Joanna Chmielewska (real name: Irena Kühn née Becker) was one of the most important writers of my adolescence and I was really sad when I heard of her sudden death earlier this month.
In Poland Joanna Chmielewska was more of an institution than a regular writer, with over 60 books published, million copies sold and translated into various languages (but not to English!). Her Russian publisher (she is tremendously popular in Russia – having sold some 10 million copies there) coined a phrase ‘ironic detective stories’ to describe her works and it was so perfect it is now used everywhere, including her Wikipedia page.
Even though Chmielewska is officially a crime writer, it is really humour and social observation which are the main ingredients of her books. I’d say here is the priority list: humour, crime, romance. Make no mistake though, the romance is almost always ironic as well. And it doesn’t always end happily.
She wrote almost a book a year since mid-sixties right until her death (interestingly during the political turmoil of the 80’s she only published books for teenagers), so even though some might argue their literary value, no one can argue their value as a chronicle of everyday Polish life of the last 50 fifty years.
I would say Chmielewska was my first creative writing teacher. If you look at my early attempts of writing, it becomes obvious how hard I was trying to emulate her. And any minimal traces of humour you can see in my writing I owe entirely to her.
I decided to read all Chmielewskas book in chronological order, because I think it will be an interesting exercise to see how Poland changed over the years and how Chmielewska’s own writing did.
‘Klin’ is Chmielewska’s debut novel, which was later turned into a movie with a star cast (which you can watch here if your Polish is not good enough to read a book but enough to watch a film - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGe60S6eLuA&noredirect=1). Upon rereading it now I was surprised how sassy and brave it was (inviting a strange man to your house in the middle of the night because they sounded nice on the phone?). And although Chmielewska would never include any sexually graphic scenes, it’s pretty obvious the main character had sex with that strange man (and potentially a criminal) on the second date – and that’s really not even a date, he just shows up at her house in the middle of the night. I’m pretty sure I missed all that when I first read this book when I was 14 – I was way too innocent then to read between the lines.
The title of this book could be translated to ‘The Antidote’ or, more contemporarily ‘The Rebound’. Our main character Joanna is in love with a certain Janusz and she is waiting for his call which is not coming. Due to a faulty line her conversation with a friend is interrupted by a stranger with a very sensual voice (I remember how often it happened back in the day, you would have a conversation with someone and all of a sudden there was a threesome, or even a foursome). Joanna decides that this man would be her rebound and vows to be immoral, as she’d "rather be immoral than unhappy". However, the man (whose name is also Janusz, and that’s not even the last Janusz to appear in the book and confuse the hell out of the reader) comes with a baggage of some mysterious criminal activity. What follows is a typical comedy of errors which involve phones, dogs and radios. Even though, the crime storyline seems rather confusing, and might not fully make sense (I did read it when I had flu, so take that into account), it’s still an absolutely delightful read.