Short Story of the Month:
‘A Polish Joke’
by Agnieszka Dale
Why am I here, you ask? You want to start? Is this your first question? I’m sure I’ve told you before. … I came to Great Britain to mix my blood. This was my only reason, which I gave to the border control guard. Not the benefits, not the work possibilities, I said to him, but sexual intercourses with a Brit.
What? You don’t have that option on your form? … Sorry. Just tick “other reasons”.
In the future, they’ll slow the ageing process down… right down. Men won’t hit their straps until 100. And we’ll all have more sex. Not for intimacy or love or even animal release. Just to… explore possibilities. Combinations and permutations. ‘User-testing’, if you will.
‘So’, I hear you ask (cry), when is this nirvana due? Well maybe, just maybe, it’s ‘now’. Because if we were judged from the past or the future, or even laterally – North, South or Outer Space – we’d be flayed. For all that cocksureness in the consensus mood of our day…we could look like fucking idiots. And that’s the jack-in-the-box of Hello Poland, a story in Agnieszka Dale’s Fox Season – the Polish-born, London-based writer’s debut short story collection. Hello Poland is surreal, absurd even, but funny – very funny, and illustrates something exhibited throughout the collection – the use of a clown-face to mask sober meditations: here, a parent’s love for their child, and the folly of (over-)confidence in our mores.
There are exceptions. Basic Wash, for example, is an uncomplicated but beautiful story about death. Told through a young boy, we see him observe his father being hit by a wave of grief, on remembering his mother during some mundane moment. And death and dying aside, feminism and in particular motherhood, are strong, satellite concerns. But the core of Fox Season lies not in sex or death or the nurturing instinct, but in the existential nausea of the migrant. And this perspective that Dale brings – of being at home and yet feeling like an alien, of being made to feel like an alien… Of having absorbed a litany of micro-aggressions, and yet finding ‘us’ to be the strange ones – this is the eye of the storm, raging in the centre of this collection. Dale is a far-from-dispassionate all-seeing eye: bearing witness and choosing not to forget; to instead write a barbed love letter to Brexit Britain. And even when a story is not about the Brits, it sort of still is. Making Babies for Great Britain boils down to Polish women having to endure British men, who fail to rise to the occasion / always come in their pants. (Caveat: reviewer could be being paranoid here..)
Despite the course grist to her mill, Dale’s stories are surreal; playful, even. Indeed, the author’s humour works on two levels: superficially, the often oddball jokes work – ‘…It was of course a scary prospect to be on her own, on a farm, with three boys, one of whom was a little girl called Barbara…’ – but the humour is mere obfuscation, masking a sustained attack on her targets: and it’s the British who most often are caught in the crosshairs – specifically, their (perceived) natural-born sense of superiority over…well, everyone. (Dale’s take on the ‘White Other’ category, as seen on the UK Census and other forms, is worthy enough reason to pick this collection up.)
In Fox Season, Dale makes her (British) reader walk through a Hall of Mirrors and have a good laugh at all the weird and wonderful distortions, before exiting and realising that, sans mirrors, the distortions remain. But for all the tipsy humour, her points are consistently sober: that as a woman and a mother, life would be complicated enough. And that the experience of migrancy, of being a Pole in London, has been akin to soured cream poured on top. Very occasionally, she lets the funny-mask slip – ‘…will the world ever laugh at British men, collectively, the way they laughed at Polish men in the twentieth century?’ – but mostly the message is well wrapped up in riddle, and her sing-song is entertaining, pleasantly distracting, to the point where one could almost miss that the joke is really on ‘us’ (you). ‘There’s a white man, a black man, and a Polak…’, begins a set-piece within the same story, the stellar finale to the collection, A Polish Joke. And you’ll have to read it to see how that one ends… Suffice to say though, that through filters of prose and humour, Dale is earnestly paying back the ‘compliment’ – and with interest.
o o o
Reviewed and recommended by Tamim Sadikali
Tamim Sadikali is the author of Dear Infidel (Hansib, 2014), and has recently completed a short story collection. Twitter: @TamimSadikali.