The Map (2022)

Polish title: Mapa (2019)
By: Barbara Sadurska
Translated by: Kate Webster
Published by: Terra Librorum
Originally published by: Nisza

The winner of the Witold Gombrowicz Prize for Literature (2020)

Seven stories connected by a fifteenth-century map of the world. Once upon a time, maps used to exhibit the boundaries of the known world. They soothed our fears, and simultaneously ignited our imagination, uncharted territory beckoning us from afar. Barbara Sadurska’s The Map – belligerent and refreshing in tone, narratively picaresque and nostalgic, structurally non-linear and precisely framed – does not attempt to cover hackneyed ground. It goes much further. In entertaining, it instructs. In instructing, it terrifies. It illuminates the fact that man knows as little about himself as the first cartographers knew about the world.

Barbara Sadurska (born 1974 in Brzesko, Poland) is a lawyer and writer. She has been awarded many prizes for her screenplays and theatre plays. In 2018 she received the main prize at the 14th International Short Story Festival for her story Moonlit Full. She debuted in Tworczosc, which she continues to regularly publish in, as well as Magazyn Wizje and Pismo. She recently published her short story collection, Mapa, which was inspired by the 2016 ISSF competition.

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Linked short stories, a novel, something inbetween? The overall structure was good, though some details perhaps weren’t linked. Perhaps the chapters could have been presented in another sequence.

The time travel element was dizzying. The characters (and their relationships one to another) were confusing. No concessions to the reader, in terms of the voice / perspective / time shifts – sometimes hard to follow. The author doesn’t think of the reader. Like attempting a sudoku puzzle – one wrong move and nothing fits.

The map as a vision of the future. Recurring images, various deaths, connections, at times the map drops out of sight, and seems to have been buried and undisturbed from 1717 to 1946… The Gates of Hell, temptation, sex, attraction, cruelty – everyone wants it, but why? Hell has been and continues to be made by humans. The map of the human soul – which can’t be mapped – the map can be destroyed but the cruelty remains.

Is the butcher’s boy cruel? He kills at the behest of others, but takes pride in killing cleanly, using the skills he has learned, and without taking pleasure in the act.

‘The Butcher’s Boy’ was something of a page turner. Rembrandt’s world was richly portrayed in just a few pages – social, artistic, economic, sexual.

Interesting to have various points of view, including that of the perpretrators of violence, suffering too from their own anxieties.

According to interviews she has given, Sadurska didn’t write it with a set idea about the sequence of the stories, and they were written as individual stories, not (intentionally) connected, though obviously the same characters recur. She is a lawyer, who took up writing to write out her pain, rather than with a view to publication.

The book won the prestigious Gombrowicz prize. Polish readers have commented on how beautifully it is written. Or have they fallen into the trap of ‘If it’s difficult it must be a work of genius’. It’s pretentious, e.g. the passing reference to Mann’s Dr Faustus. Like reading Martin Amis, who writes wonderful prose, but after reading a few pages you wonder to what end?

It’s a book you need to read twice – then perhaps on the third reading things will become clear.
I didn’t like it but I admired it.
A difficult book, full of cruelty, and puzzling.
A dark, thought-provoking book in which terrible things go on – glad to have read it.
Images of violence which were hard to get out of your head – too much.
This book was written as therapy for the writer – but the duty of the writer is to offer therapy for the reader.
Concise, precise use of words.
Ambitious, an important work, delving into the war, buried secrets.
There are some similarities with Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, with its random violence and death.
Always good to review one’s own opinion of the book after the discussion – which opens up new perspectives.


I tried to read this book. I struggled with the first two stories ‘Insomnia’ and ‘The Map’ and then put the book down. I was not captured by the literary style and structure with its disconnections striving to be the connections. The short and sometimes sharp sentences seemed to be part of the disconnected style. The novel as a whole, as a series of short stories, literary puzzles and cul-de-sacs, did not work for me. To take a map of the known world as a template for the challenges of human life through time and space is interesting, but not for me in this so called novel.

I picked up the book again a few days later and read The Butchers Son but then really did not want to continue. I read snippets of the rest and still was not captured by the writing and the theme. Moreover, I could not enter into a mood content to be tortured by the episodes of raw brutality as they were described. I closed the book with relief.

The message that came across to me is that hell on earth has been and continues to be created by humans whether intentional or by conditioning, by force of coercion, lack of free will, or the instinct of survival. The map is the author’s anchor.The gateway to true hell is not yet mapped and therefore camouflages the ever present human capacity to create hell for their fellow beings, described in gratuitous detail. I have no wish to try to better my appreciation of the book with a second reading.

I wonder how the author and translator have been affected by their writing and translation of this work?

Krystyna Szumelukowa
3 December 2022


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