MAY 9, 2014
WE LIVE IN AN ERA where crops — their provenance, their genetic profile, the distance they travel to the plate — enjoy an unprecedented prominence in our social consciousness. Whether that consciousness will seep through to our literary culture — Jim Crace’s novel Harvest notwithstanding — remains to be seen. But should novels of the soil and its fruits ever enjoy a broad resurgence of popular interest, the Polish novelist Wiesław Myśliwski should stand as a prime beneficiary. This is not to suggest Myśliwski is limited in his work to observing the struggle of his species in its role as cultivator. But a closeness to the earth, to its remorseless rhythms and demands, to the hard, absurdity-ridden peasant life these demands and these rhythms engender, suffuses his books.
Myśliwski was born in 1932 in Dwikozy, a village in southeastern Poland. He belongs in the first rank of modern Eastern European novelists. His work has close thematic and structural affinities with the novels of Danilo Kis and Ivan Klima, and reflects a similar engagement with historical crisis. He is the author of nine novels, three of which have been translated into English, and he is twice the winner of the Nike Literary Award, his country’s Booker-analogue.
Stone Upon Stone, which was first published in 1984, appeared in translation from the indispensable Bill Johnston via the equally indispensable Archipelago Books. The novel won the PEN Translation Prize in 2012. In late 2013, Archipelago and Johnston released their second Myśliwski novel, A Treatise on Shelling Beans (it first appeared in Polish in 2006), which deserves as much attention, if not more. The ostensible subject of these two novels are isolated, ruminative protagonists, both born sometime in the 1920s in rural Poland, both beset by suffering and pain, much caused by the Second World War; for Myśliwski the suffering that touches and to some extent defines these lives distills the sufferings of Poland during the war, and the scars that suffering left: scars political, social, psychological and spiritual, scars on the earth itself.
Stone Upon Stone is the autobiography, more or less, of Szymon Pietruska (an echo of “Simon Peter”; the last name is Polish for the irrepressible herb parsley), one of four children born to smallholding farmers (no explicit clues are given as to the location of the village; one imagines it as a version of Dzików) near the end of the second decade of the 20th century. It begins with its narrator, who is voluble, moody, physically powerful, and, despite his lack of learning, extremely acute, recounting the difficulties inherent in building a proper tomb for your family — “if you’ve never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs. […] Whether it’s for eternity or not, a person needs a corner to call their own.” We then range forward and backward through Szymon’s life, the life of his unnamed village, his family, and the two women who represent the poles of his wide and enthusiastic erotic experience. The prose Myśliwski has placed in Szymon’s mouth to effect this prodigious task of recall is vividly concrete, blazing with precise physical details, and brusque (though never the less acute) even when it comes to thorny philosophical questions.
A prose wholly appropriate, in other words, for a figure like Szymon — whose earliest memory is one of physicality and conflict. He kills, while still a toddler, a male turkey that has wandered into his yard by choking it to death. The brilliant red of its wattles “made everything around go red, like a red glow from a fire […] even the scythe leaning against the barn started to drip with red blood, drip, drip, drip.” Such intensely lived violence plays a constitutive role in Szymon’s life (alongside sexual need and his open distain of the farming profession his father extols). He is rowdy in his early years, getting into fights at village dances. Later, he inherits the physical feud between his father and their neighbor, Prażuch. “You could hear it way off,” Szymon’s tell us. “Like two whole villages were at each other’s throats, or two whole manor houses, or the sky and the land.” Little wonder, then, that Szymon goes on to became a partisan during the years of the Second World War, an irregular who kills Germans and fellow Poles deemed disloyal or insufficiently patriotic.
A blind, inner violence characterizes Szymon’s efforts to divide himself from “the land” as well: in his carousing, in his wartime activities, in his various postwar careers as barber and stylist and, finally, a petty official. In the end, Szymon’s attempt to separate proves futile. When two of his siblings move to the city and the third suffers a physical and mental breakdown that leaves him mute and severely diminished, it is Szymon who stays home to farm the meager acreage passed on by his father. Szymon, too, suffers a physical catastrophe. He is struck by a car while driving his wagon laden with the sheaves of his wheat harvest. He spends months in the hospital and leaves it a near-cripple, at which point he begins his work on the family tomb and the book’s motivating action, Szymon’s long odyssey through his own memory.
