Review: Milkman by Anna Burns


“Whatever you say, say nothing,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote. That, surely, is also part of the message of Anna Burn’s Booker winning novel Milkman, in which nameless people constantly talk around everything but the truth. Told from the perspective of eighteen year-old “middle-daughter”, Milkman recreates the world in which the unmentionable troubles of 1970s Northern Ireland took place. This is a world in which a single misplaced word or misunderstanding can result in a whole level of community conspiracy: a kind of fantasy shared by people whose every thought and action seems to be governed by a specific set of sectarian values.

Thus, the narrator is assumed to be the lover of a high-ranking ‘renouncer’ or republican paramilitary known locally as Milkman, when in fact she is being stalked and intimidated by him. As local narratives do not appear to authorise any alternative to the idea that she might be his lover, she is both hounded and feared, becoming as much a part of local political mythology as Milkman himself.

What I think is really important about this book is the way it suggests that, amid the very public horrors of events like The Troubles, more private horrors are ignored or even denied. And that merging of the private with the public or political is part of this problem. Women’s lives are policed, and anything which appears to violate borders or the unwritten code of sectarianism proves threatening.

The other surprising aspect of this book, given what I’ve just written is how funny it is. Written with more than a few nods to the digressive style of earlier Irish writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, this is a novel which seethes with inventive language. And which proves how  language can be used to obfuscate or even annihilate truth.

I will admit to not actually wanting to like this book, purely because I really thought Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under deserved to win the Booker in 2018. And part of me still feels that. But I have never really read a book which is so relentlessly obsessed with its own linguistic medium, and which uses that self-referentiality to interrogate how we use language for political ends. A hard read but a mind-blowing one.

Democracy is dying in Poland

I’ve lived in Poland since 2003. It’s a country which has seen a lot of change over the past thirteen years: a process intensified by its accession to the EU in 2004 which pumped much needed funds into infrastructure and business, and of course opened the doors to freedom of movement across EU member states for Polish workers. Those same rights – incidentally – enabled me to work and build a life in this country visa free.  Following accession, the Polish economy has become more robust, and Poland appeared to weather the crisis of 2008 better than many other European nations, even if that growth in GDP didn’t filter down to the poorest members of Polish society.

Perhaps this failure to build a fairer society is one of the reasons why, on 25th October 2015, the Law and Justice party, “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” won elections not only in the Polish parliament, but also in the senate, having succeeded the previous year in replacing President Bronisław Komorowski with Andrzej Duda – a politician from their own ranks. It was taken almost as given that the losers in those elections – centre right Civic Platform “Platforma Obywatelska” had become more interested in lining their own pockets than offering a genuinely fair deal for the country as a whole.

What happened next, however, surprised many of those rejoicing over the fall of Platforma. Because, in collusion with the Polish Catholic Church, the new government has set about dismantling the organs of democracy and insinuating their own control of virtually every area of public life, promoting a hard right reactionary ideology coupled with a populist programme masking itself as social welfare. And this makes them, well, virtually unbeatable.

Having taken over parliament, senate and the Presidency, the only branch of government which could potentially hold back “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” was the constitutional tribunal. This led to the party taking the decision to undermine what is effectively the only political breakwater left in Poland, by replacing its judges and introducing mechanisms which would stall any attempts for the court to reach agreements. Effectively, the government straightjacketed the last constitutional safeguard in the country. Furthermore, as far as parliamentary process is concerned, many meetings of the Sejm (the Polish parliament) are now held in the middle of the night, so that the government can push through its policies without the inconvenience of undue media attention or public awareness.

With regard to media, state television – Telewizja Polska – has become little more than a pro-government propaganda machine, attacking anyone who dares criticise government policy, and promoting the policies of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość. As an example of this, on the very day upon which tens of thousands of Polish women protested against the government’s anti-abortion stance, it aired a pseudo documentary equating all forms of abortion with eugenics.

