Dorota Maslowska’s novel Honey, I Killed the Cats takes us on a fast-paced journey through psychological and physical space. Set in an off-putting contemporary city, we are never sure where we are, again neither physically nor psychologically. Although its neighborhoods and streets have British names, this metropolis is anywhere and nowhere—there is an ocean in the distance while garbage, blood and Starbucks cups litter the foreground. People are suffering, the narrator insists, but we rarely know why. This city is a place of excess that repels our efforts to know and master it, constantly “promising that, still, anything could happen.” It resembles the aggressive metropoles of Martin Amis’s novels, in which apocalypse just may be imminent—or not; perhaps we live in a permanent crisis mode, as Maslowska suggests with her offhand references to violence that occurs offstage, unremarked and anonymized. Here the Polish language is capable of a genderless impersonality that English can only achieve with the priggish pronoun “one,” which Benjamin Paloff wisely avoids in his translation—so when “someone’s” screams echo through the nocturnal metropolis, Maslowska’s Polish allows the imagined attack to remain ungendered.
The novel’s structure also precludes a sense of comfort, offering the reader brief chunks of text organized into tiny chapters. The pace of our reading is thus accelerated and destabilized, as we are unsure where the narrative will veer next. Yet there is comic potential in such choppiness. It is heightened by Maslowska’s aggressively colloquial language, which is rendered with admirable fidelity by Paloff. Is his task made easier by the Americanization of contemporary Polish? Skeptics might hold that each language develops its own rhythms and vernacular style, yet amazingly, the speech of Maslowska’s two young protagonists translates nearly perfectly (“ketchup is totally carcinogenic” in both Polish and English; a “sluggish shithead” is annoying in both). Paloff deserves to be commended. His translation is as transparent as possible, literal without being wooden, lively yet not artificially so. Maslowska’s linguistic vigor communicates itself to English-language readers so readily that we are caught up in the quick current of her prose before we even know what the book is about. Both translator and author deserve credit for this effect. Never do we feel that the English-language novel is a translation—it is completely free of “translatorese,” that awkward linguistic creole that emphasizes the reader’s distance from the original text. Paloff has found perfect linguistic equivalents for Maslowska’s slangy Polish constructions. Perhaps we live in an age of international youthspeak.
Early reviewers of this book see it starkly and darkly: there seems to be general agreement that the novel is satirical, grotesque, surreal, and nightmarish, that its protagonists (never mind calling them heroines) are unlikeable, and that its language (indeed, the type of language that elicited commentary on Maslowska’s first novel, entitled Snow White and Russian Red in the U.S.) is vulgar and yet implicitly critical of the culture that produces it. Perhaps we can see it, though, not in terms of surrealism but of hyper-realism, so real that it refuses to relax into blurriness or that quintessential Polish quality, idealism.
This is the real issue that (I predict) will galvanize its critical reception: namely, how far we are willing to allow Polish literature to depart from its tradition. The profundity and moral focus that have come to be associated with Romantic and modern Polish literature, and the deep idealism that is formed in reaction to suffering, may not be constitutive of post-modern, post-Communist literature. One of the book’s characters, nicknamed “Go” because no English speaker can cope with the Polish “Gosia,” babbles maniacally about an ex-boyfriend who “‘hates me like a dog, foremost because of my being from Poland. That’s this country in the Former Yugoslavia, maybe you’ve heard of it. When I was really little, there was a total outbreak of communism there. My childhood was pretty messed up because of it. Maybe that’s why I’m like this’” (93). We later learn that this is a fake identity. Poland and Polishness come in for some knife-edge humor here—and this, indeed, may be the least translatable part of the book, appearing almost gratuitously within the main narrative.
