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Elena Poniatowska turned 90 last May. GETTY IMAGES
Elena Poniatowska turned 90 in May. Photo: Getty Images.

'El amante polaco': Elena Poniatowska's most ambitious and personal novel

In her latest novel, the Mexican author mixes the aristocratic atmosphere on the court of the last king of Poland with bustling 20th century in Mexico

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Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska turned 90 in May, but her desire to write is still strong. Her latest novel, El amante polaco (The Polish Lover), is a return to her origins, those of her grandfather Sanislaw Poniatowski (1732-1798). His family left Nazi-occupied France and settled in Mexico when she was 10 years old. She learned Spanish, the language with which she has managed to carve out her successful literary career, on the street, talking to people.  

"One day, suddenly, I remembered that there were many portraits of that ancestor Poniatowski everywhere, his coats of arms, remnants of the family cult of the Pole.... I decided to learn more about who he was and I traveled to Poland," Poniatowska recently said in an interview with La Vanguardia

The result is El amante polaco (The Polish Lover), the author's most ambitious and personal novel. 

The story begins in 1743. While listening attentively to the historical exploits of his family, little Stanislaw travels in the company of his mother through a dazzling winter landscape. Far away is his future passion for the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, whose lover he became, and the convulsive arrival of the Poniatowskis to the throne of Poland. 

"Stanislaw was a good king, he promoted science, health and culture, and that makes me proud," she told La Vanguardia. "Although he lacked character, he was too docile a lover of Catherine, she taught him everything about love, all the pirouettes and tricks, all the calisthenics, because she knew more than him, who was a virgin, Catherine threw herself at men chicks." 

Two centuries later and only 10 years old, Elena watches the snow fall on Paris for the last time, the city where she was born. A long journey awaits her to Mexico, the country of Paula Amor, her mother, where many persecuted by the war ravaging Europe find refuge. 

This first volume of El amante polaco is a fascinating journey through two narrative times and two forces of destiny: that of the European courts of the 18th century and that of Mexico City in full bloom, of palace intrigues and literary gatherings in the 1950s, of forbidden romances and of a life devoted to writing full of intense and painful moments. 

el amante polaco poniatowska

Poniatowska, winner of the 2013 Cervantes Prize, delivers her most personal novel, where intimate language and emotions are linked to the epic story of a kingdom on the verge of disappearing. 

With a journalistic body of work of almost 70 years, Poniatowska made the leap to nonfiction literature in 1954 with the short novel Lilus Kikus (available in English), in which the protagonist is a restless girl who relieves the acidity of lemons with black coffee and sugar.

She later developed a literary voice with chronicles such as La noche de Tlatelolco and novels like Hasta no verte Jesús mío, winner of the Mazatlán Prize; Piel de cielo (The Skin of the Sky), winner of an Alfaguara Prize; Leonora, winner of a Biblioteca Breve Prize; El tren pasa primero, winner of a Rómulo Gallegos Prize; Dos veces única, and now El amante polaco.

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