It was precisely the “black protests” against abortion restrictions – which would have seen abortion made illegal even in cases of rape – and protests held by teachers on the 10th November against changes to the education policy which have made the government realise things may not quite be going the way they’d planned. For this reason, they are now attempting to push through a new bill which will see mass protesting effectively made illegal. Or, at least, no one will be able to protest on a day upon which the government has organised its own public manifestations. That sounds absurd, but it will effectively frustrate any attempt at meaningful – and peaceful protest. From such laws, police states are grown.

As George Orwell wrote, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” This is presumably why the new educational programme has written Lech Wałęsa out of school history books. Lech Wałęsa, it should be added, hero of Solidarity, has been one of the key critics of recent government policy, along with Józef Pinior, former anti-communist protestor, who was recently arrested on trumped up charges of corruption only to be released through lack of evidence.

But history is not the only subject to undergo revision, following the government’s educational reforms which will see the entire structure of schools revert to the communist system of eight years of primary school and four years of high school – a decision, incidentally, criticised by experts in the field of education as retrograde. Under the new programme, the theory of evolution will be a mere footnote in biology text books, there will be no emphasis on the significance of environmental protection, and sex education is to be sidelined, as education minister Anna Zalewska has claimed its place is “in the home, not in school.”

All of these changes, it can be concluded, are due to the influence of the Catholic church in Poland, which has never had it so good – a branch of the Church which actually criticises Pope Francis for being too liberal. Many of my Polish friends who went to Church on a regular basis have in fact stopped going in recent weeks and months, frequently after becoming sick and tired of having politics preached to them from the pulpit. One acquaintance, a lawyer, stopped attending mass after being told that canon law comes before state law.

However, as long as the borders between church and state in Poland become ever more blurred, the power of the church to influence Polish politicians will increase. Those who do not support the religious bent of the government’s policies have been expressly labelled “a worse sort of Pole” by leader of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Jarosław Kaczyński. Poland today, a country which was so packed with promise as a new, vibrant rising democracy is now a divided nation, increasingly isolated and unable to offer anything resembling a promising future to its young people. The rest of Europe really needs to take a long look at Poland and pull the country back from the brink.


*Featured images shows Constitution of May 3rd at Warsaw Royal Palace 1791 by Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine


#CzarnyProtest #BlackProtest

#czarnyprotest #blackprotest

Today women across Poland are striking, or participating in protests around the country in major towns and cities. The reason for this is the Catholic church sponsored government’s flagrant attack on their basic human rights: a government which, in many other ways, is also revealing itself to be oppressive, intolerant and in some respects nothing short of totalitarian.

The first sign of the reactionary direction that the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice party) would take with regard to limiting women’s freedoms was the removal of in vitro from the list of state sponsored treatments. This was not done due to financial limitations, but due to immediate pressure from the Catholic hierarchy, denying childless couples in Poland any hope of fulfilling their dreams of starting a family.

However, this move was far less controversial than the decision of PiS to introduce a bill which would criminalise abortion entirely. Poland, along with Ireland, already has some of the most stringent anti-abortion policies in Europe. Currently, such surgery is only possible if a woman’s life is at risk from giving birth, if she has been raped, or if the foetus is seriously malformed. The ban proposed by the government would make abortion even in these extreme cases punishable by up to five years in prison, both for the women involved and for doctors accused of performing surgery.

The consequences of this decision would be devastating. Fundamentally, it would raise the prospect of women going through the pain of labour with the awareness that the child they are giving birth to is already dead in the womb, or will almost certainly die soon after birth. It also means that, in the case in which a woman is raped, she will be forced to carry the child. Abortion will incur a prison sentence harsher than that imposed on the rapist.

But perhaps the worst, most frightening prospect is that of a situation similar to that which currently exists in just a few states around the world such as Ecuador, where women who suffer miscarriages are then accused of having sought out abortion. So, having gone through the trauma and heartache of a stillbirth, women are actually chained to hospital beds awaiting the arrival of police and an eventual prison sentence.

The women of Europe – and indeed anyone else who is outraged by such cruelty and insensitivity on the part of the Catholic fascists who currently control Poland – need to come out in solidarity for Polish women and girls. It is frightening that, even in the twenty-first century, a Church which is misogynistic to its core in terms of its institutions and doctrine, can still influence politicians to such an extent. Support Polish women and the #czarnyprotest.