Much of Swallowing Mercury—Greg’s 2014 debut, translated into English this year by Eliza Marciniak—is composed of such scenes, quiet yet evocative, mundane yet vivid. Greg, who is a poet, writes sparely and evenly, attentive to detail but not overly reliant on it for metaphor or moral. In short chapters she strings together an episodic portrait of Wiola’s childhood that is at once familiar to anyone who’s been young and entirely specific to the experience of being young in the waning years of the Polish People’s Republic.
Without revealing years or ages outright, the book provides subtle cues about the passage of time in Wiola’s family, in the village, and in the larger world that Greg keeps obliquely yet palpably in the background. (Marciniak, in a translator’s note, helpfully explains several of the public events that Greg refers to, among them the Solidarity movement, the imposition of martial law, and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.)
“Disobeying my mother, I started sleeping with Blacky,” Wiola says at the start of the second chapter, delivering a jolt—one that propels us further into the interior life of a girl who is hardly lonely yet very alone. Blacky, we quickly learn, is a cat. Wiola’s rural childhood is marked by a scarcity of children; she lives with her parents and grandparents, who are frequently preoccupied with their own concerns, and human playmates are few and far between. But she has an ally in the cat:
I spent the whole summer roaming the fields with Blacky. He showed me a different kind of geometry of the world, where boundaries are not marked by field margins overgrown with thistles and goosefoot, by cobbled roads, fences or tracks trodden by humans, but instead by light, sound and the elements.
Throughout, Wiola draws on her powers of observation—honed by solitude—to keep herself company, finding wonder and strangeness within, and often beyond, the trappings of daily life that her busy cohabitants take for granted.
When Blacky drowns in a pond, Wiola goes silent for a week, only whispering to herself. “There was nothing strange in that, really, since everyone in our house was always whispering or singing something under their breath,” she notes. “But when I muttered or sang to myself, everyone would glance at me with surprise.” For Wiola, murmured prayers, her father’s “Elvis songs and prison ballads,” her mother’s anxious humming—all taking place in the “constant semi-darkness because of the fuses blowing, or the power station introducing energy-saving measures”—make up the fabric of a life that, though she doesn’t say as much explicitly, is as stifling as it is familiar. “We sat in the glow of the stove like prehistoric insects frozen in amber,” she recalls.
Wiola’s awareness does not constitute a political consciousness, exactly. But she picks up on contradictions—darkness at the dawn of the 21st century, Communist dictates at odds with communal traditions—that reveal big political currents rippling in her remote outpost. Why do Wiola’s grandmother and mother host women from the village as they sew pennants to decorate the town in anticipation of a papal visit? Why are “the men whose task it was to destroy the decorations” prepared to do so as soon as they are put up? Why—not that Greg asks this, or that Wiola thinks of it this way—is Catholicism so central to a culture that officially rejects it? The pope, it turns out, was planning all along to fly overhead in a helicopter. He wouldn’t have seen the decorations anyway. Gradually, Wiola sees more clearly the ways in which Hektary, bound by local customs and the realities of Soviet Communism—those “fences or tracks trodden by humans”—circumscribes the future its residents can envision. Her eventual departure seems inevitable.