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A Citizen of the North

April 16, 2012 - Łukasz Wojtusik - Interviews



Mariusz Wilk is a Polish author, journalist and former Solidarity member. His book Journals of a White Sea Wolf has been translated into several languages tells the story of his life on the Solovki Islands, an isolated archipelago in Russia’s north. He has since relocated to the village – as he calls it – of Konda Bierezna in Russian Karelia.

This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and was published online. We are grateful for TOK FM’s permission to translate and reprint the interview.

ŁUKASZ WOJTUSIK: Do you like coming back to Poland?

MARIUSZ WILK: I like coming back to some places in this country. For example to Kotlina Kłodzka, Kraków or Zakopane, but overall Poland is quite tiring. The space, the emptiness, the peace and quiet that I have in the north makes me see how loud it is here. Crowded and loud.

You often write about this in your diary. A return to Konda Bierezna is a return to your home, to a sanctuary of peace.

Here I am here a little bit out of my place. Of course here are some of my friends and readers. When I come back I often meet them. Then I give myself to others, I talk to them, and very often I live their problems.

What made you decide to write a diary? Is this because of what you wrote in your latest book, Lotem Gęsi, that time is slipping through your fingers?

Writing a diary helps me to contemplate time and this is the key to human life. It does not slip, it flows. Time is, in fact, quite a complicated matter. It has been quite a while since I left behind the concept of linear time. I believe that linear time does not make sense. It starts where no one knows and no one knows where it ends. Linear time goes nowhere. Sitting, isolated in the countryside, I was observing the cycles of nature, the cycles of the earth, the return of birds, departure of birds – it all repeats itself. And this is how I came to understand that time is round. However, this is not enough for me. I have been feeling a certain degree of fatalness to it. It also repeats itself so it also does not make much sense. Hence, at the moment, I am meditating on time as a spiral.

A little bit like the Buddhist monks….

More like Tao. It spins in circles and each year this spiral is a bit higher. It resembles a well in which every year the boarding gets bigger. One can look into this well from the top and see his/her reflection or one can see from the bottom who is looking on us from the top.

In an interview you mentioned that you have two masters: one of them is Jerzy Giedroyc (publisher of the Polish émigré journal Kultura – editor’s note). Who is the second one?

The first one is Father German. Giedroyc became my hero a bit later. Of course, I have known about him since I was a student but physically the first one in my life was Father German. It was in 1992 when I went to the Solovki Islands for the first time. I was in a poor psychological state. I got there from Abkhazia where I saw quite a bit in the war. This war was the end of my career as a foreign correspondent. After the war, by accident, I ended up in Solovki. I realized right then and there that I had a great topic to write a book. I realised that to write about Russia I needed to go deep into the Eastern Orthodoxy and the monasteries. 

I realised that to get deeper into it, I had to get to know a monk. My friends told me about Father German. I approached him after a mass and asked for a conversation. He invited me to his quarters. This was something very rare. Not many people are allowed in a monk’s quarters. I do not know why I was let in, maybe it was his intuition – he seemed intrigued. We talked for almost the entire night. I told him my life story, like a confession.  I told him about the Solidarity movement in Poland, about America, Berlin and Abkhazia. As a foreign correspondent I never had enough time to get deep into my own self. And he told me two important things. The first thought was: “Stop and you will see that you will get further.” At the end of the conversation he added: “Why do you wander around the world like that? You can do the same, without leaving where you are.”

These words stayed with me for so long that I thought about them for eight years when I was staying in Solovki. I read Old Russian literature in the Old Church Slavonic language. I wanted to understand their roots.

After three years of silence – also on paper – I got a message from another old man, the editor of a Paris-based journal Kultura – Jerzy Giedroyc. He offered me to become a permanent contributor to his journal. This was after my letter to Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (Polish writer and journalist – editor’s note) in which I described to him Jarcewo, 50 years after he had departed from it. Herling liked this letter to such an extent that he included it in his Dziennik Pisany Nocą which at that time was being published by Kultura. This is how I started working with them. First in the form of letters from the Solovki Islands, but in time it turned into a sort of diary. Why a diary? Writing a diary gave me the opportunity to contemplate time. Today I can write about one thing, tomorrow about another and I do not need to stick to one topic. I like to write bits and pieces and writing in the form of a diary allows me to do that. My adventure with Father German ended in 1999 when I felt I was ready to move on. I was ready to start my own path. Not to go with the crowd, not to follow some external events which take me somewhere. I was ready to take my own slow steps. Both in life and with words.

Why did you decide to get outside Russia, to Labrador in Canada?

Labrador is also the north, meaning I did not leave Russia. I still believe that I live in the north and not in Russia. Russia has been here for a few centuries but the traces of human life there date back six or seven thousand years. Meaning, Russia is just an episode. I talk about myself more as a “writer of the north” and not a “writer living in Russia”. But returning to the previous subject, here in Kraków there was once an amazing meeting during which I was presented with Le Route Bleu by Kenneth White (a Scottish poet and writer – editor’s note). 

Discovering White was one of the most important intellectual adventures of my life. Once I was given this book, I read it and started to search its author to have a conversation with him. I wanted to finish my diary Tropami Rena with a conversation with White. He is the author of the concept “intellectual nomadism” and my book was about nomadism – not only physical but also spiritual. Unfortunately, I did not manage to find White and I had to finish the book without him. We later met, by accident, at a festival for travellers and wanderers. This was where the idea to follow the track in Labrador, 20 years after Le Route Bleu was born: to see what has changed and contrast Russia’s north with Canada’s north. I waited for two years, managed to save money and we set out. It was a quick trip.

