context of the most fundamental challenge facing humanity today – our changing climate. They are also each establishing a Substation at a local school, where they will work with teachers and pupils to discover how we might nurture responsible young citizens with the knowledge, motivation and tools to fight for a more sustainable future.

global weather stations

Xiaolu Guo

One of Granta’s Best of British writers under 40, Xiaolu Guo is author of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and Writer and Director of UFO in Her Eyes, “City of Venice” prize at the Venice Film Festival.

View All
One of Granta’s Best of British writers under 40, Xiaolu Guo is author of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and Writer and Director of UFO in Her Eyes, “City of Venice” prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Join the discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.