Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Saragossa Manuscript

There are films that do not lose their magnetism as the years go by. They are still watched with growing interest. I can add The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech J. Has from 1965 to this list of timeless classics . Recent digitally-renewed copy makes the adventures of the main character even more improbable and mysterious.

The film is an adaptation of a vast book written by count Jan Potocki, whose life was the source of research and speculation. Potocki lived at the turn of VIII and XIXth century and he implemented the philosophy of Enlightement, religion, kabbalah, magic and science in his epic work . The Manusript is a frame-tale novel, where one story enroots in another one, and the second one enroots in a third. The plot takes place during 66 days and the reader familiarises himself with 33 stories told by different characters. Alfons van Worden, captain of the Walloon Guard is the link between all the tales.

The Saragossa Manuscript is a very challenging work for a film creator, but Has made a film which still intrigues. He decided to transfer 10 stories included in the original book and to unify their main characters. However critics also had something to say. Has was accused of diminishing the book's philosophy. The choice of the actor in the leading role also spurred some controversies. Another issue discussed by the reviewers was using Beethoven's Ode to Joy, which was composed 10 years after publishing the book.

In the 1960's the voice of critics might have some validity, but nowadays who would imagine a different actor in the leading role than Zbyszek Cybulski? While listening to philosophical reasoning of Uzeda (Adam Pawlikowski) or the mathematician Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek) I get the impression that Has did his best to transfer the book's philosophy in a nutshell. The director created a universal story about Good and Evil, where magic entwines with everyday life. The Saragossa Manuscript is a milestone of  Polish cinema and an obligatory position for every filmgoer.

Original title: Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie
Director: Wojciech J. Has
Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski, Gustaw Holoubek
Polish premiere: 09.02.1965

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Writing has always been a part of me



The author of the blog Kraina Czytania (The Land of Reading) talks to the writer – Agnes Steur – about literature, her new book “The War in Jangblisia. In That World” and her emigration experience.



Agnes, first of all I would like to ask you, what exactly happened in your life that made you decide to devote yourself to writing literature? I think, the desire to tell various stories to the other must have its origin somewhere?

Photo by Arnold Nienhuis
It seems to me that writing has always been a part of me. My desire to recount has no source in a specific event of my life. Certain topics have their source, but not creation, it is in me. It is not the result, but rather content. On the one hand, it is an internal need to shed thoughts, ideas upon paper, and on the other hand the desire to meet another person in this unique way, thanks to what I do. Since being a little girl I changed my dreams into stories and shed them on paper. In this way they became true. When I went abroad, writing has gained one more dimension, it has become a very important that accentuate my identity. I am writing in Polish, and therefore I do not lose what I left behind.

Recently, your debut novel has been released, entitled “The War in Jangblisia. In That World”. It is a fantasy novel aimed primarily to young people. Why did you choose this group of readers as recipients of your work?

Each stage of human life has its magic, but it seems to me that stepping into adulthood is a sensitive and unique moment. There is a lot of decision-making during that period. Young people are no longer children, but they still believe in fairy tales. No peak is too high, but the real world is now perceived with all senses. Rebellion, questioning of the values and searching for their own path, these are very important. My children are now facing the border of this stage, and I will watch their way with great curiosity. How they will handle the changes. I really wish that they could preserve something of their childishness, but also enter the new phase of life with certainty. Sometimes I think that I also do not want to lose this particle of innocence that is in me, which makes me like children’s and youth literature.

I must admit that when I was reading your story I was pleasantly surprised by its originality. Mostly it is so that the characters of “our world” in some magical way get into the world of fairy tales, where they meet a variety of creatures. It is the other way around in your case. How did you come up with this idea to send foreign entities on a journey to the world of men?

For many years I have been living outside the Polish border. I became an emigrant, and at one point I was terrified by the fact, that this one word somehow defines me as a whole person. In those experiences I found and inspiration for my book. The problem of being an alien is very fascinating to me. I have figured out long time ago that his feeling is a state of mind in large extent. Alienation is often the inner part of a man, and not something exterior. This consciousness is not comforting. In addition, living in another country has convinced me that sometimes, what is obvious may become strange, and everyday life of other people can really surprise us. I wanted to show the known world, as a stranger. The reverse process was very important to me. Thanks to that, Jangblisians came to the reader, or the reader discovered Jangblisia in himself/herself. After all, there is plenty of “ordinariness” around us that we do not understand. We do not have to leave to ask ourselves the question: why is it just the way it is, and why (horror of horrors!) so many people agree on it in silence?

Your novel contains a number of universal values such as love, friendship, tolerance, but also there is no shortage of what is bad. Why do you think so many writers still focus on the battle between Good and Evil? This problem, discussed in so many publications, may prove to be dull and wordy for many readers. Weren’t you afraid of this kind of criticism while creating the plot for your novel?

While creating Jangblisia I was afraid of criticism, but it is not on this topic. I firmly believe that there is content that will never become boring. Maybe it is cliché, but the struggle between Good and Evil takes place in each of us. I do not mean extreme situations like war, but those quite ordinary. We make decisions every day, that in some way affect us and the others. It is important to allow the Good to win in this area. These are universal themes. It is a bit like asking whether a book about love ever become boring, or criminal stories, or vampires and magic. The next generations will be fascinated about them, and while for some these themes are a bit wordy, they should be repeated.

Photo by Arnold Nienhuis
The world of Jangblisians that you created is on the one hand a world very similar to ours, but on the other hand it can also be deducted that it significantly differs from the reality that surrounds people. Of course, I have in mind mainly the residents of Jangblisia. How did you manage to create such original characters with very peculiar appearance and tastes?