The recursive, fragmented structure Myśliwski adopts will be familiar to even a casual reader of European postwar fiction. Similar methods can be seen in books as diverse as Piotr Rawicz’s Blood from the Sky, Kis’s Garden, Ashes and Hourglass, and even W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. There is, of course, a historicist argument to be made here, that these broken forms proceed from a catastrophic breakage of history, that their temporal and spatial juxtapositions — a maneuver deployed to astonishing effect in Stone Upon Stone; for Szymon the past is inescapably, vividly alive, ongoing even; he slips between one paragraph and the next, from narrating the events of the book’s present to reliving the memory of his dalliance with an aristocrat’s maid while being hidden in the manor house from Germans, or of a long, bloody fight at a village fair (“I just pulled his hand away from his eye and I said, Look at me with that bloody eye of yours, you son of a bitch, I want you to remember this”).
The characters are unavoidably conditioned by the erosion of boundaries and identities war inflicts, which can be seen with terrible visibility in the geography of Szymon’s village. The road where an accident occurs is described as an almost insurmountable (and quasi-natural) obstacle for the villagers, on which “cars are speeding by one after another, both ways” as though a “cloud had opened up and it was raining cars, and there they were pouring down the road”; the bones of the dead in the town cemetery lying wrenched from their proper places by artillery fire suggest to Szymon that “the earth itself was turned inside out and all of eternity flung to the surface.” Even his near-catatonic brother Michał — so enfeebled that “[t]hey could have led him to his death and he never would have even asked, why? It was like there was nothing inside him except the fact that he was walking” — seems to belong to this geographic category of victims.
Yet despite the fractures and scars marking his body, his milieu, and his nation, Szymon himself remains whole. Indeed, his own wounds seem to enrich him, or so Myśliwski suggests in a brief scene during Szymon’s hospitalization. When a nurse, with whom all his wardmates are in love, asks about the war wounds that cover his torso, Szymon informs her that each is connected to a memory — and he proceeds to plunge the readers into the depths of that memory, a forced barefoot march across a snowbound trail (?) at the hands of his German captors, his escape, the bullet that grazed him. Though it should be remembered, as well, that Szymon purchases his life with another’s: during the early occupation of his village by the Nazis, he was called out along with a number of other men for what they were told was a work detail but turned out to be simply a massacre, with the villagers put to work beforehand digging a vast common grave. Szymon, seizing a moment of inattention on the part of the troops guarding him, hurls his fellow-digger Antoni Kuras onto the nearest German soldier — “I kind of felt bad for him, but they were going to kill him anyway, so he wasn’t going to be out for revenge” — and makes a successful break for the woods. Kuras is shot before Szymon’s eyes and Szymon does not hesitate, does not break step; even when he narrates the story he does so with chilling matter-of-factness. He is capable, it seems, of weaving not merely his own suffering into the narrative thread of his life, but the horrific suffering he has caused. Perhaps the surest sign that Myśliwski considers Szymon to have, in a way, overcome the catastrophes that beset Poland — an implication made all the more unavoidable by the fact that his brothers have fled for the city or have ceased to make meaningful contact with the world, his mother has died from grief, and his father has slipped into dementia, and he still walks (or limps across) the earth of his ancestors.
The same cannot be said of the nameless narrator in Myśliwski’s most recent novel, A Treatise on Shelling Beans. Published more than two decades after Stone Upon Stone, it too is set in Europe’s darkest years. Again, it follows the caprices and contours of its narrator’s memory, jumping through the various eras of his life from his vantage point of relative safety and security in the present. The narrator in A Treatise works year-round as a caretaker at a forest resort, his salary paid by the absent and mysterious owner, Mr. Robert. The novel begins with a plaintive and absurd question: “You’re here to buy beans, sir? From me?” The caretaker is ostensibly addressing an out-of-season visitor, but the interlocutor’s presence is minimal. The caretaker replies to his questions (which we, as readers, never hear). This long apostrophe will eventually encompass his unsettled, pain-ridden life, a life rich in historical connection to Szymon Pietruska’s but radically different in coloring.
Some are simple differences of factual emphasis. Like Szymon, the caretaker comes from rural Poland, like Szymon he was born on a farm, like Szymon he was part of a resistance unit. But his family, rather than drifting slowly apart, was massacred before his young eyes by a detachment of German troops. (The boy was spared by an officer in a rare showing of humanity.) His time in the resistance was not spent as a partisan fighter but rather as an orphan, taken in but regarded with hostility because he is considered dead weight.
