“Wherever one cuts life, always part in two halves.” When the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski was awarded the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award for Letters, that phrase from his biography served to define the existence of the writer, who died today, precisely on World Poetry Day, in a hospital in Krakow at the age of 75, as confirmed by the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Because the life of the author of Two cities (Cliff) is an example of 20th century Europe. Born in 1945 in Lvov, a city that now belongs to Ukraine, his childhood was spent in Gliwice, an “ugly and gray place” in German Silesia that joined Poland at the end of the Second World War. Zagajewski was thus the fruit of the postwar period: first a displaced person; later, an exile. In times of pandemic, he told EL PAÍS his impressions of this drama, which kept him alert and concerned about a different war than the one that marked his childhood. And he said: “We are in a dangerous moment and the pandemic makes it even more dangerous.”
A member of the rebellious Generación del 68, he ended up moving to Paris in 1982. Since 1988 he worked as a visiting professor at various American universities. Two decades later he returned to his native country, with the fall of the communist regime. He currently lived between France and Krakow. For Zagajewski, poetry was a matter of emigrants, that is, of “those unfortunates who, with a ridiculous heritage, swing on the edge of the abyss, straddling continents.”
His first collection of poems was published in 1972, and was titled Komunikat (“The message”). Later, in 1975, he wrote the novel Zimno sky (“Hot and cold”), while collaborating in the clandestine magazine Zapis, contrary to the Polish regime. Other works of his are Sklepy miesne (“Carnicerías”, 1975) and Cienka kreska (“Trazo”, 1982), which already announced its literary category.
The author, who for a time was on the list of possible Nobel laureates, defined himself thus in an interview with EL PAÍS: “I am, in a way, a child of war, although I did not witness its horrors. I would say that, in a certain way, the horrors are, I would not say that in my genes, but they are inside me. Part of my vocation is not to forget the heart of that war, and, in a way, to remember it. It is not the only thing I want to do, of course, because I do not consider myself a politician, but it is part of the point of view that I have, that presence. I always remember that Auschwitz is an hour’s drive from where I live [Cracovia]”. His trade was to look at his contemporaries and his neighbors, and journalism and poetry were for him like night and day. Disenchanted, however, of the evolution that things were taking in the long time of startled peace that the continent to which he belonged was living, he felt that this European evolution, in moral terms, is at last an illusion.
Among his works stands out In the beauty of others, a volume halfway between the diary and the memoirs, which arrived in Spain in 2003 edited by Pre-Textos. Two years later, the poet Martín López-Vega prepared the anthology for the same publishing house Chosen poems, good gateway to the Zagajewski universe. The Acantilado publishing house and the translator Xavier Farré are responsible for the bulk of the poetic versions published in Spanish. In that stamp there are poems such as Land of Fire, Desire or Antennas and samples of his bright and humorous prose such as In defense of fervor, Solidarity and loneliness and the essential Two cities.
The honors received did not make him a fool; his first subject was experience, memory, but the moral underline he always had was irony, a paradoxical humor that kept him far from any presumption. Krakow was the place that finally became his territory, but more than a precise place on earth he lived in a world that could be called Zagajewski.
As he told last summer, “we get some strength from the nocturnal part of life, because the night is not only the symbol of darkness and fear, although it can be, but it is also the symbol of art and reflection ”. At that time, peacefully, like an isolated monk in Krakow, he remembered a phrase by Kafka that he underlined in one of his books: “In the struggle between oneself and the world, one must side with the world.” His answer is the essence of his civil poetry, underlined in books such as Asymmetry, Land of Fire or Desire: “There will always be time to come back to yourself. For now, you have to side with the world to be fair. It is very easy to say: I am fair, I am good. The world is wiser than us. Therefore, yes, we have to go back to the world ”.
In addition to the Princess of Asturias, Zagajewski had also received the Kurt Tucholsky (1985), the PEN Club de France (1987), Vilenica (1996), Tranströmer (2000), the one awarded by the Konrad Adenauer Literary Foundation (2002) and the Neustadt Prize (2003).