Books | Culture

Urszula Chowaniec reviews poet Ewa Lipska’s novel ‘Sefer’ – about a second-generation Holocaust Survivor

29/05/2014

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Poet and Novelist Ewa Lipska, on a recent trip to London. Photo by Monika Leszczewicz

Truth doesn’t answer many questions. This sentence, coming so close to the end of Ewa Lipska’s novel Sefer (2009), is a signal on how to read this poetic prose-work about the trip of Holocaust-survivor’s son Jan Sefer to his father’s hometown Krakow, a place he is distanced from more by the past and painful, unspoken memories than by mere geographical space. Here the reader will not find any real truth about Sefer’s experience beyond a few passing mentions nor, in fact, any real reflections on the catastrophic past. Instead, we will meet in the title character a very detached “psychotherapist, resident in Vienna… adored by both women and men”. We will see his hedonistic immersion in Vienna’s bourgeois lifestyle, where every café bears the memory of modernist splendour and where the main character spends his free time with friends, discussing music, art, books and the strange memoirs sent to his late father by someone from Argentina, a Jew devoting his life to hunting Nazi criminals. All these topics are discussed in the same tone, as if simply dropped in inconsequentially: just a series of factors in his superficial life – which seems rather the shadow of a life than one lived with real engagement.

Jan Sefer’s life appears comfortable, but it is encrusted with the dead: his father, recalled as a kind of aloof hero, and his aunt, an enigmatic character, witty and armed with a commonsensical wisdom. This trio of the characters create a sort of frame for the novel and give Jan the impulse to go to Kraków:

‘Once, I talked to my father for several hours. It grew darker and darker in the room, neither of us had the courage to turn on the light….

“You know, I can’t forget that day in the camp. A woman tried to hide her baby in a rucksack, and suddenly it started to cry. One German pulled a gun out and fired into the rucksack. The crying faded, and I heard such a terrible shriek that it wakes me still today…”‘

A moment later: ‘”Go to Poland one day, to Kraków, I’ll give you the street and the house number, the house might still be there.”

“Maybe we’ll go together?” I asked.

“No,” he answered curtly. “That place, it isn’t in me anymore.”

We said nothing for a while. I didn’t even notice when Father left the room. He had          transferred that picture onto me, left me it in his will, planted it in my biochemical   imagination.”’

Thus the son of a Holocaust survivor goes to Kraków, where he sees the town as a flâneur, doing the sightseeing, observing and examining people, though it seems that there is nothing else to be discovered. The town disappears not only for his father but also for him: there is no Kraków to be revisited; all that is left is the post-war tourist industry, hollow and sham. Sefer too refuses to conform with our expectations of what a Holocaust survivor’s son should be like: instead of trauma or active engagement, we find him detached and faintly superior, calmly sipping red wine while reading the memoir of the survivor from Argentina: an oddly disturbing image, suggesting not so much a trauma unprocessed, but one not owned at all. His flight into a world of beautiful surfaces suggest that the Holocaust – not his own experience but one which he cannot quite escape – is for him unprocessable, an experience to which he is linked forever but that does not belong to him. His trip to Krakow turns into one of mere observation, cool and detached and, in its way, simply another jaunt in this man’s life. Only the ending – cliched enough but suggesting the possibility of future engagement – carries a note of optimism.

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dr Katarzyna Zechenter, prof. Tony Howard, Ewa Lipska and Barbara Bogoczek in discussion about the novel Sefer at UCL SSEES (May 2014). Photo by Monika Leszczewicz

This is the first fiction prose from Ewa Lipska, who is one of the most important Polish poets of her generation. She debuted as a poet in 1967 and has since published more than twenty poetry collections and several anthologies. Her most recent poetry collection Pomarańcza Newtona (Newton’s Orange) was published in 2007, and her first novel, Sefer, in 2009. Lipska’s work has been awarded various literary prizes and her books have been translated into fifteen languages, including English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish and Hebrew.

One can learn much from Ewa Lipska’s poetry. As a reader, I first encountered her in the journey through post-war Polish poetry, where she was linked with a new trend, Nowa Fala (the New Wave), critical towards existing literature and toward the regime. As someone writing about the political nature of everyday language, she became highly mistrustful of the way language could be used to manipulate, especially when putting forward the official views of the government of the day. For me – the second Polish post-war generation – Ewa Lipska’s poem ‘We’ (‘My’) was a pointer on how to see the post-war world and its atmosphere. In this poem Lipska sees her generation as one deprived of any real shared experience, poorer, in its own way perhaps, than the more obviously tragic generation who had lived through World War II. This poem and its standpoint was contrasted, famously, with the work of the recently departed poet Tadeusz Rozewicz, so determined by the atrocities of WWII.

Ewa Lipska teaches us how to look at the world through poetry of irony, distance, and with a slightly bitter perspective. In her 2005 collection Somewhere Else (Gdzie indziej), we find, in one of the problems, the following ironic sentiment:

A monument. Sympathy on sale.

Memory stoned to death

on which children on a school trip sit

pulling out hunger sandwiches.

A minute’s cooing of lurking pigeons.

The fear of concrete

the kitsch of death

and the loneliness of victims.

Jan Sefer, Lipska’s latest hero, is such a lonely victim himself, suffering this ‘stoning to death’ of memory, and its burial by the tourist industry, reducing the horrific past to the stuff of a mere school trip. Experiencing this, he becomes a fascinating character study – both of very historical, and very contemporary, loneliness.

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Ewa Lipska’s Sefer  is available from Athabasca University Press, and retails in UK at £11.99. (http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120220)

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