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In praise of the exiled (in memory of Adam Zagajewski)

The Polish poet died recently and suffered exile
Atalayar_Adam Zagajewski

AP/MARIJAN MURAT  -   Polish author Adam Zagajewski. Adam Zagajewski, who wrote a poem that came to symbolise the world's sense of shock and loss after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, died in Krakow on Sunday 21 March 2021

These brief lines serve to remember, at the hour of his death, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, by evoking the reflections he has left us in his poetry collections and prose texts on the condition of the displaced and the exiled.

Zagajewski, who died on Sunday 21 March, was born in Lvov in 1945. At the end of the Second World War, this borderland in eastern Poland passed to the Soviet Union (Lvov is now part of Ukraine), which led to his family being expelled by the Soviets and settling in 1946 in Gliwice, itself part of German Silesia, which also became part of Poland at the end of the war. The war, therefore, marked his displaced status from his earliest years. Much later, in 1982, Zagajewski added to his exile status by going to Paris and then to the United States, only to return to Poland after the end of the communist regime (in 2002).

Meditation on the mark that exile leaves on the personality of those who experience it is one of the elements present in his literature, and I would like to refer to it in these pages, which are usually devoted to migration issues. For Zagajewski, as Juan Cruz recalled in the obituary published in El País (21 March), poetry is a thing of emigrants, of "those unfortunates who, with a ridiculous heritage, balance on the edge of the abyss, straddling continents".

Atalayar_Adam Zagajewski
AP/ALVARO BARRIENTOS - In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 file photo, Polish writer and poet Adam Zagajewski, left, receives the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature, presented by Spanish King Felipe VI

In one of his final autobiographical texts, 'A slight exaggeration' (published in Spanish by Acantilado in 2019, the original edition is from 2015), he refers to the exiles, inspired by the experiences of the Polish community that settled in Silesia, leaving his native Lvov, in 1946, the human group that constituted his vital environment and whose experience marked him for life and channelled his imagination.

For Zagajewski, the loss suffered by the exile is also a gift: it is only when we feel the absence of what was familiar to us (a geographical area: a landscape, a city; a shared history located in them) that we become aware of what has been lost, that we gain an accurate idea of its true dimension. Families who have never been displaced, who have lived for generations in the same city, who have never lost anything, do not realise what they have: "Stability is perhaps a desirable good, but it lacks poetic interest".

The exiles are "bearers of a restlessness, of a mystery", "they keep a secret", "they carry an abyss within them, a lack, a longing", all of which brings their spirit very close to that of the artist, for "they have something to live on, they have great reserves of meaning in life, because a great loss is at the same time a great opportunity". Hence the conception of loss as a gift: the paradox of their lives is that loss fills them with meaning.

Atalayar_Adam Zagajewski
AFP/MIGUEL RIOPA - Polish poet Adam Zagajewski after receiving the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award for Literature during the Princess of Asturias Awards ceremony at the Campoamor Theatre in Oviedo on October 20, 2017

Zagajewski does not consider himself an exile, but a privileged observer, from his childhood, of the experience of exile in the community to which he belonged. His generation has not experienced the loss of Lvov first hand, but he has seen his elders wandering the streets of Gliwice like sleepwalkers, longing for the "City". The exile is not inherited, or only indirectly, although the author cannot help but believe that there is a link between what he saw as a child and his life trajectory. He is not an exile, but neither is he sedentary; he belongs to an intermediate generation, transient and therefore more difficult to delimit. 

Although Zagajewski writes at all times from his individual and subjective experience, the essence of his reflections can be extrapolated to other individuals and human groups, in different geographical and historical contexts: this is the case, for example, with regard to the profound mark left on the characters by the involuntary and forced abandonment of the place where we are rooted; or, similarly, with the different generational perspectives that occur in the communities of displaced persons once they have settled in the host country.

Interested readers can find most of his work published by Acantilado, which won, among other awards, the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award for Literature.

Luis Guerra, Professor of Spanish Language at the European University of Madrid, is one of the main researchers of the INMIGRA3-CM project, financed by the Community of Madrid and the European Social Fund.