Doctor Bianco and Other Stories (2021)

Polish title: Doktor Bianko i inne opowiadania (2019)
By: Maciek Bielawski
Translated by: Scotia Gilroy
Published by: Terra Librorum
Originally published by: Książkowe Klimaty

This collection features sometimes funny but mostly bitter short stories about ordinary people, whose habits and characters can feel very familiar. Bielawski’s sparse, unsentimental prose gradually creates portraits of the residents of an old tenement. His language is precise, seemingly simple, sometimes lightly stylised, and reading it is a real pleasure. But it makes us reflect on our everyday life, with its many disappointments and failures. In these stories we are all present, real and unfiltered.

This is is Bielawski’s first book to be translated into English. He won the prize for the best short story during Poland’s 13th International Short Story Festival in Wroclaw in 2017. Doctor Bianco was shortlisted for this years EBRD Literature Prize (European Bank of Reconstruction and Development). In Poland Bielawski is also known for his autobiographical novel Twarde parapety (Hard Windowsills) from 2016.

Brilliant, insightful snapshots of everyday reality. Olga Tokarczuk

Scotia Gilroy is a writer and translator from Vancouver. She has been living in Krakow for over a decade, where she works as a translator of Polish literature. Her works have been published in the journals Asymptote, BODY Literature, and by Comma Press and Indiana University Press, amongst others. She divides her time between Europe, Canada and the off-grid wilderness of Northern California.

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

On first reading Doctor Bianco and Other Stories I was not sure whether I had sufficiently engaged with the style of the book to appreciate its deeper content and meaning. A few words came to mind – snapshots; fragments; sound bites; episodes and vignettes – which when added together left me feeling that this style of stories, without beginnings and endings, was too disjointed. But then on reflection I began to better understand the tenement setting, which gave the physical context to the lives of the residents, and their own understandings and misunderstandings of their lives and their relationships. The other supporting framework is the cultural and religious mores of Polish society, past and present, which are well known to those with a Polish connection, but which other readers would need to absorb for the first time. The translator, Scotia Gilroy, sets out these frameworks in her Foreward.

The Polish reality of war and then communist control and its subsequent transformation into an independent democratic country is the wider setting. But the Polish reality of daily living is not necessarily unique and the themes of loneliness, post-traumatic stress disorders, nightmares, delusions, the loss of trust and despair recur in the stories. Each character has a coping strategy whether deliberate or not. I started to go back to some of the stories as they triggered my own emotions and memories.

For those who have yet to read the book my own mother’s name was Genowefa and in later life her war time traumas would return; she always had some chocolates to give others; and it was so important to give her a pedicure. The details of life are never trivial. In the story titled ‘Little Dogs Bark Loudest’ the fate of baby Zenek is shocking, and his future clearly unknown.

And this is where the stories are fascinating in themselves and taken together begin to make sense. The eternal questions relating to the road we travel and each person’s desire for identity, visibility, and reassurance that a life is valued and not cancelled are threads throughout the stories.

Krystyna Szumelukowa

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