A Difficult Lover and an Anti-Communist

A Difficult Lover and an Anti-Communist


“Marek asked me to come and tell you that he loves you.” The young Polish writer Marek Hlasko took German actress Sonja Ziemann’s breath away when he turned up on the film set of Eighth Day of the Week in Wroclaw in 1956. He didn’t speak a word of her language; he found a go-between and refused to give up. Soon they were together.

Sonja and Marek in the tourist village of Kazimierz, not long after meeting

Sonja and Marek in the tourist village of Kazimierz, not long after meeting

It’s a story I would like to have written, as a fly on the wall, for all that was at stake, politically and artistically as well as emotionally. After the war the big industrial city in Poland’s west was a hotbed of avant-garde cinema. Director Aleksander Ford was adapting Hlasko’s novella of postwar working class life that had been a runaway success. But the country was Communist, with an official ideology, and the authorities weren’t happy. They demanded Ford tone down the hopelessness that thwarted the young lovers in Eighth Day. Crumbling apartments and drunks littering the streets didn’t belong to the Communist dream. Ziemann’s seedy agent, who fancied his own chances with the doll-like actress, wasn’t keen on Hlasko either and so concerted efforts were made to keep the author off the set. But Hlasko’s mind was made up from the moment he saw Germany’s answer to Audrey Hepburn. And so an ideological struggle turned into a personal one.

Ziemann’s memoirs, published in German in 1998 as Ein Morgen gibt es immer (There’s Always a Tomorrow), richly document Hlasko’s tragic short life. Her understanding is limited. She loves him too much. Nor does her hugely detailed account of her fifty-year career cast light on her own character. Devoted to her own career, and to her son by her first marriage, she nevertheless becomes lover, wife and helpmate to a man driven by aggression and passion and fuelled by drink. He hits her, smashes the furniture, demands to know how she can have ‘left me four times’. The memoirs are a nightmare. The relationship lasts on and off thirteen years, until Hlasko’s death from an overdose of barbiturates in 1969.

Hlasko’s fiction, which packs such a punch, is better read in ignorance of what happened to the author. As a critic I’m not keen on the biographical approach to the text. But for me as a writer of fiction Hlasko and Ziemann are both stories in their own right.

Hlasko was effectively turned out of his native Poland by the Communists he then hated for the rest of his life. They played a trick on him when he landed abroad and wasn’t allowed back. His first problem was how to earn his living and his second who to be. In Poland he had done manual work since his mid-teens and all the material for his fiction came from what in 1991 the German news magazine Stern would call “proletarian sadness in the midst of the workers’ paradise.” Ousted from that tense, coercive, downtrodden postwar east bloc, he had nothing else to write about. As Sonja put it: “A prosperous democratic society with a social safety net had nothing to offer him as a writer.” The study the Ziemanns created for him in their upmarket townhouse in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district remained a study in name only. It was the place where he wrote nothing. Though talked of in connection with a Nobel Prize (as Sonja reported), Hlasko spent his first years in the West days drunk and displaced, an airless existence with little pockets of intense personal happiness in between.

Together: an attempt at a public image

Together: an attempt at a public image

When he took the chance to go to Israel in 1959 (nothing to do with religion, he was a Roman Catholic) he thought he was going to work on a newspaper but ended up labouring for a pittance in the desert. Worse still, when he came back to West Germany, the public thought this husband of one of Germany’s most successful and glamorous actresses was indulging in champagne socialism, reverting to work as a bricklayer. Hlasko was not only trapped in an image he couldn’t get out of. Labouring was also the only economic reality open to him, for as long as he couldn’t support himself with writing. Evidently he felt some affinity too. He was a macho man, a body-builder, and saw his writing almost as an accident.

They eventually got married on 20 February 1961 at Caxton Hall in London. Sonja, having broken off the engagement before, was now routinely feeding Marek anti-alcoholism pills as part of the standard treatment then. After each pill he would kiss her hand. But no sooner were they happy than history dealt them another blow, when the Berlin Wall was suddenly erected, on 13 August 1961. Hlasko may not have done much writing there, but Berlin was finally his new home. He fitted well in the family and was a friend to Sonja’s father and now eight-year-old Pierre. But Communism reaching west destroyed that security too, and the whole family fled to Munich, in the far south of Germany, to feel safer.

