The Snow Hare
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this book, it’s that Polish people apparently swear a lot. And also the word “goddamn” can be shoehorned into any kind of a sentence, from “Goddamn shut up” to “Sit goddamned down!” It seems to be equivalent to the English use of “fuck.”
The Snow Hare is the disjointed story of Magdalena “Lena” Luiza Sadowska, born and raised in the Polish town of Przemysl alongside her older sister Ala and their younger brother Romek, also called Romuś. Their father is an alcohol-sodden school inspector, their mother a classical musician. The upbringing of the children seems to be largely left to Ulka, their housekeeper, a hilarious iron-willed woman whose age I have never been able to pinpoint. Lena’s pre-WWII childhood is interspersed with scenes from the present day, in which she is elderly and bedridden, slowly dying and reminiscing on the events that led her to her final home in Wales. Her husband is gone, and she is attended by a professional caretaker and visited by her son Jozef and his daughter Amy. In between her lucid moments, she dreams of a little girl, whom she feels compelled to follow, and her ex-lover, whom she calls “bone man.”
Before her life gets completely derailed by the Second World War, Lena is a straightforward, humorless high school girl with no sense of irony or sarcasm, which I suppose is just as well when she self-identifies as a “rationalist.” She reads medical encyclopedias and performs questionable experiments at home in the hopes of entering medical school, but her carefully laid plans vanish in a puff of smoke when she unintentionally catches the eye of Lieutenant Anton Janek Bem, a straightlaced Second Army Engineering Corps officer whose utter inability to read the room is matched only by Lena’s (in which respect they are ironically well-suited, although in no other). I feel like I should note that The Snow Hare is inspired by the real-life stories told by Lichatrowicz’s grandmother, but I don’t know where the stories leave off and Lichtarowicz’s additions begin. Nevertheless, if this was genuinely her grandmother’s experience with marriage, then I am deeply sorry for her, and also for everything I am about to say.
Anyway. As I say, Anton becomes infatuated with Lena and pursues her against her own advice, apparently unperturbed by her obvious lack of interest. One thing leads to another, which in turn leads to Lena getting run over by a tram while trying to tell Anton – again – that she’s just not into him. In the aftermath of the accident, Lena’s infuriating mother Zosia (similarly unable to read a room – what is wrong with these characters?) accepts Anton’s proposal on Lena’s behalf, with the expectation that the marriage will grant some measure of protection to Lena in the event of war. Anton initially promises Lena that she will still go to Kraków to study medicine, but all agreements are shelved when he rapes her in a fit of frustrated lust. The resulting pregnancy destroys her plans all over again, and she never does make it to medical school. The one bright side, if it can be called that, is that she bonds with her new daughter despite everything, and names her Agata after Anton’s late sister. Their uneasy peace lasts about a year before Anton, knowing that war is coming, tries to send Lena and Agata out of the country. In an unwitting reversal of fortunes, Lena thwarts his plans by going home to her family instead of fleeing to Warsaw, and, though she does try to establish contact with the people who are ready to help her leave Poland, she waits too long and ends up stuck in militia-occupied Przemysl while the situation grows increasingly tense.
Despite the soldiers, things aren’t all bad: the Sadowskas are mostly left untouched, though they have to trade for daily necessities in a black market, and Lena finds meaningful work as a hospital volunteer under the kindly Doctor Lasko. Meanwhile Ala, who originally wished to marry a count or an army officer in possession of a chateau in the mountains and an apartment in Warsaw, throws the family into a turmoil of the more mundane variety when she announces her betrothal to Molek Kravets, a mountain of a man who works as a farrier. Due to an unfortunate remark on the part of his future mother-in-law, Molek enters the family as “This Molek,” by which moniker he is known till the end of time. Nevertheless, Ala’s marriage is a happy one, and things are relatively peaceful – at least compared to the things that have happened to other people in town – until Doctor Lasko is arrested. In his last moments of freedom, he gives Lena an antibiotic called Prontosil, then sends her home just before the soldiers arrive. Lena expects to be arrested as well, and she is, but for different reasons: as the wife of an officer in the opposing army, she is now considered a traitor by the militia occupying her town, and her entire family is tainted by association. Downgraded to second-class citizens in their own country, they are arrested (along with This Molek, who is not on the list of traitors but insists on accompanying his wife) and shipped off to a work camp in Siberia.