Born in 1983, Maslowska herself came of age in a Poland whose freedom was still under construction, shadowed by the legacy of Communism yet defiantly capitalist and rapidly modernizing. This is evident in her writing. Her Poland is a country in which yoga, cappuccino, and shopping malls are part of everyday urban life, where people shop at Sephora and H&M, where working women order fast food delivered to their homes. Her characters’ language is peppered with words their grandparents would not recognize, spoken in a cadence that is recognizably contemporary more than it is recognizably Polish. The fact that readers disagree about the novel’s setting—which is certainly not Poland—testifies to the globalized nature of the culture it inhabits and evokes.
Yet she is not certain that entropy prevails: happiness or fortune may await us at any instant, and small shocks of pleasure punctuate chronic states of unhappiness. If this all seems rather abstract and grand, it is not so in the novel. Maslowska’s panoramas are offset by close-focus shots of particular objects. There is a cinematic quality to her prose, in which brief sequences of events or singular, detailed scenes are counterposed with each other. This style situates her prose within the category often described as postmodern, in which the pace of modern urban life becomes so dizzying, so hard to keep up with, that the novel must frequently stop to draw breath. It is not so much fragmentary as excessive. We inhabit sensory overload as a baseline state. The city seems always on the verge of overloading itself with sights, sounds, and actions, and any attempt to resolve it into unity will be stymied. The twenty-first-century city is aggressive. It does not let us relax; neither does the novel.
Our reactions to this culture will shape our reactions to the book. It does not, at the outset, appear to have an obvious aim—its heroines go about their lives in an apparently purposeless way, and there seems to be no moral of the story. The dramatic emotions they experience are not subjected to close psychological analysis; the moments when the narrative approaches stream-of-consciousness are deftly realized but brief, as are so many of the book’s effects. We read through its micro-sections as we move through photographs or messages on a smartphone, delighting in particular moments (a personal favorite: when the philistine Joanne utters, “I adore contemporary art. It’s so atypical”) yet never quite sinking into a fluid extended narrative, or an extended analysis. Some readers will miss this. The long novel has enjoyed high esteem in our time. Contemporary readers like following a few characters minutely and patiently, just as they did in Charles Dickens’ age—this taste for extended intimacy has not changed. Yet there is now a large canon of modern novels that make use of brevity, of abrupt endings and hard pauses. This complicates the way in which intimacy is achieved. Perhaps it precludes it entirely.
Honey, I Killed the Cats further complicates this complication: we are not sure, and perhaps the author is not sure, why the central friendship which structures the book exists in the first place. And we are not sure why Farah and Joanne are protagonists: are they twenty-first-century Everywomen? Are they anti-heroines? They are incapable of making their lives noteworthy. Likewise, the secondary characters are neither good nor evil, even as the narrator ruthlessly mocks them. We cannot accuse them of major sins. They are neither flat nor round, in E. M. Forster’s terms. Although neither Farah nor Joanne is very likable, there is no evil in these women either, merely the normal gamut of negative emotions. Is the novel, then, dystopian or merely realistic? We may ask this question of much satirical, parodic, or comical writing—or, for that matter, of much popular culture, in which mockery does not preclude sympathy. Farah is more pathetic than loathsome; Joanne is more silly than hateful. The culture that shapes and surrounds them may be worth criticizing more than the women themselves, who try, and so often fail, to create their happiness in its own terms.
We must, at the end, ask ourselves what sort of happiness this culture makes possible. Not for nothing does yoga, and the pop psychology of an imaginary magazine called Yogalife, unite Farah and Joanne. If anything brings people together in the murderous chaos of late modernity, perhaps it is the desire to counteract it, to cultivate a self that insists upon its recalcitrance and irrational uniqueness. Maslowska’s novel is sure to elicit divergent opinions as we come face to face with a world that we may not have freely chosen.
Maslowska, Dorota. Honey, I Killed the Cats. Translated by Benjamin Paloff. Deep Vellum Publishing, 2019.
Magdalena Kay is professor of English at the University of Victoria. She focuses on modern and contemporary poetry and has written three books, most recently Poetry Against the World: Philip Larkin and Charles Tomlinson in Contemporary Britain (2018).