Kaśka Bryla keeps the suspense in a German-Polish-Austrian story in her debut novel, "Red Monkey".
Babysitting and gardening in a village in Kujawskie Voivodeship Photo: plainpicture/David Carreno Hansen
The "Red Monkey" is set between Warsaw and Vienna, the Moabit correctional facility in Berlin and a car ride through Poland. The various locations link the biographies of the pro–ta–go–nis Mania, Tomek, Ruth, Zahit, and the dog Sue, and the narrative is repeatedly crossed by childhood memories and leaps in perspective.
The narrative begins with a prologue in which Mania and Tomek are still children. This section almost seems too naive and the language too flowery for what comes next. Quite abruptly Bryla throws the readers into the partly very hard and violent world of the adult Mania, who works as a prison psychologist in the Moabit correctional facility.
When Bryla reads aloud, she pronounces Mania as Manja. So the name is not an allusion to "mania", as one might at first assume and find flat, but simply a name pronounced the same in German and Polish.
Crime thriller and road novel
Bryla’s debut novel is many things at the same time: a thriller and a road novel, and suddenly the reader finds himself in pages and pages of dialogue as if written for a theater stage, with short exchanges between the protagonists and nothing else. In experimenting with different genres and, for example, in the literary fleshing out of the inner life of the dog Sue, the author repeatedly puts the possibilities and limits of writing to the test.
Kaśka Bryla: "Red Monkey.". Residenz Verlag, Salzburg, Vienna 2020, 240 pages, 22 Euro
For Bryla, turning the particular into the general means that prot-ago-nis-t*in-nen migrate and flee, without migration or flight being the theme of the novel. Migration stories are not presented as a continuous back-and-forth between different parallel worlds, but as a reality of life and a framework for everything else that happens.
Polish is spoken and a translation into German is not always provided. Queer and Jewish life are woven into the plot without being treated as identity crises of the protagonists.
Bryla could probably also sell the book as an "East-West story". With precise descriptions she gives an insight into the history and society of Poland. It tells of how "sloppily fenced plots of land with small, gray buildings from communist times stand close together with mafia-style mansions, proving that in Eastern Europe the simultaneity of past and present has not yet dissolved into the future of the West".
With both the past and the present, the plot is told in a concrete political context in each case: The electoral successes of the PiS are not left uncommented – the party that declared queers to be the main enemies of the Polish nation. Zahit arrived in Europe in 2015, Mania drove the car across the Austrian border.
Polish is also spoken and not always a translation into German is provided
From slides and fragments of memories it can be concluded that the two female protagonists have a left-wing scene past. But even that is not the main point. Because the themes that run as a thread through the story are big questions about good and evil, about human abysses, about dealing with abuse-er-fah-run-gen and trauma, and about whether there can be a right to revenge.
In negotiating these abstract and elusive philosophical questions, Bryla manages to consistently maintain the suspense. There’s no breather, you’re literally hurtling through the story, just as protagonists Ruth and Mania hurtle across an empty highway at night.
Conversations like between men
The longtime friends are in the car, driving from Vienna to Warsaw late at night. As Ruth shifts into fifth gear and the pointer passes the one-hundred-mile-an-hour mark, they talk about theories of evil. Two women talk about old and new scientific findings, about testing procedures from psychology, about cases that have made it into the press in the past. Such scenes are usually written for male characters.
On the last pages of the book, Bryla has made her involvement with forensic psychiatry, borderline and trauma therapy transparent in a long literature and film list. Over several years she has given workshops on creative writing in prisons.
In the protagonist Tomek’s notes, which are repeatedly interspersed, he writes: "In order to understand how a person perceives the world, one must understand how the world perceives that person."
Kaśka Bryla’s writing creates space for a multitude of worlds, realities and people who make no apologies for falling outside the norm of a white bourgeois middle class.