Things are as bad as can be expected in Siberia – the prisoners are forced to clear trees and turn them into lumber for houses being built in Moscow, and the amount of food they receive depends on their wood quota – but there are also moments of kindness and even joy. Ala gives birth to a baby boy, named Jozef after her father. The family befriends an elderly count and countess, who give them survival tips. Lena catches the eye of Grigori Aslanov, a red-headed camp guard who keeps giving her extra food for Agata despite the giant “FUCK OFF” sign on her forehead. History repeats itself slightly, but in this case the attraction is mutual, and they begin a passionate affair that ends with the liberation of the work camp. Grigori stays in Siberia, and Lena and her family are shipped to the steppes of Uzbekistan, trading one camp for another. In Uzbekistan, Lena and Agata reunite with Anton, but their relief is cut short when typhus sweeps through the camp. Ala and Zosia die of typhus, as does Agata, while Lena – who used her secret dose of Prontosil to save Grigori’s life when he almost died of an infected wound – can only watch helplessly. This Molek and Romek are already gone, recruited by the Polish army, and presumably never reunite with Lena, who leaves Uzbekistan with Anton and Jozef. They spend the rest of their lives living quietly in Wales, and raise Jozef as their own son. At the very end, her reminiscences concluded, Lena realizes the little girl she’s been following is Agata, and she gladly joins her in the afterlife.
Earlier I referred to the book as “disjointed,” and I stand by that. This book is a bumpy, bumpy ride. The story is uneven, and the dialogue can be frustrating because there are sections where it runs in long three-way volleys, making it harder to follow. This in itself might have been all right if the writing had a more cohesive feel to it, but it doesn’t. I can’t really put my finger on the things that gave me difficulties; all I know is that the style struck me as odd and somewhat disconnected. I also had issues with the pacing of the story, which stops and starts, stops and starts. I don’t think we needed to see present-day Lena as much as we did because she doesn’t really do anything, though her absence wouldn’t make her past any smoother. Nothing really makes sense. “Romek” and “Romuś” are treated as completely interchangeable, to the point where I was confused as to the number of brothers Ala and Lena actually had. (This might be an issue with me not knowing anything about Polish names or the Polish language. I tried asking Google if “Romuś” was a diminutive form of “Romek,” but no dice.) Lena gets hit by a tram at the end of one chapter, and then at the beginning of the next she’s married to Anton and we’re just supposed to roll with it. The subsequent explanation is not adequate because I have a hard time buying into the basic premise that his love for Lena was so great that he convinced himself she could be persuaded to love him back, given enough time and patience. It does not follow.
In all honesty, I could have bought into Anton’s obsession if Lena had been just a smidgen more likable. I don’t know why this style of female character is so in vogue, but if everybody could cut it the fuck out, I would really appreciate it. Lena is a picture-perfect case study of a female character who was supposed to be intelligent, strong, and quirky, and she is all of those things – to a point – but the problem is that Lichtarowicz forgot to also make her likable. Her rude, blunt style would’ve been fine if it had been leavened with humor or even endearing if she had been endowed with anything even approaching friendliness, but, since it was not and she was not, she spent 373 pages rubbing me exactly the wrong way. I genuinely have no idea why Anton and Grigori find her so alluring unless they’re generally attracted to women who are “different,” which she certainly is. She’s also about as charming as bread dough, she is repulsed by them both upon first acquaintance, and she thinks everything is ridiculous, and isn’t shy about saying so. Honestly, if it were me, I would’ve given up on her within the first five minutes. Her mind is so coldly clinical that it’s hard to get a grip on her as a person, and harder still to root for her. And yet, for all her book smarts, she doesn’t have much sense. “I don’t understand” seems to be her go-to when the situation turns dire. She literally says it three times when Doctor Lasko is trying to get rid of her before his arrest. I feel like enough weird things were going on in her town by that point that she probably should’ve realized on her own that something was up. Can we see some urgency here, instead of this thing she does where she stands around arguing instead of doing whatever’s smartest?
