Plenty of z's but far from dull: Why you should get to know Polish literature

This October Krakow became the seventh Unesco City of Literature

Story highlights

  • Get over the tricky spelling and Polish literature has plenty to offer, says editor and author Michael Kandel
  • Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem inspired many, with his 'Solaris' twice made into a film
  • Wisława Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996
  • Irony, dark humor and faith are all common themes in Polish literature
Last month, the Polish city of Krakow joined the likes of Dublin and Edinburgh to become the latest Unesco City of Literature. Most people could probably name a Scottish or Irish author, but how about a Polish one?
Readers who are not Polish or of Polish descent face a few obstacles to opening the rich and different world of Polish literature.
Firstly, Poland is not a world player, and we tend to become interested in a country's culture only when it is a global power or a real or possible threat to us.
Secondly there is the spelling and pronouncing of names.
We can handle the Russian transliteration of Gregory as Grigory. But the Polish for Gregory, alas, is Grzegorz. All those z's. (I played Scrabble with a friend in Warsaw: a player gets one point for a Z.)
George Clooney starred in "Solaris" a 2002 film version of Lem's novel.
Obstacle three is that the jewel in the crown of Polish literature is its poetry, and unfortunately poetry is what usually gets lost in translation (though the translations have been improving).
However it's worth facing and overcoming these obstacles, because the Polish way of looking at the world has plenty to teach us.
If Polish literature began in the Renaissance it blossomed in mid-19th century Romanticism. The Shakespeare of Polish Romanticism was the poet Adam Mickiewicz. His "Pan Tadeusz," a novel in verse, restores a lost world through the magic of art. There is dalliance, swordplay, music, a hunt -- but even a humble vegetable patch delights.
Fast forward to the 20th century and Polish poetry and drama took a turn towards the avant-garde. The poetry had been remarkable from the beginning, but Cyprian Norwid, a contemporary of Emily Dickinson (his verse is strikingly similar to her quiet, difficult lyricism), showed the way to modern understatement. Check out Zbigniew Herbert and Poland's Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska.
Absurdism and dark humor are Polish specialties and appear in the playful stories and novels of Witold Gombrowicz.
Stanislaw Lem (right) received an honorary degree from Bielefeld University.
Lovers of science fiction should know Stanisław Lem. A Kraków native, Lem became internationally known for "Solaris," (which gave rise to two films, one by Andrei Tarkovsky and a Hollywood version by Steven Soderbergh), satirical fantasy "The Cyberiad," and essays on humanity and future technology. His work is marked by fun, pain, and a probing intelligence.