2013 Vol. 5 No. 2 — Summer / Books

Polska Dotty

PolskaDottyCarp in the Bathtub, Throttled Buglers, and Other Tales of an Englishman in Poland
By Jonathan Lipman

This is a self-published book, an essential caveat to a review. Not that this is always something bad; in recent times, writers are taking matters in their own hands for the simple reason that otherwise they will never get any reward for their labour.

Polska Dotty is the story of an Englishman’s adventures in Poland, an idea that could immediately collapse but for the fact that his first adventure is nothing less than marriage. Having met his prospective bride at Oxford where both, for different reasons, were studying Polish-Jewish history, he promptly fell in love, discovered that in Poland “family is everything,” and set forth to Poland to ask his beloved’s father for “his daughter’s hand in marriage.”

What follows is a comedy of errors since everybody knows that tradition and reality are two different things but it’s nice to follow the first before you choose the other. In this case, there was really no conflict… or was there? Our hero, author Jonathan Lipman, did not expect the father to say, “No.” But did he actually say “no?” Language does play tricks, and the rest is amusing enough to almost justify buying the book.

Indeed it’s a hard act to follow. Polska Dotty is not quite a “colorful introduction to Poland” as the Warsaw Voice claimed, though it comes close, as Cooltura claimed, to being a “charming story of the ups and downs of an Englishman who tries to assimilate into a completely different world.”

The main problem with the book is that Jonathan Lipman is writing about his experiences in the late 1990s, and as everyone knows, changes in Poland in the last two decades moved with the speed of light. An editor might have seen the wisdom of cutting the dated stuff. And details about navigating the medical system… well, unless you are filthy rich, things medical can be trying. Maybe even for the filthy rich. So this is not a particularly interesting part.

On the other hand, the personal stuff is great fun.

From the wedding on we are introduced to two cultures. Polish weddings are food and dancing; English weddings are speeches. Sometimes long, boring or ill-advised speeches. In this case the speeches weren’t too bad but Lipman is perceptive enough to note that wedding speeches are not likely to enter the Polish wedding repertoire any time soon.

Then comes the newlyweds’ life in Kraków – which they find enchanting – and in Warsaw which they find… ugly. Everybody knows that Kraków is the loveliest city in Europe but for those of us who know that Warsaw can only be compared to a beautiful woman who was scarred in a tragic accident, then this callous description of the city is wounding.

But just as you give up on Lipman, he introduces his father, a man so charming everyone would want him as a dinner guest. Thank heaven for the older generation; here is a man who understood, who saw beauty in character, in history, in courage. And all that with wit and grace.

It’s beyond a review to cover the many details of the book – perhaps too many details – but it is notable that Lipman takes a path that few men dare to tread: Polish-Jewish relations. He does this well, perhaps in part because he is the son of his father. Being Jewish, he knows the Polish tragedy, but he also knows the long history of his people in this land. He comes to the subject with curiosity rather than preconceived notions and, again perhaps because of family influence, is not blinded by stereotypes.

It’s a pity that Polska Dotty was not taken in hand by an editor to bring the book up to date, and to limit it to Lipman’s wonderful personal observations. Personal observations, after all, are all that any of us can bring to a conversation.

And here is Lipman’s strong point. He strikes one as someone you’d really like to talk to. Meet him and you’ll invite him for dinner… and ask him to bring his father along too.


CR publishes book + film reviews, interviews, profiles and more. All with a Polish slant, in English.

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