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Polish novels reflect generation stunted by political upheaval

Thursday, October 15, 2015

LAWRENCE – For the generation of Poles who came of age just as communism was ending, the country’s political transformation stunted their transition into adulthood, argues a University of Kansas scholar.

In “Coming of Age Under Martial Law: The Initiation Novels of Poland’s Last Communist Generation,” Svetlana Vassileva-Karagyozova, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, examines more than 30 Polish novels written about or by the generation known as the 89ers, a reference to the year communism ended in Poland. The generation of writers, born between 1960 and 1975, grew up under Communist rule and marked Poland’s declaration of martial law in 1981 as their initiation into adulthood.

Vassileva-Karagyozova’s book, which was published this summer by University of Rochester Press, explores the 89ers’ resentment toward the previous generation, known as the 68ers. After the fall of the communist regime, the older generation assumed and refused to relinquish power, which stifled the 89ers’ political ambitions and pushed them to explore alternative social roles.

“The 89ers didn’t feel welcomed by the older members of the oppositional movement to participate in Poland’s new political leadership, so they redirected their interest to the economic sphere,” Vassileva-Karagyozova said.

While the 89ers were wildly successful in building a free market economy, Vassileva-Karagyozova said many were haunted by the idea that their success was self-serving and they had failed to live up to the Polish romantic tradition of self-sacrifice for country.

This political dynamic was mirrored in the world of Polish fiction. Authors from the 89ers generation didn’t follow the traditional coming-of-age narrative where a youngster ventures out into the world to undergo a series of obstacles and returns older, wiser and ready to take a place in society. Instead, the initiation process into adulthood for 89ers is disrupted and often never completed. The main protagonist may die or become marginalized. A lack of an authority figure is frequently to blame for the developmental arrest.

"Maturation into adulthood is a universal process that has its own rules that demand to be fulfilled,” Vassileva-Karagyozova said. “But when the maturation process coincides with social upheaval, it creates a moral void in society, and the process is disrupted. The initiates never reach maturity because one of the rules of the process is that it has to be completed at a certain time.”

Vassileva-Karagyozova examines how communism changed family dynamics to the detriment of the 89ers’ developmental needs. Fathers, whose loyalty to family was redirected to the Communist Party, were often left professionally and personally unsatisfied because they failed to provide enough for the family. The result was a withdrawal from family life and a belief they had been robbed of their manhood. Mothers faced a double burden of managing a household and being a “good socialist worker.”

“Mothers neglected the emotional needs of their children because they didn’t have the time or energy. They unconsciously became their victimizers,” Vassileva-Karagyozova said. “The Polish family from the '70s and '80s is portrayed as alienated members seeking refuge on their own.”

Catholicism is also examined in these novels as a destructive force, especially for Polish women.

Vassileva-Karagyozova argues the pathological family dynamics central to these Polish novels are a metaphor for a generational shift gone wrong.

“The generational gap between the 68ers and the 89ers is wider than it has ever been before. I speculate it is not only because this generation was destined to live in two different political systems, but it was also a generation that is making a transition between two cultural systems,” Vassileva-Karagyozova said.  

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