Theater of Cruelty

Touching other realities

Aina Villanger is one of several Norwegian poets recently translated and presented in Poland. How can Norwegian poetry influence and inspire a Polish audience?


My good friend Alicja Rosé – illustrator, poet, language genius and now translator – invited a group of Norwegian poets to Poland. Alicja has learned Norwegian through translating poems, and now the result of the painstaking work is clear: the launch of two journals, Nowa Dekada Krakowska and Czas Literatury, both of which present Norwegian authors in Polish. Alicja is the editor of the publication of Dekada and has devoted the entire number to Norwegian poetry that relates to religion and metaphysics. Among the translators are Jens Bjørneboe, Olav H. Hauge, Stein Mehren, Aasne Linnestå, Cecilie Løveid, Steinar Opstad, Ane Nydal, Gunnar Wærness and the undersigned. A good mix! Dead and alive, but according to the editor all lyricists who approach the religious in a different way than she is used to, especially in Polish poetry – which deals with issues of God with either pure embrace or aggression. Alicja would bring some of this "investigative and playful" way of treating religiousness to her home country. And she does – along with some lucky poets. In January, five days after the Liberal, governmental opposition mayor in Gdansk was stabbed in a scene in public, we – Gunnar, Ane and I – arrive in the Renaissance and tourist city of Kraków.

Identity and religion

Ever since the Middle Ages, Kraków has been the capital of culture, and it was the only Polish metropolis whose architecture was spared by the Germans. But how many of the tourists who bid on the offer of a gentle poster-carrying boy in the square ("Hello ladies, want to go to Auschwitz?") Are uncertain. We notice that we are in Poland. A country with a heavy history and a recent attack on the tolerance and openness of the Gdansk mayor. We ask many questions: Has Poland always been an oppressed country? How was it in Communist times? How are the Jews doing this now? Are there no immigrants in Poland? Do writers and artists have complete freedom of speech? You were not allowed to publish the text of Gyrid Gunnes about abortion? Are younger people also religious? What about homosexuality? On the whole: How are the Poles doing? The last is an unanswered question I have with me throughout my journey. Not only because I know that the second largest immigration group in Norway is Poles, but also because I have an old and unclear idea of ​​Poland as a poor country with a serious people – which with the new nationalist government has not made it any easier. Is this right?


Alicja answers, points and tells: Here is the castle, where my friend Adam Zagajewski, Poland's biggest living poet, lives, and here was the ghetto. It is January and cold to walk around the streets. Alicja takes us to hidden, warm places in the side streets: cafes with cheap vegetarian food, traditional bigos and Jewish kosher. The Czapski Museum tells of the incredible life of author and painter Jozef Czapski, a soldier and pacifist – and survivor, through two world wars. Another new and more spectacular building, Cricoteka, is dedicated to theater pioneer Tadeusz Kantor. The theme of identity and the Polish persecution of Jews in one of his most legendary pieces, The dead class (1975), reverberated in Tadeusz Slobodzianeks Our class (2009), which was staged at the National Theater in 2015. In Kantor's story, each of the actors had a doll clinging to the body, like a child shadow of its own. It is as if the stiff dolls carry along and tell everything that has not been said. An incoherent repertoire of memories is recounted with punctured, unfinished sentences, in comedic and terrifying pieces – war, oppression, violence, but also love, longing and Polish folk tales. Is this a kind of image of Polish identity even today?

Polish poetry addresses issues of God with either pure embrace or aggression.

The launch of Dekada takes place at Massolit, an English-style bookshelf with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and large tiled coal fireplaces that spread a deep warmth in the rooms. Dekada's regular editor, poet and translator Jakub Kornhauser, greets us in English and introduces in Polish. Alicja talks to us in Norwegian and interprets directly to Polish. We tell about the work on the selected texts and our relationship with religion. Not many people have found their way to Massolit this evening, maybe fifteen. This may be due to something Alicja warned about in advance: Many people have probably traveled to Gdansk and the mayor's funeral. One who, on the other hand, is among the audience, is the Norwegian consul. He says that he rarely participates in events like this, perhaps because he is not invited or because there are not so many cultural cooperation projects between Norway and Poland, at least not in Kraków.

Poetry and politics

The next day we take trains for four and a half hours north. Through flat fields, covered by a thin layer of snow, past frozen woodlands and gray Kieslowski-
similar towns in the city. To the capital of Warsaw, in every way a far more modern city.

The first thing that meets us is the huge palace of culture and science, Pałac Kultury in Nauki. It was a gift from Josef Stalin, and huser including offices, shops, conference rooms, colleges, cinema, theater and a swimming pool. In Poland's capital, there are over 66 institutions of higher education, and no less than 30 theatres. But we also know that a great story lies buried under all the new buildings – over 200 people lost their lives here in 000, when the Germans systematically destroyed the entire city. It is as if this is simmering when a little later we meet a larger audience at the Big Book Café – which is also a publishing house and organizes an annual literature festival. We repeat the conversation from yesterday, and when Alicja opens up to questions, the commitment begins to show: Do we in Norway have a freer relationship with religion since we are an atheist country, and is our poetry the result of a search for something we lack? Do we know any Polish writers beyond Gombrowicz and Szymborska? Is today's welfare society in Norway so successful because we have not been oppressed, as Poland has been? How do we relate to Anders Behring Breivik? Alicja interprets as best she can, and we answer as best we can. Eventually, longer exchanges of opinion occur between her and the audience. We understand that it is no longer about poetry. Poles always start talking about politics, says Alicja calmly afterwards.


As we walk around wailing in Warsaw, we see people wearing jackets marking support for the mayor and the national fundraising campaign for children's health, a matter the mayor talked about on the day of the killing. We see demonstrations against the government's divided rhetoric. "Stop hating!" it says on a large banner on a building. We know the sun is warming us by the river Wisla. And with the statue of Marie Skłodowska-Curie in the back, we return to the new old town.

Poles always start talking politics.

At Alicja's home last night, we meet a gay man who teaches feminism at the university. He is particularly concerned about Rebecca Solnit and says that we must make Alicja a feminist. I stutter. A poet and translator who not is a feminist? No. The crucial question is: Can Norwegian poetry inspire a different approach to religiosity – and thus more openness? As Kantor has described, precisely the poetry – unlike the prose, which characterizes the official political language of power – is "an extension of our reality, it is an approach to another world on a metaphysical level, a sense of touching other realities" . Can poetry actually open up our understanding of reality, across languages ​​and borders? Yes, Alicja Rosé has already responded. In the form of two publications with Norwegian poetry, where almost half are authored by women.

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