I let my imagination run wild. I realize that to come up with something new is almost impossible. New things are usually a mix of what is already there. But I really wanted something on my own. My work is dictated by what is happening in my life. One day the children asked about evolution and what different people say about it. In response to their various questions I came up with an idea that maybe I will create a story, in which evolution will develop in different directions. Everyone ask themselves, what if. My response has become the story of another place.

Let’s also recall that your novel has been born by the extraordinary illustrations of Ewa Kieńko Gawlik. Where did the idea come from to enrich the visuals of your book?

I have known Ewa for many years. I have always admired her work. Working with her is a pleasure, and I am sure that we will show up as a duo again more than once. She is a very gentle person with an unusual strength. The most painful is that we live so far apart. Every encounter with Ewa is very inspirational to me. It is a pity that there are not so many meetings. The moment, when the queen Zara emerged in my head, I knew that Ewa must create the visual part of the book. The drawings themselves were changing during the draw. First, we wanted them to be sketches, but Ewa suggested adding some colours. I told her how I saw the images and she just poured them onto the paper and each time she surprised me, because what she created was more beautiful than how I had imagined them.

As an emigrant you are actively working for Polish community in the Netherlands. Could you tell the readers what this activity is about, and what it brings to your life and the Poles living abroad?

It deals with various Polish activities. Very often, these are actions related to culture. Currently I am a member of the jury in the competition of poetry for children “I Would Like To Be Like Tuwim!”, organized by The Literary Correspondence Club of The Young Polish. I receive wonderful poems written by children living outside Polish borders. Involvement gives me great joy, but also makes me worried, because I have to make a decision. The kids are fantastic, but I have to say, that one is better, and someone else is worse – a huge responsibility. The subject of bilingual children in Netherlands is very important to me. There are parents that neglect Polish language of their children, but also those, who have a lot of doubts in this matter. I also meet parents, who only have to hear that there are others who have to face the same problems. I get involved in the Polish community meetings and talk about bilingualism and its good sides. Thanks to that, I also get to know wonderful people. These are unforgettable moments.

You also won several literary awards and honors, among which is the distinction of Marshal of the Senate of the Republic of Poland himself for Polish and Polish Diaspora Journalists. It must be an extraordinary prize for you, isn’t it? Do you remember how you felt, when you found out that it was you to be granted?

It was my first award in a foreign land. I was very proud because I got it for my journalistic debut. I was also very pleased, when I had the opportunity to meet the Marshal of the Senate personally. Then also for the first time I understood, what the author-reader relationship is. After the publication or the winning texts I began to receive letters from people, who experienced “something” while reading them. When I hear or read that my works raised feelings or gave something, this is the greatest reward.

A short literary form is also not a stranger to you because you can indeed write a fantastic story with an original message. It is also planned to publish a collection of your essays. Can you tell the readers what topics you discuss in them, and to whom they are addressed?

My first texts that have been published in the Polish community press were essays concerning life on emigration. Eventually, I began to write about everything. For several years I have been working with the “Polish Stage” in Netherlands. Also writing for Lejdiz Magazine in England is a reason to be proud. When in 2011 I worked with PNKV in Netherlands, I was offered to release my essays, which then have quite accumulated, in the form of a book. This project is very important to me because it will be a bilingual edition and will be called “Words for internal use”. Reading my words in a different language is strange, exciting and a little unreal.

You have already had your first author meeting, which took place in your hometown in Poland. Was it a very stressful event for you as a debutant?

The first author meeting was a very stressful experience for me. I must admit to you that there were times, when I thought that I would be the first ever debutant, who will pass away during this kind of meeting. Now when I have it over with, I can, with hand on my heart, say that evening in Walbrzych  in the Library beneath Atlanteans will remain one of the most pleasant memories. I met so many nice and warm people. Not only people from my past came to the meeting, but also strangers, who shook my hands and shared their experiences.

Are you planning to do more author meetings, for example in the Netherlands?

Meetings with readers are wonderful and certainly, as soon as opportunity arises, will be organized. In the nearest future there will be meetings in Netherlands with the readers of my second book, a collection of essays.

Perhaps it is still too early to ask you about this, but I am curious whether you want to write just for the youth, or maybe are you planning to write a novel addressed to adult readers?

At the moment I am absorbed by the further fate of Jangblisians, I also began a series of fairy tales for children. I have a lot of ideas in my head. I think one day I will write something addressed to adults. Now, however, I will remain for some time in the world of fairy tales and fantasy.

As far as I know, “The War in Jangblisia. In That World” was released at the same time in Poland, the Netherlands and England. Is there a difference between retrieval of the book by readers from these three countries? Or maybe their tastes are the same everywhere?

This is true. The reception varies greatly, but the difference of tastes is not the reason. Emigrants are adult people, who work hard and often do not have the time to journey into the world of fantasy. They come abroad with children, who go to school here and very quickly begin to read in language of the country. Youth living in the Netherlands read practically only in Dutch, so maybe if I can translate my book, I will get more readers. Of course, this is not a rule, but unfortunately it is true for majority. Anyway, seeing “Jangblisia” published in Dutch is my next dream to be realized.

I know that your debut novel is just the beginning of the story of Jangblisians. This story is supposed to be a trilogy. Therefore, when can we expect a continuation of this unique tale?

I wish that the second part will be published a year after releasing of the first one. I hope that I will cope with the challenge. I know already that this book will be more extensive. The characters live in my head and force me to write. “The War In Jangblisia. In That World”, it is just the beginning. In the next part, the storylines develops and the answers of the earlier questions come.

Agnes, I would like to thank you for your time and I wish you every success at the threshold of your literary career.

Thank you for this conversation and the opportunity to be your guest.


This interview is published also on Link to Poland - click here
If you want to read this interview in Polish, click here