Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury is a coming-of-age story set in Poland during the 1980s. Presumably largely autobiographical – Greg was born in 1974 and the central character is called Wiola – it takes the form of a series of key moments illuminating the journey from childhood to adolescence in separately tilted chapters which falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. The book’s Polish title, Guguly, means ‘unripe fruit’, a more accurate description of the writer’s intensions perhaps, though English’s inability to translate this in one word indicates why translator Eliza Marciniak has chosen a title from an incident in another chapter, Swallowing Mercury, instead.
Poland was, at times, the centre of global politics in the 1980s, and Greg subtly infuses Wiola’s life with the effects of the uncertain political situation while making it clear her mind is filled instead with the day to day minutia of growing up:
“One day in the middle of July, my father got back from work early, and as he replaced the flypaper around the ceiling lamps, he said to my mother that martial law in Poland would end in a couple of days. I was nine, and even though I could remember the day when the children’s’ show Telemorning had failed to appear on the telly, I still had no idea what he was talking about.”
Schoolchildren are not immune, however, to the oppressive effects of the regime. After winning a painting competition (theme: ‘Threats around your farm’) by painting a potato beetle crawling out of a Coke bottle (“The jury at the provincial level concluded that my drawing ‘portrayed, in a deeply metaphorical manner, the crusade of the imperialist beetle.’”), Wiola is questioned about her entry for ‘Moscow through your eyes.’
“And who might have given you this…interesting idea? Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?”
In fact, ink has leaked over the painting while it was in her bag making it look “like the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was being engulfed by a viscous ocean of indigo”; it is not, as the authorities seem to suspect, anti-Soviet propaganda.
If politics is one unacknowledged pillar of Wiola’s life, the Catholic religion is the other. When Wiola returns home with a ‘blessed figure’ she has won in a raffle, the women who are there helping her grandmother “set aside their down-filled farm sieves, kneeled on the floor among the white piles of feathers and started to recite prayers.” Religion and politics come into conflict when there is a rumour that the Pope, on a visit to Poland, will drive past the village. The women sew all night making bunting to welcome him.
“In the morning, I rushed to the road…to welcome the Pope, carrying a paper pennant with the Vatican’s coat of arms which I had bought at the corner shop. All that was left of the half mile of bunting were muddy shreds soaking in the ditch next to empty vodka bottles and cigarette ends.”
Wiola’s life is not only subject to the pressures of the present; she lives surrounded by the past. “The Easter of 1913 was also wet,” her grandfather tells her. Her mother talks of a classmate in the 1960s who “dreamt the dreams of someone else – the Kurzaks’ five-year-old daughter. The Kurzak girl, they said in the village, had been executed by a German firing squad in 1943 in revenge.” In one of the novel’s most striking chapters, a stranger on a bus tells Wiola a story from his childhood, a series of events which lead to the death of a friend.
As the novel progresses, Wiola’s first boyfriend reveals the relative poverty of her family when he sees her with her grandmother selling cherries at the market:
“Piotr was looking at me with surprise. I forced myself to smile and wave, but he didn’t respond; he turned the other way… I knew I’d never see him again.”
Later a more serious boyfriend will encourage her to run away but, though a coming-of-age novel, it also questions whether we ever have the freedom to become the person we might want to. Aged fifty, her father tells her:
“What a strange world this… Before I’ve even had time to blink they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit.”
Swallowing Mercury may come from a very different time and place, but it’s a reminder just how much stays the same.