But the division between these books runs much deeper. In A Treatise, trauma is revealed more nakedly: the hideous privations our narrator suffers as a wandering orphan and the equally hideous ones he suffers as a ward of the state; the decay and emptiness he sees through rural Poland during his work as an electrician and the misguided efforts of the government to fill that emptiness via electrification. As the caretaker recalls, “[N]ot everyone was in favor of electricity. Some folks wouldn’t even give permission for a pole to be put up outside their house. What, I’m supposed to stare at a pole for the rest of my life? The hell with that!” In this atmosphere it is no shock that the caretaker lacks the lust and rage that lie at the roots of Szymon’s strength, that he displays in their place a mute, mulish endurance — both of the frigid horror that defined his adolescence and the painful semi-vacuity of his adult life.
And while it is clear that Szymon Pietruszka is concerned very much with endings and beginnings — Stone Upon Stone opens with his discussion of the Pietruska family’s unfinished tomb and closes with Szymon’s meditation on death not as a terminus but as a return to the womb of the land — the caretaker possesses no such certainty in these fundamental, causal processes of history and time. “I’m not looking for a beginning,” he says near the end of the novel. “Besides, does anything like a beginning actually exist?” It’s true, of course, that a radical distrust of certainty radiates from both books, that Szymon and the caretaker both exist in states of endless flux, both attuned to the progression of the seasons and the vicissitudes of the harvest, where the boundary between death and life and beginnings and endings blurs to the point that the terms lose their meaning. As Szymon says of the land to his uncomprehending brother: “It rocks you and rocks you till you’re unborn, unconceived, once again.”
But the implication that the caretaker enjoys a greater degree of freedom than Szymon — and not merely in his metaphysics, so to speak — is hard to ignore. He masters not one but two separate forms of art in his teens and early twenties, becoming first a skilled electrician and then a saxophonist in the pay of the state. And he manages to live abroad for years — unthinkable for the stonily autochthonous Szymon — playing in dance bands and living a rootless, hand-to-mouth life. Myśliwski also implies that this uncertainty has opened up a vista for the caretaker that remained closed to Szymon: the search for aesthetic truth. This, ultimately, is what consumes the caretaker. He plays the role of student again and again — as befits someone who “realized that I myself wasn’t an exception. Or if I was then the world was filled with exceptions” — first at the hands of a drunken music master in the state school in which he is more or less imprisoned after his time with the partisans, then with a master electrician and a welder (who displays the same insane, light-footed bravery as Billy Budd among the foretopsails), and lastly under a supply clerk who imparts to him the fundamentals of professional musicianship. “Play all you want,” he sneers, “you all love the applause, that’s the fact of it, whoever’s doing the applauding and why.” Even the title, which refers quite literally to the act described, carries with it the whiff of apprenticeship. He fails to find the truth that he seeks throughout these endeavors — though Myśliwski suggests that the quest itself was in vain from its inception. Consider the horrendous lesson in the instability of art and reality that the caretaker receives during his days as a ward of the state. A film being shown at his school causes a riot, first by means of an extended scene where a man tries on hat after hat, awaiting his girlfriend’s approval; her continued refusal to grant it prompts an upwelling of rage and hatred so severe that the caretaker worries his classmates will “invade the screen, trash the shop […] and maybe rip Mary’s furs off, tear off her dress and rape her.”
Twenty-two years separate Stone Upon Stone and A Treatise on Shelling Beans. The former was published almost midway between Jaruszelski’s institution of martial law and the legislative elections of 1989, the latter in the midst of a strong season for the Polish right. The political landscapes of Poland and Eastern Europe have changed radically. And these changes make drawing a political or sociological lesson from Myśliwski’s novels difficult, but given the intellectual predilections of these narrators, that seems far from the author’s intent. Szymon and his shadow-like, decades-on counterpart both have their vision firmly fixed on eternity. The numerous linkages between their lives — the deep role music plays in them; their vexed relationships with women; the tenderly remembered rivers that flow through their childhood villages; the ubiquitous presence of human graves — suggests a kinship between the earthly and the philosophical. Or perhaps even a total lack of distinction. A Treatise ends, after all, with the caretaker bidding goodbye to his silent guest, leaving him — which is to say “you,” in the universe of the novel — to take up the bean-shelling.