I’m portraying Hlasko as a homebird, which he wasn’t at all. He often took off. In Munich he had Polish compatriots working at the American anti-Communist propaganda station Radio Free Europe who became his drinking friends. If stimulant addiction always loomed, so did a fondness for women. Filming in Paris Hlasko had an affair with his director’s wife which seriously threatened his marriage. “You are like a clear stream for me, that cleanses me,” he said, trying to hold on to a jealous Sonja, before and after a major overdose. Between March 1963 and March 1965 he spent 242 days in a clinic.

Tragedy befell Sonja. While she was away filming, a quack paediatrician over-immunized her son against polio, and then disappeared when the boy developed symptoms.  As she wrote, summing up their marriage years later: “To be Marek’s wife was an all-consuming task which I was not up to after my child fell seriously ill.” In fact Hlasko seems to have taken off for the United States when he could no longer be Sonja’s priority. Of course, the offer to work as a screenwriter for Roman Polanski wasn’t something to pass up lightly, but it led to an estrangement, and officially to a divorce, although inevitably Sonja and Marek were together again, and again …

His death in 1969 was quickly followed by Pierre’s the following year. Marek had been thirty-four, Pierre not quite seventeen.

Sonja, bildhübsch, pretty as a picture, played Eliza Doolittle in the German stage version of My Fair Lady and was the all-dancing, all-singing star of many, many film, theater and tv productions besides. She was Blanche in the first German production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  Meanwhile her husband the James-Dean-lookalike (an image he enjoyed), may have been an arch-manipulator, but no Pole of his day wrote like that. As Sonja said, he was a very conservative man in private life (which meant he was irrationally jealous of her). Somehow his Catholic faith survived a lifetime in which he treated his own flesh abominably and hers not well either. He had a difficult, more or less estranged relationship with his mother, which Sonja tried to make good. Out of this, despite it, came literature no one else could have written, like Killing the Second Dog.

Evidently it was the time in Israel that gave him the background for that novella, but you can probably see there too, set against the desert background and the torturous immigrant life, something of Hlasko’s happy relationship with Sonja and Pierre. Pierre in particular is the young son of a mother without a husband and who needs a father to idealize. Hlasko himself is suspended between confidence trickster, true lover and an exile who just needs to survive, from job to job, country to country.

These, if you like, are the bonus stories that hover in the background of the published work.


This post is courtesy of Lesley Chamberlain, British journalist and novelist, who wrote the Introduction to Killing the Second Dog. You can read this post and many more at


A Discussion with Julita Mirkowicz, wife of Hlasko translator Tomasz Mirkowicz

Julita Mirkowicz translated various works of American literature into Polish, including Being There by Jerzy Kosinski and several novels by Paul Auster. She is also the wife of the late Tomasz Mirkowicz, who translated two books by the Polish writer Marek Hlasko. Killing the Second Dog was published by New Vessel Press in March 2014. In December 2014, New Vessel Press will be publishing another of Hlasko’s novels, All Backs Were Turned.

Born in Warsaw in 1953, Mirkowicz translated into Polish the works of Ken Kesey, George Orwell, Jerzy Kosinski, Harry Matthews, Robert Coover, Alan Sillitoe and Charles Bukowski, among others. He was also a fiction writer and critic, and the recipient of the Literatura Na Świecie Award for Best Prose Translation of 1987; the Polish Translators’ Association Award for Best Prose Translation of 1988 and the FA-ART Short Story Contest Winner (1994). Tomasz Mirkowicz died of cancer in 2003.

How did Tomasz learn English?

Tomek’s father worked in the Ministry of Commerce. In the 1960s he was sent to Egypt as a trade representative. The whole family—father, mother & Tomasz—spent 4 years in Cairo. Tomasz attended the Cairo American College, which was actually a grammar school.

In 1967 or ’68 they returned to Poland. Tomasz went to a high school where knowledge of English was obligatory (some of the classes were held in English). After high school he studied for one semester at Politechnika Warszawska, The Warsaw University of Technology, in the Department of Power and Aeronautical Engineering, but he decided that instead of learning how to build planes he preferred reading books. So in 1972 he passed his exams and became a student at the English Institute at Warsaw University.  In 1977, he wrote his M.A. thesis on the fiction of Robert Coover.  In 1980 he began his PhD studies, then took a break. Tomek resumed his PhD studies one year before his death and almost completed his thesis on the novels of Harry Mathews.

How did he first get into translation?

As a student Tomasz took part in a competition organized by the Polish Writers Union and a popular literary monthly Literatura na ŚwiecieLiterature in the World. A select group of beginning translators from different languages, with about 15 people working in English, were then taught the art of translation by older translators. These “lessons” lasted for about half a year and later they were continued by a well-known translator who took a group of us under her care. We met with her once a week for about 4 hours, for 3-4 years.