In your recent book, Lotem Gęsi, you are constantly complaining that you cannot stop…

This is the first thing, for sure. We could not stop because there were three ferry trips – we could not skip them as we would have got stuck. It was also a route from one camp site to another. We travelled together, we talked a lot, and when you talk, you do not see much. It was also pure tourism. Just zooming through Labrador. I always had a negative attitude towards tourism – understood not only as travelling from one camp site to another but also a lifestyle.    

You write about this in the beginning of Lotem Gęsi.

Yeah, a voyager is a tourist, while a wanderer is a wanderer.

Kapuściński was a voyager while Kenneth White a wanderer?

Yes. And let’s add one more thing. A wanderer is a person who walks as long as he becomes the road himself. Whenever he is, the wanderer is at home. For this reason he feels responsible for the place he is visiting. A voyager, on the other hand, is nowhere at home, even at his own home is only temporarily there. He never takes the responsibility for the places he is in. A tourist destroys small nations and the local people because he mistreats their lives. At a certain point they give up on doing their local crafts and start servicing a client, the tourist.

And they look at him as if he was a bag full of money?

Yes. They give up their traditional undertakings because it makes more financial sense to serve a tourist than to look after the reindeer, for example. And the reindeer which are not taken care of simply die.

So when it came to your travels in Labrador, who were you: a wanderer or a voyager?

I was a voyager and this was my failure. I also failed with the language. We saw everything that was worth seeing there and I thought I would later write a book about Labrador. In half a year. I started doing it and I suffered. It was one of the most difficult texts I have ever written. And this is because it was about nothing. How much can you write about asphalt and camp sites? Thank God my daughter was born that year, otherwise this text would have killed me. This is the only travel trip in my life which can be called pure tourism.

Somebody said to you once: Go to Russia. This is a space for never-ending inspirations.”

Yes, Allen Mandelbaum told me that back in the United States. He was a very wise man who encouraged me to come to the US and promote Konspira (Wilk’s first book about the Solidarity underground – editor’s note). When I was leaving for the US I thought I would settle there. However, after four months I realised that it was not a country for me. When I was talking to Allen I asked him what I could do there. I went to the US with a plan to write another book, a sequel to Konspira. But I was alone, without my friends. The new book was supposed to be entitled Gdańsk – an open history (Gdańsk – historia otwarta). I presented my idea to Allen and he then told me: "Great idea, but before you write your book remember that here nobody is interested in Poland.” Then he gave me a piece of advice: “Go to Russia, if you get deep into Russia, you will be able to live off it for the rest of your life. For us, in the West, Russia will always be of interest. You can be sure that your texts will be translated, you will be getting royalties.”

And your texts are being translated. Your books are published not only in Poland. Have you succeeded? Was this a good piece of advice?

Yes, but he probably did not think that I would want to go so far north. And indeed there is great interest in what I am doing. My books sell well in Germany. The French are also quite interested in my writing, there have been three translations into English, Spanish and now there are also publications in Russian. For sure, things are going well, although I am also aware that what I am doing is a niche form of writing. I do not reach what we call the mass reader. But this is not my target, either. I am not interested in producing best-sellers, or making money. I am more interested in people who after reading my book want to come and visit me, for example. And, fortunately, there are quite many of them.

You are a citizen of the north. What about being a citizen of the world?

No. Everybody thinks they are the citizens of the world nowadays. I feel more like an earthling. This is probably the concept of the widest meaning. For quite some time I have been trying to avoid all kinds of labels which are being put on me: a Pole, a Catholic, etc. Those different identities limit us. Does the fact that I am a Catholic not allow me to meditate like a Buddhist or practice wushu? If I am a Pole, should I be against the Russians just because in the past they beat and hurt us?

In your book Lotem Gęsi, I can see a change in your writing style, can this be explained by the birth of your daughter?

This was a fundamental experience for me. Her arrival, as it is written on the book’s cover, flipped my world upside down. I am a late father. I was 55 and an already shaped man when she was born. Now, I am writing a new book, about my daughter. I am describing the world from mine and her perspective. I want to describe people who will soon die so that when she reads the book when she is an adult, she will be able to return to her childhood.

We need to remember one thing: when she is fifteen, I will be, if I make it by then, seventy. Throughout this time, I am able to lead her and describe this.

And you will be travelling together?

In three years, if I am still able to, I would like to take her to Siberia, Buryatia, The Chukchi Peninsula, Kamchatka and maybe even Tibet. I would like her to first see these endless spaces, and the steppes. I want this world to be dear to her. But when she is a teenager I will send her to a school so that she can catch up with everything that my wife and I cannot provide for her.

How long will it take before we get the book about her?

Not too long. Ever since she appeared in my life, I have accelerated a lot. It took me five years to write Lotem Gęsi and I had difficulties finishing it. And now, in the summer, I have written half of the book. I think I should finish it by the autumn. The publisher should get it by the winter.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Łukasz Wojtusik is a Polish journalist and radio reporter. He is the head of the Krakow office of the radio program TOK FM.

This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and published online in Polish here: http://www.tokfm.pl/Tokfm/1,102433,11499109,Czas_linearny_jest_bezsensowny__Zaczyna_sie_i_konczy.html

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