In 1989-90, Poland experienced a sea-change in every area of public life: in the reorganization of political power, in economic reform, and in the liberation of media and public discourse from politically-- determined constraints. The immediate consequences of this for literature were unclear. Many feared that poets, in particular, who had played an important role in the 1970s and 1980s in defining positions of resistance to ideological saturation and to martial law, would lose readerships along with this authority. Novelists and other prose writers, for their part, found themselves confronted with another kind of obsolescence, that of a new, profit-driven publishing market. Bookstores in the first few years of the 1990s were infused with historical exposes of Soviet atrocities, new editions of long-unavailable Polish works, and translations of bestsellers from the U.S. and western Europe; while contemporary Polish literati were more or less jettisoned from display tables and publishing programs.
But during these uncertain years at the beginning of the decade, there were also signs of renewal. New literary magazines and small publishers were quietly setting up shop, even amidst straitened financial circumstances; while the established ones, set free of government subsidies, were compelled to revamp their budgets and editorial policies. Writers-in-exile like Czeslaw Milosz (U.S.) and Slawomir Mrozek (Mexico) returned as emblems of an annealed national literature. While at the same time the censorship-induced conflict under socialism, between "official" authors and those who had made a home in the underground (granted, by the end of the 1980s, this distinction was no longer so clear), was being replaced with a new opposition. A group of younger poets known as the "New Barbarians," who published mainly in the journal bruLion, launched an open attack on the established poets who had come of age in the political opposition of the 1970s, and an altercation with the hallowed, Romantic values of Polish literary culture itself. This, according to many of the critical narratives of the last decade, was the defining moment of Polish literature in the 1990s.
By 1996, the year a former Communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was elected president, and Wislawa Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize (another watershed moment), much of this early uncertainty and discord had been resolved. The book industry had revived considerably; the quality and distribution of books had improved; and new literary awards and festivals had been instituted. A new generation of novelists and short-story writers, journalists, and critics had emerged, while many older writers and writers-in-exile appeared in new editions or for the first time. Newspapers and journals had come once again to serve as politically-inflected, not politically-constricted, forums for the art of the feuilleton and reportage. Many writers established themselves in connection to other media as well, like television and popular music. And issues like women's rights and the relationship between Poles and Jews, have gained entry to public discourse in increasing complexity.
Since then, Polish literature and literary culture have shown themselves to be the richest and most vibrant in Europe. So far, however, very little new Polish writing has been translated and made available to English-language readers (as opposed to, say, Czech or German writing). Given that Poland is the featured country at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, now seems an especially opportune, if not overdue, moment for publishing this issue. As with other recent Chicago Review special issues, the editorial approach of this one has been to combine the closed form of the anthology with the more open, improvisational form of the quarterly; which is to say, when we began, we had a fair idea of what was out there, but have relied almost entirely on submissions by individual contributors, whether translators or the authors themselves, for the actual content. …