Award-winning translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones experiences extreme reactions to the latest crime novel she has translated on a recent trip to Poland…Here she tells the PEN Atlas of her time in Sandomierz, where she visits the setting of the novel by Zygmunt Miłoszewski.
I recently translated a crime novel, A Grain of Truth, by Polish author Zygmunt Miłoszewski. The story is set in the city of Sandomierz, famous for its picturesque, seventeenth-century Old Town, set on a high hill above the modern city. The book makes use of historical facts about the city’s insalubrious past as the scene of pogroms against the Jewish population in the eighteenth century. It also refers to a ‘small town’ mentality, and implies that some people there would still fairly readily express anti-Semitic feelings. Knowing that in Poland reactions to fiction can be extreme, personal and literal, Miłoszewski was keen to take me to Sandomierz before the book was published, to show me the places featured in it before he became persona non grata.
In fact, we ended up going to a meeting with the deputy mayor and the publicity people from his publisher, because the deputy mayor had read the book. She loved it, and was planning to host a book launch and a special edition. So that was a relief. However, forgetting that the beginning of the book had just been published in the Polish edition of Newsweek, Zygmunt then rang the man who runs the archive – central to the plot of the book and housed in the former synagogue – to ask if he could bring me there to show me around. “You might not remember me,” he said politely. “How could I forget you?”came the answer. “I’ve had calls from colleagues all over the country asking how I could let anyone spend all night in the archive!” Something that only happens in the novel, of course. We were told to be there in the next five minutes. It really is a small place, where you keep bumping into the same people, so we were there in no time.
We were met at the door by the archivist, a gaunt man with white hair and a drooping white moustache. As I looked around, I understood why the author wanted me to see this building – it is an extraordinary place, a library housed inside a fine old hexagonal prayer hall. Many of the original features are still there, including an incredible Zodiac painted on the ceiling (with a crocodile for Scorpio and a crayfish for Cancer), gryphons and Hebrew writing on the walls. But the entire space is bizarrely filled with metal shelving on several levels, a sort of scaffolding, crammed with fat parish record books which miraculously survived the war. At the top level of the scaffolding, special gantries, like miniature drawbridges on pulleys, can be lowered to reach the high-up windows, set deep into the building’s thick walls.
As I took photos, the man said to Zygmunt, “So what does a big-city goodbye look like, then?” Zygmunt was puzzled. “There’s an extract from the book on your publisher’s website where it says, ‘The waiter tossed him a small-town goodbye’. People are sensitive about that sort of thing, you know.” “Er, er,” said Zygmunt, “that’s just on the website, not actually in the book.” “And our cleaning lady is very upset,” said the man.
At the start of the book, which was in Newsweek, there is a crucial scene that sets off the whole intrigue and draws the reader inexorably into the plot. The genealogist doing his research in the small hours becomes unnerved by the creepy atmosphere of the archive, and the tension is compounded when he hears a loud crash; it’s just that one of the window gantries has fallen. As he tries to raise it again, he thinks he sees something outside, and approaches the window for a better look; it’s dirty, he can’t see properly, so he opens the window to look out, and sees a ghastly, bloodless corpse shining in the moonlight.
“The window has to be dirty in the book for the purposes of the plot, so the character opens it and looks out,” said Zygmunt. “You’ll have to explain that to Mrs Janeczka!” We were duly marched to a cubby hole under the stairs. The tall man knocked at it importantly. “Mrs Janeczka, it’s the writer fellow from Warsaw!” Out came a small woman in a blue pinny and plum-coloured hair. Without a word, she defiantly pointed her chin at Zygmunt, her stare so stony that he visibly aged down from thirty-five to five. Stammering like a school boy, he tried to explain. “It’s just fiction, I never meant to imply… to cast aspersionson your no doubt impeccable cleaning skills…” “But it’s gone out into the world,” she said.
“Book launch at the Town Hall, reception at the bar, author’s public execution in the Marketplace!” I said as we ran off. Later we learned that a local primary school teacher, who just happened to have the same (not unusual) name as one of the characters in the book, had insisted that the publisher must withdraw and pulp the entire first edition – the pupils had cottoned on to the book character’s nickname: “piczkazasadniczka” – “the principled pussy”. Before the book launch could happen, it was abruptly cancelled; allegedly the bishop had been offended by the book’s criticism of the Catholic church, and the mayor was offended by its suggestion of scams run by the city administration. “But no one was offended because I dragged up the city’s anti-Semitic past,” says Zygmunt. “Perhaps, because I did my best in the novel to point out the path of common sense, to show that both anti-Semitism and mad political correctness are built upon the same hatred.”
Needless to say, it was a bestseller at the local independent bookshop (which features in the book), and eventually Miłoszewski got a reprieve. His author’s event in Sandomierz happened and was very well attended, a huge success and a happy occasion – with no need for the discreet bodyguard offered by his publisher.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a full-time translator of Polish literature. Her published translations include fiction by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists, including The Last Supper by Paweł Huelle, for which she won the Found in Translation Award 2008. Her translations of non-fiction include reportage, literary biographies and essays. She also translates poetry and books for children, including illustrated books, novels and verse. She occasionally takes part in translation conferences, reads her work at public events, and interprets for the writers whom she translates at literary festivals. Last year she participated in Translation Nation, a project to teach primary school children the value of knowing languages. She recently mentored a younger translator within a project run by the British Centre for Literary Translation, and initiated by the UK Translators Association, of which she is currently a committee member.
A Grain of Truth, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones is published by Bitter Lemon Press.
Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones, was published in 2010.