This is the second of my Polish pieces. I’m sorry that it follows on from the first after quite a gap – I’ve been hi-jacked by a nasty cold this week. I’ll try to be a bit more punctual from now on.
Cold notwithstanding, I should have preferred to get this post out earlier, because its main purpose is to share with you some photographs of our visit to the famous Wieliczka salt mine some seventeen kilometres outside Kraków. The chambers and carvings in the mine are spectacular – as you can see. Discovering them was an opportunity that we almost passed up, because we’re pretty averse to joining any kind of organised tour, and the salt mine is obviously not a place where tourists can be allowed to wander around on their own; indeed, so many tunnels are there, it would be very easy to get lost. We were persuaded to make the visit only the evening before, by some Danish people dining in the same restaurant. I suppose that making holiday plans on the advice of complete strangers about whom you know nothing and whom you’re never likely to see again is as good a way as any! In any case, I’m published by Salt and it therefore seems an appropriate kind of tribute to Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery.
Determined not to be an entire pushover to the tourist industry, we travelled to the mine on an ordinary service bus instead of one of the special tour buses. For me, one of the highlights of the day was encountering people from the suburbs as they travelled on this bus, though I was much less enthusiastic about the return journey in the afternoon, when the driver was clearly behind schedule and rattled along at such a speed that I had to face the back of my seat and hang onto it in order not to be thrown into the aisle. I was grateful that I hadn’t had lunch! I was also fascinated to note that, beyond the suburbs, Kraków has quite an industrial hinterland.
Tours at the mine are extremely regimented and quite expensive – entry costs about as much as a visit to the Tower of London, which is extortionate by Polish standards. The experience was also shot through with a slightly bizarre streak: for example, our tour was called a ‘non-tour tour’ (we worked out that this meant that we were not part of a pre-booked group). Endearing rather than annoying was how the enterprise running the mine tried to make money out of absolutely everything, from coffees and ice-creams to printed guides, knick-knacks made of rock salt and ‘genuine miners’ soup’, but in a slightly amateurish way. It is noticeable in Poland that everyone is desperate to make money, but in a friendly, almost apologetic, manner. The same thought struck me when I was watching the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages in the main square in Kraków trying to cajole tourists into taking rides.
The non-tour tour guide was a young woman immaculately dressed in uniform. She was extremely professional and her English near perfect. She was obviously highly educated and very knowledgeable about the history of the mine, which has existed since mediaeval times. Rock salt was quarried there for seven hundred years, until 2002, after which the mine was devoted entirely to tourism. Engagingly, the guide explained that this was because more money could be made out of tourists than digging for salt. There is another commercial salt mine elsewhere in Poland, with much lower extraction costs, and that provides the supply.
I was almost as interested in my fellow tourists as the mine itself. We were a jovial bunch from many countries; the only thing we had in common was that we had chosen an English-speaking guide, rather than one who spoke the other languages on offer: Polish, German, Dutch, French or Italian. Our group therefore included people from India, Japan, China and the USA, as well as several other Brits. I particularly admired the Indian couple, who gamely negotiated with two quite small children the up-and-down kilometres that we had to walk within the mine.
The initial descent, down many short flights of wooden stairs within a vertical shaft, was neither frightening nor particularly taxing, if dizzily repetitive. Walking back up all of those stairs would have been a challenge, and might have caused a few heart attacks. Nevertheless, I didn’t enjoy the return to the surface, which had to be made in a small miners’ cage, crammed in with seven others. I was delighted to reach the exit and emerge into the warm autumn sunshine again.
I’ve already written more than I intended, so I’ll leave the pictures to speak for themselves now, just adding that all the sculptures and carvings – and indeed all the floors – in the mine have been fashioned from rock salt and that (although it is probably self-evident) Polish salt miners were very devout, some of the chambers having been turned into chapels, the most impressive being the Chapel of St. Kinga, which, with its altarpieces, wall-friezes and statuary, as well as carved floor, all in rock salt, is like a cathedral. The caverns are astonishing in scale (the Staszic Chamber has a ceiling thirty-six metres high), in some cases with self-supporting ceiling, in others prevented from collapse by elaborate wooden prop systems or by much more modern metal rods, inserted into drilled holes and therefore much less obtrusive to the eye.