Nor is this a problem limited to Lena, because in general the characterization is awful. The clearest personalities are Lena, Zosia, Ulka, and This Molek. Everyone else is a cipher. Anton is creepy, but then he’s sort of good, then he’s a rapist, then he’s just creepy again, then he’s a good man and we are not to argue this point. Though I know this was not an uncommon attitude then or now, it drives me insane that Zosia all but orders Lena to write Anton a letter of forgiveness as a “Christian response.” It drives me even more insane that Lena actually does it. Lena’s friend Danushka seems like she might be a sympathetic ally in Lena’s battle to avoid Anton’s courtship, but she’s not. I don’t know anything about her; she’s barely in the story, and is only fleetingly mentioned after the shit hits the fan. Ala seems like the romantic baby sister, but then she turns out to be old enough to marry, then she’s a bitchy older sister, then she’s just…there. I will admit that some of the humor in the book does come from her, but it’s a small enough contribution. Romek seems like the easygoing joker of the family, but he turns on Lena in a heartbeat and joins the rest of the family in shaming her when she hooks up with Grigori. This is the part that made me hate her family (except for Ala, who seems to get it), because they go from zero to slut-shaming in about sixty seconds.
If they were concerned about Lena’s physical safety, that would’ve been one thing. But they are not. Aside from a quickly forgotten concern over Grigori’s criminal record (he’s a former chef who got shipped off to Siberia after murdering a customer at his restaurant – look, I get it), they are mostly ashamed of having an “extra-ration woman,” a woman who receives extra rations in exchange for sexual favors, in the family. They clutch their pearls – literally in Zosia’s case, or it would be if she had any pearls left – over her supposed infidelity and conspire with the nosy fucking apothecary’s wife to bully her into ending her relationship, though none of them have any reason to believe that her husband is still alive. In a weird sort of way, their intervention seems to push the deliberately contrary Lena straight into Grigori’s arms, and I almost have to wonder if she would’ve stopped hanging out with him on her own if they’d kept their goddamn mouths shut. They despise her for her so-called status even as they line up with their hands out to accept whatever she brings back. I don’t know that Lena really qualifies as an extra-ration woman, given that she barters in an actual legit marketplace for most of her goods, but that doesn’t seem to matter to her family. They’re so bitter that they name the goat Extra Ration at her asshole brother’s suggestion.
While I don’t like Romek’s attitude, I have to admit that he is at least honest. It’s Zosia’s hypocrisy that I really can’t take. She acts all quiet and upset when Lena announces her relationship and sulks while she’s accepting the food produced by this union, then turns around and scolds Romek for his open contempt – ineffectively, I might add. Whatever else I think of Zosia, she is, first and foremost, an extraordinarily ineffective parent. I have to admit I am troubled by this relationship because there is a power imbalance no matter how you look at it, and, even if it is a more loving relationship than Lena’s marriage, you can’t get around that. I would have fewer problems if Grigori had been another laborer rather than a guard. But that isn’t why Zosia is upset. Here again we have this idea that self-righteous starvation is preferable to moral degeneracy, no matter in how fair a cause. We seem to keep running into this, don’t we? I’d like to give them all a good kick. If they really cared about reputation, they wouldn’t eat what she brings home. Literally just let her have her hot girl summer and be grateful for what she gives you. Do you want the goat, or not?
If there was one pleasant surprise in all of this, it was This Molek of all people, who has stolen my heart. He seems like he’s set up to be the biggest asshole but then he turns out to be a giant teddy bear, I mean, he literally curses out an officer of a hostile militia and volunteers to get shipped off to a work camp in Siberia for the sake of his wife. Later he makes a bargain with the camp guards and has the pregnant Ala transferred to laundry and cleaning duties, and, though this backfires spectacularly when she realizes the job requires her to spend her day mopping literal shit, it’s the thought that counts. When she threatens to stab herself rather than spend the rest of her life mopping shit, he stays calm and tries to talk her down. He has a fiery temper, but he is gentle and patient with his equally hot-tempered wife, whom he treats like a princess. Even when she lops off her long golden braids in a fit of rage he still thinks she’s hot as hell, and he is also a doting daddy to their son. What a man. Why can’t this be the standard for literary husbands, instead of the usual pouty broodboy who needs therapy more than he needs to be married? These are the questions I have.
Unfortunately, not even This Molek was enough to bribe me into giving the book a better rating. Some books can pull off an unpleasant protagonist – Gail Honeyman’s ineffably wonderful Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the most obvious example at the moment – but this was not one of them. I can’t get around the Lena problem because she is so determinedly unpleasant in almost every interaction that after a certain point it started to feel deliberate. Her family rubs me the wrong way in just about every way possible, and her relationships with Anton and Grigori just annoy me. As little as I like her, Lena is very much not at fault for their inexplicable attraction to her, and these dudes really need to learn to take no for a fucking answer. As Anton says in a moment of drunken truthfulness, she warned him herself that their marriage wouldn’t work. It’s such a pity he didn’t listen to her.