Matki Polski nie ma: A Lacanian Reading of Natasza Goerke’s Księga Pasztetów

Anke Ziolkowska, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Since the publication of Księga Pasztetów (The Book of Patés), her first collection of short stories, in 1997, Natasza Goerke has been regarded, next to Izabela Filipiak, Manuela Gretkowska, and Olga Tokarczuk, as one of Poland’s most prominent young women authors. However, despite her success in Poland and Germany, where she has lived since the mid-1980s, her works have not yet received much attention by Anglo-American criticism. Her prose, described as absurd, surrealistic-grotesque, comical-sad, and postmodern, simultaneously exploits and subverts literary and cultural traditions; reviewer Kazia Szczulka writes that “everything [in Księga Pasztetów] is a parodic or ironic transformation of literary structures” (“wszystko jest parodystycznym albo ironicznym przetworzeniem literackich struktur,” Recenzje księgowe online).

In the short story which provides the title for the whole collection, “Księga Pasztetów,” Goerke polemicizes not so much with a literary convention as with a theoretical approach to literature: Lacanian psychoanalysis. The story, with its focus on the Polish émigré Jan’s psychological quest for identity, revolves around Lacanian themes like the desire for the Other, the Real, and the relation between signifier and signified. Lacan’s theories therefore provide the easiest and most productive access to this difficult text; this approach opens up Jan’s unconscious not only by interpreting his actions, thoughts, and dreams, but also by analyzing the text’s linguistic features, which, according to Lacan, correspond to psychological symptoms.

An interpretation which views the text only through the lens of Lacan’s theories, however, neglects numerous other intertextual references. Goerke engages in a playful and provocative dialogue not only with Lacan but also with Polish literary traditions and values. Knowledge of Polish culture is indeed prerequisite to a psychoanalytical reading, as Jan’s “symptoms” are frequently encoded in the Aesopian language used in Poland in the nineteenth century to avoid censorship by the partitioning powers. The word “Poland,” for example, does not appear even once in the text; instead, Jan expresses his unconscious desire for his homeland in psychological and linguistic metaphors which remain undesirable to readers unfamiliar with Polish traditions. Despite being rooted in Polish culture, however, Jan, with his inability to acknowledge his nostalgia for Poland and to express it in writing, stands in stark contrast to the long tradition of “great” Polish émigré writers from Mickiewicz to Miłosz or maybe he represents a new type of postmodern Polish émigré writer. My reading of “Księga Pasztetów” as Goerke’s polemic play with both Lacan and Polish traditions does not attempt to resolve all the text’s ambiguities; my aim is to illustrate one way of “decoding” this resistant text without reducing its complexity.