Tomasz translated some great American authors. Did he always choose writers who were close to his heart, or was his choice of translations more a result of what the publishing houses were interested in?

Both. Beginners can’t be picky. But Tomek always knew what he wanted to translate. At that time there were just a few publishing houses in Poland that published translations, and about 10 books from the English language appeared from each. However, Polish money could not be converted into foreign currency, so there was no way to pay the authors. The only way was for the author to come to Poland and spend his zlotys here. Many did come, encouraged by Tomek, who made friends easily. He organized many of their trips. I forgot to mention that we went to the States a few times – in 1981 and 1986. Both of us had USIA grants and we travelled all over the US. And in 1991 Tomek received a one-year scholarship from the Kosciuszko Foundation. Many brilliant American writers and poets were our friends.


Translator Tomasz Mirkowicz

When did he dare (because it is quite a daring thing) to translate for the first time into English, as opposed to into Polish?

Steve Schrader, the first publisher of Hlasko and owner of the now defunct Cane Hill Press, came to Poland with his elderly, but extremely vivacious father. If I remember correctly, his father wanted to find his Polish roots. I’m not sure who gave Steve our phone number. But Steve called Tomek, they met and of course instantly became friends. Tomek never before thought of translating anything into English. But Steve started asking questions about Polish writers (“Who would you, Tomek, translate?”) and eventually asked him to do one of Hlasko’s novels. It was a gentleman’s agreement, just a handshake, no contracts. Steve said he’d pay Tomek and either publish Hlasko or not, depending on whether he liked the book. He did, and he published it. And then he asked for another novel by Hlasko. Tomek also translated a third book for Steve, Robot, by the science fiction writer Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg, which however never appeared in English. I’m not sure whether Steve didn’t like it or if by that time he had already decided to close his publishing business.

Tomek was not only a translator, but also a literary critic and a writer. He published one underground novel during the martial law period in the early 1980s. He followed that with a collection of stories – lipograms – with each story missing a letter. In the first there is no “A,” in the second no ‘B” and so on. Tomek’s third book was set in Egypt …

What was Tomasz like as a person, and do you see that come through in his work?

Tomek was considered one the best translators of English & American literature into Polish. He was incredibly intelligent, had vast knowledge in different fields, was extremely well read and loved reading. At the same time he was funny, sometimes shy, sometimes (but only sometimes!) humble. He was also very outgoing. He loved meeting new people and seeing friends. He helped many younger translators—he checked their work, made suggestions and corrections, etc.—and he loved cats. He loved to travel. He loved Egypt, and Africa (we visited Ghana, Togo, The Gambia). He loved literature, art (he used to paint and sculpt). He was not too interested in sports, and not too interested in music. I don’t think his personality traits are visible in his translations, but they are visible in the books that he wrote – especially his incredible imagination and knowledge.

What was his process like?

He was a night person. He slept late and worked mostly in the evenings and at night. And usually he’d wait until the deadline was close – then he’d gather speed and energy.

Was he always a translator?

Yes, he started translating as a student and just kept going. He stopped about 5-7 years before his death and started writing his own stuff. About two years before he died, Tomek was asked to teach American literature classes at the English Institute, which he did with a passion up until December 2002.

Finally, what about your life as a translator? How did you begin translating?

As a child I spent four and a half years in Canada, then four and a half years in India as a teenager. I finished high school in New Delhi and completed one year of college there. Then I studied English and American Literature at the English Institute at Warsaw University. That’s where Tomasz and I met. I started translating as a student for Literatura Na Świecie and just kept going. I don’t know why I started. Maybe because at first it was a challenge. Later it became a passion.

Who were some of “your” authors?

I translated, among others, John Gardner (The King’s Indian); Peter de Vries (Glory of the Humming Bird); William Gaddis (Carpenter’s Gothic); D.H. Lawrence; James Dickey (Deliverance); Dashiell Hammett; Donna Leon; Winston Groom (Forrest Gump Gump and Company); Ken Kesey (The Last Go Round); Toni Morrison (Jazz).

Memorable ones?

Favorites: Probably Gaddis, Kesey, Kosinski – because they were friends of ours.

Most difficult: Gaddis, Morrison.

Most fun: Winston Groom.

Least favorite:  An old science fiction novel by Henry Kuttner called Time Trap.