Smutek Ryb – Hanna Krall

Another one of my 2020 Christmas gifts. It has a lovely cover and is illustrated throughout, but it is not a children’s book. Hanna Krall is a Polish writer and journalist. In her work, she often focused on Jewish-Polish history during the Holocaust. One of her most famous books is the long interview with Marek Edelman about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I managed to find it under two English titles: Shielding the Flame and To Outwit God. But as this book shows it certainly is not the only area she explored.

During communism, Krall wrote for Polityka, but when martial law was declared in 1983 she was let go for political reasons. Subsequently, she wrote for several magazines that allowed a little bit more open forms and managed to often pass under the censor’s radar. One of such magazines was the Angling News. What could she write there you may ask? Well, she wrote a column which title became the title of this book, The Sadness of Fish.

It was meant as a column for angler’s wives, as Krall explains in her introductory text. So that when their husbands’ angle, they have some entertainment on the shore and can share what they read with their husbands when they come back with the fish.

Krall decided to tackle the topic through interviews. She talks about fish with writers, art historians, literary critics, astrologists, anthropologists, and even a leader of the girl scouts. The conversations are amazing, touching on all aspects of fish existence in human life and culture. From philosophical to astrological, from food to nightmares, even to angling being a stage in one’s life. Rall asks open and intelligent questions and her interviewees take the challenge seriously and come prepared. So we find out about fish in the world and Polish art, fish in religion, the symbology of fish. Of course, she also touches on the ending of the Age of Pisces and the upcoming Age of Aquarius. All this in a very intelligent, but also light way.

One may think that writing about fish has to be boring for anyone who isn’t into angling, but that certainly is not the case here. Also when we consider the times in which those interviews took place one has to also appreciate the thinly veiled allusions to the political situation in Poland. Hidden enough to keep the censors at bay, but blatantly clear to any reader. It was a joy to read, informative, but also making me laugh out loud many times, despite being a short book.

The only thing I regret is that the chances of this book being translated into any other language are slim. It is a niche document of the times, that for a foreign reader would require a preface and footnotes longer than the text itself. But what a pleasure it was to read. Even more thanks to the beautiful illustrations by Izabella Zychowicz.

What are your favorite quirky books?

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

One thought on “Smutek Ryb – Hanna Krall

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