The Elephant and the Polish Question
By Helen Lynch
Published in 2009
A collection of 16 interlinked short stories and 2 novellas set in Poland during the turbulent years of the late 80s and early 90s. These draw on personal experience – the author’s and other people’s – to create a portrait of a place and time in which politics and history are played out in sometimes quirky ways in the psyches of individuals. The principal narrator is a young woman in difficult personal circumstances whose situation seems to be entwined with the complications of the country where she has come to live. Unexpectedly pregnant, she struggles to find sanity and a sense of perspective, and to come to terms with her often problematic affection for a country under whose spell she has fallen. Hers is not the only voice: characters introduced in her stories reappear in others to relate their own experiences, and give their own take on the somewhat surreal world in which they are living.
The title, The Elephant and the Polish Question, is also that of the final story. This refers to a joke often told by Poles about their nation’s self-absorption, in which a Polish student, asked to write an essay on the habits of elephants, entitles his piece ‘The Elephant and the Polish Question’. The joke itself serves as an epigraph to the collection, which is partly about an outsider’s obsession with a self-obsessed culture.
The first (antenatal) stories are set before the fall of Communism, while the pivotal and longest short-story, ‘Unscheduled Flight’, takes place during the strikes and agitation of 1988, weaving together the narrator’s threatened miscarriage and her escape with the liberation of the country itself. Subsequent stories are set after the Round Table talks and the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a very traditional society tries to deal with the anarchic effects of being a new-born capitalist democracy. Combining a portrait of a foreign country with literary fiction and personal memoir, and exploring questions such as identity and anti-Semitism, the collection has particular appeal to people interested in Eastern Europe and its troubled recent history, as well as to the general short story readership.
Lynch is an honest guide with a great talent for description. [Her] insightful writing ... offers a colourful mosaic of the virtues and flaws of the newly empowered country.
-- The Scotsman
Helen Lynch has two daughters and lives in Aberdeen, where she teaches Medieval Literature and Creative Writing at the University and plays in all-girl ceilidh band Danse McCabre. She has published short stories in anthologies and magazines, as well as interactive educational resources for children, Beowulf for Beginners and The Knight with the Lion. Her first collection, The Elephant and the Polish Question, interlinked short stories set during the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, was published by Bluechrome in 2009. She is currently working on a second collection of stories, Tea for the Rent Boy, supported by a generous bursary from Creative Scotland.