Arnon Grunberg, the writer often called the child prodigy of Dutch literature visited Lublin. He will write about our city for the literary project called citybooks. We can already read about his first impressions of our city on his blog.

You’ve written that the question you are most frequently asked after moving to New York is the one about the most typical American thing. Have you already found the most typical thing about Lublin?
I’d say that it’s a specific type of melancholy. I noticed similar kind of melancholy in Czech people, but yours is a bit different… I think I sense it because I’m a foreigner. It might be related to your history and historicity. It makes you aware of the limits of life.

It sounds awfully serious…
Because Polish people are very serious. I don’t mean that you don’t have any sense of humour. It’s just an observation.

Why don’t you like talking to the media?
Because I like being the one who asks questions. When I’m on the other side it feels like being interrogated by the police or on a therapy session… For many reasons asking questions is much more comfortable and safe than answering them. I haven’t had many occasions to talk to people in Lublin. There is the language problem, plus I didn’t feel entirely comfortable to talk to strangers in the street. That was the reason I didn’t manage to find the Hangman’s House. I was too embarrassed to ask kids who were going to school at Długosza street: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the Hangman’s House?” I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. But now I know how to get there and I think I will try once more. I have a three-page list of must-see places, mainly churches, museums and little cafés… In the morning I work on my new book and I go for a walk in the afternoon. That’s my routine in Lublin.

I heard that when you went to Majdanek you felt embarrassed about saying: “To Majdanek, please” to the taxi driver. Why was that?
Instead I said: “to the Museum at Majdanek”. I was wondering why it was an issue for me. Maybe because around the world the name “Majdanek” is associated with the name of the concentration camp. I’m not sure. I didn’t want to be tactless and I wanted to avoid any misunderstandings. Then I saw the sign “Majdanek” on a bus and realised that everyone uses this name. It’s simply a name of a place. At first it felt bizarre, to me Majdanek always was the concentration camp, but now, I also say “Majdanek”.

Cultural differences are one of the themes of your play “Our Pope” which is set in Poland. I heard that there are plans to show it in Lublin.
That’s true. Witold Mazurkiewicz is interested in showing “Our Pope” in Lublin together with his Kompania Teatr. It’s possible that this will happen in October. I’m very happy because I wrote this play especially for Polish theatre and Polish audience. It was supposed to be staged in Wrocław, but I got a letter informing me that I sustain many negative stereotypes about Poles and that the theatre which commissioned me to write it is no longer interested in showing it. I was surprised because at that time the play hadn’t even been translated into Polish yet.

What is the play about?
It’s about a Belgian university teacher, who moves to Wrocław to work, but he is not entirely aware of some very delicate issues in the consciousness of the Poles. We observe his awkwardness and get to see Poland through his eyes. He’s an anti-hero, he blunders all the time, he is not Don Quixote, but he makes all the mistakes he can possibly make and he still believes his intentions are good. He hadn’t thought it through what it means to be a foreigner in a country and he makes a lot of unfortunate comments about religion or the relations at the university.

Why did you give it the title “Our Pope”?
While I was writing the play I got the impression everyone is talking about the late pope. When I asked people in Wrocław what was important to them as Poles, ninety per cent of them would give the same answer: “our pope”. That’s why for me the pope became in a way the symbol of contemporary Polish identity.

You mention Marek Hłasko as one of the writers who inspires you.
When as a teenager I got expelled from school, I met two Polish women who helped me a lot. One of them told me: “You should read Hłasko”. Even though he wrote about the 50s in Poland and I read him in the 80s in the Netherlands, reading him was a real revelation. He was called the James Dean of Polish literature, but I simply thought he was a great author. I was fascinated with his style, his dark sense of humour and the energy that radiated from his words. I virtually devoured “Killing the Second Dog”, “The Eight Day of the Week”, “Next Stop – Paradise” or the short story “I Will Tell You about Ester”. I also like Polish poetry. I read a lot of Miłosz, Herbert, Różewicz and Zagajewski.

Grunberg’s debut novel “Blue Mondays” became a bestseller and was translated into 13 languages. His only novel translated into Polish is “Phantom Pain”. He publishes also under the pseudonym Marek van der Jagt.

From the original interview by Sylwia Hejno, Kurier Lubelski, 09.03.2012