Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak


This book by a poet growing up in Poland during the 1970s and 80s is autobiographical fiction. You notice that the unpleasant smells of rural life vie with the visual descriptions to an unusual degree. And there are plenty of home remedies thrown in. Right off the bat is this description of her mother bringing her home from the maternity ward:

She brought me home in February. Still bleeding after childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my wrist to ward off evil spells and fell asleep for a few hours. It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back.

One night the narrator, called Wiolka, fell into a snowbank and nearly froze to death. Her mother took care of her:

She rubbed the rest of the moonshine into my feet. After the application of all possible remedies–including a poultice of parboiled cabbage leaves on my calves and a greasing with mutton and dog tallow–I regained the feeling in my toes.

And in a chapter describing her grandparents' farm in spring just as the narrator is becoming a teenager:

I had been feeling nauseous since the early morning and I didn't fancy the buckwheat blood pudding which my grandmother had fried up with onions for breakfast. I slipped outside and decided to accompany my grandfather on his expedition to the farm field. When it turned out that the spring thaws had flooded the meadows overnight, we turned back. We passed rotting storage clamps, barberry bushes, a row of apple trees. Shells of Roman snails crunched under our boots. The earth smelled of decaying roots, mud, cardamom.

Wow. Dirt that smells of cardamom. What a treat to travel with this wonderful writer, born in 1974, to such a different time and place. One story tells of the long reach of Soviet interest. When Wiolka was 10 years old, she entered several art contests, including one called "Moscow through your eyes." Just before she turned in her painting, it was ruined by an ink spill so that it looked as if Moscow "was being engulfed by a viscous ocean of indigo." She sent it off anyway and several weeks later a stranger turned up to give her chocolates and ask who gave her the idea for this gloomy picture. He offered her a free trip to Moscow if she would tell him. She became nauseous and threw up on the painting. That same year Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Not all of her difficulties came from afar. After an unpleasant encounter with the local doctor, she did swallow mercury. Apparently this was not fatal.

I learned a new word that I doubt will turn out to be too useful:  phillumenist, a collector of matchboxes or other match-related materials. Wiolka was known for her collection.

Collecting matchbox labels turned out to be a difficult hobby. Because how can you bring your razorblade to bear, with the necessary precision, on the label of that matchbox calling to you from the table during a name-day party, when Uncle Janek, the happy owner of the box, isn't drunk enough yet for it to be pinched, and there are no more vodka bottles in the crate behind the curtain?

The vignettes of the narrator's childhood and teen years are direct and honest and form a pleasing tapestry.  It is a clear-eyed, nuanced look at a harsh time. This book was on the Man Booker Prize longlist.

Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury, trans. by Eliza Marciniak, Transit Books, 2017, 146 pages (I read the Kindle version). Only available from Amazon. 

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