I hope that you’ve got the taste of the salt from all this, if not a taste for a salt mine visit; you can lick the walls of the tunnels if you like (visitors are encouraged to do so)! Alternatively, you can read a Salt book…
I bought this book because it has had some excellent reviews and also because I’ve met Anya Lipska on social networks, where she always speaks with great courtesy and perspicacity. I knew, therefore, that buying it would involve little risk!
The front of the jacket carries a quote from Emlyn Rees: ‘RIP Nordic crime. Here come the Poles’. That in itself is interesting, because I’ve read several novels this year that, like this one, are set partly in the UK and partly in Poland, the protagonists of which are either Polish ex-pats or the children of Polish ex-pats. I went overboard on the first of them, because the subject seemed to me to be so unusual and appealing. However, after I’d read two or three, I realised that they all focus on Poland’s recent troubled political past, especially the Soviet occupation. This actually gives them a much more limited appeal than that of Nordic crime, which deals with the many facets of modern society in the Nordic countries, not just one aspect of it. That first one, especially, was, upon a second reading, disappointing in terms of both technique and its author’s command of language.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is in a different league. It’s true that it touches on the Soviet occupation and dwells at length on Solidarity and its aftermath, but in a very sophisticated way. This is not a tub-thumping work. Anya Lipska demonstrates an impressive knowledge of Poland’s post-war political history and its residual effects, yet she does not parade her knowledge or make sweeping comments about a martyred state. Instead, she offers a wise, balanced and yet hard-hitting narrative. If I may say so in all humility, this is a very accomplished book indeed. It contains sinners, but no saints… and even the sinners are complicated characters. Lipska holds no truck with two-dimensional villains.
The hero, Janusz Kiszka, is decidedly flawed. He works as a builder, not always on the right side of the law. He has a very uncertain temper and is prone to bouts of despair. In some ways, he is the stereotypical Polish incomer – so much so that, given the quality of her writing, I suspect that at the beginning of the book Lipska is gently mocking her readers, leading them to the slightly smug but erroneous belief that they’ve come across this type before – perhaps in real life – and have got him taped. But Kiszka is full of surprises – and not contrived ones, either. Gradually, he is revealed as a complex, tragic and even noble character, who, although he is sometimes forced by circumstance to engage in James Bond-like escapades, possesses qualities to which Bond is a stranger: fear, remorse, reflectiveness and sensitivity. He is also an intellectual manqué. Yet he remains a bit of a rogue.
The minor characters are equally well-drawn. I particularly like the old priest, Father Pietruski, who, if not a rogue himself (a point that is never dwelt on too much) certainly understands rogues and can separate the ‘good’ ones from those with black hearts. He’s not averse to drinking with the former. Kasia, Janusz’s girlfriend, is also well-drawn. Married to a worthless man, she refuses to leave him because she takes her marriage vows seriously. She works as a stripper and her greatest aspiration is to own a nail bar. It is a tribute to Lipska’s talent that she is able to generate great sympathy for this woman and her drab, sleazy life. The novel also gets my vote because of the way in which it vividly and accurately captures local topographies: I can’t speak for the Polish scenes, but the London ones, with which I am familiar, are completely convincing.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is shot through with politics, but its core subject is something deeper: it is about the human condition itself. In this respect, as in many others, it resembles the work of the best of the Nordic writers; Henning Mankell springs to mind. Yet the authorial voice is Lipska’s own, unique and original.
I’m impressed by the young female detective, Natalie Kershaw, but it is Kiszka who steals the show; I’m not sure if this novel is the first of a series, and therefore whether more are planned, but I do hope so. I should very much like to encounter Janusz Kiszka again.