Paweł Daniel Zalewski
A compilation of reviews:
Zalewski is a Kraków-based born traveler, angling for the surreal in life, raised among oil paints and primed canvas, poverty photographer, synesthete, oriental cuisine aficionado, philologist by education and astral astral anointing, addicted to rock music; zodiacal Pisces, defiant and very emotional soul, collector of extreme experiences and meetings with different cultures. After publishing his travel album/artistic manifesto entitled Gdzie śmierć nie sięga and the 2015 award-winning novel Bez pamięci, comes OFF, the new book by Paweł Daniel Zalewski, grounded in his rich experiences, colorful personality, and considerable interdisciplinary knowledge.
This time, the author decided on the form of a short story. It is a collection of stories on loneliness, love, sex, faithlessness, self-seeking, sickness, and being lost in contemporary commercialized world. Zalewski’s book is characterized by all the features of a good short story collection – diversity and cohesion, various attitudes, existential situations, circumstances, and sceneries, all united by the thread of his distinctive, unmistakable tone.
Over a dozen characters in Zalewski’s OFF (among them: a surgeon, a painter, a jeweler, a teacher, a publisher, a prostitute, and a doctor) are incomplete, hollow, scraped-out amputees. Just like some of us. People who had something taken away from them, who experienced a spiritual abortion, who cut all ties to society, who are living with a death sentence, confirmed by a doctor’s stamp… Switched OFF from the world. In a sense, they are exceptional. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have found their way onto the pages of this book. Over a dozen of the marked and excluded ones. Through fate or their life choices. Their feelings – emotional void, the feeling of defeat, fear of death, impotence – are the common denominator of all these stories. Some of them were too eager to take a turn into a blind alley, so they have to face a boundary situation. Or maybe they experienced trauma that follows them like a shadow. While crossing the shadow line, they behave irrationally, compulsively, they fall into a trap of their own lust, relive their childhood traumas, and smother their fear of death. This collection of short stories is a fully developed panorama of the darker sides of life.
There are many memorable fragments and scenes in this volume. The story of the grandfather and his cassette tape; the scene of drowning a dog; a trip of an ill painter to Peru and his compulsive fascinations, the world seen with the eyes of an underage prostitute, or the exploits of a patient with a doctor-issued death sentence. Stories on a difficult path to a literary debut (like Święty Mikołaj or Targi) expose the secrets of the publishing industry with an addition of a bit of magic and surrealism. Stories with a hospital theme reveal the corrupted bureaucratic health care system (Przerzut w cenie, Jeden dzień, and Tamten drugi), but they’re so full of details that we can surmise that we are dealing here with a few versions of author’s own experiences. Travel stories (Wszystko na sprzedaż, Ka, Baba poznaje świat, Nadieńka) also hold a solid portion of his personal exploits. The author takes his readers to faraway lands and different cultures. One feels that these are first-hand accounts. Zalewski doesn’t lecture or give advice; he doesn’t give the reason for telling these stories and what are we to make of them. He deliberately leaves the reader hungry and reflective.
OFF’s protagonists are diverse – it seems that they are a blend of real life people Zalewski met along the way. They differ in terms of language, intellectual horizons, material status, and most of all – they are all unfulfilled in their own way. Presenting lives of people stigmatized in different ways brackets the volume – it is a universal common plan, a common denominator for these stories. The author of OFF has a knack for noticing and describing details in a vivid manner. He also has a good ear (for dialogues and individual language styles) and a rare ability of describing human fate. It is a work that can be consumed in one sitting, and not in the way one consumes trashy pulp.
OFF is a collection of very current stories. They reflect the confusion of the modern man in the commercialized world, pushing forward and trampling the more sensitive individuals. Following difficult fates throughout the book’s pages, we realize that Paweł Daniel Zalewski describes states of mind and situations in which we ourselves are or will be involved someday. Everyone without exception. Let’s take a look at these dozen or so human stories and see if we’re reminiscing, in part, of one of the vanishing characters. Are we not in a rush to nowhere? Or are we not marked, set to OFF? The stories told can trigger a smile or bring a tear to the eye, but also jolt the reader. OFF is a new model for the Polish novel. It is an example of truly strong male prose.