TLS May 20, 2011
A gate in the field
By Benjamin Paloff
Stone Upon Stone
Translated by Bill Johnston
In his native Poland, the distinguished career of Wiesław Myśliwski dates back to the 1960s. He is not well known in he world of English letters, however, and Stone Upon Stone, the second of his books to be translated into English in the past twenty years, looks dauntingly big in this edition. Yet the reader who moves past these discouragements will discover a marvel of narrative seduction, a rare double masterpiece of storytelling and translation.
The story is simple enough. Szymek Pietruszka, an ageing, average Jozef who serves as both narrator and protagonist, has decided to have a tomb built for his family, himself included. But Szymek’s calculations of how much space is needed to accommodate the remains of everyone who will rest there become a rangy meditation on what remains after it. One brief reflection spins off the next in an infinite regress, so that we gradually come to see the construction of the tomb as more than just one stone on another.
Myśliwski’s prose, replete with wit and an almost casual intensity, skips nimbly from one emotional register to the next carrying a dramatic force far beyond the little that actually transpires in the course of the novel. In this he invites comparisons to other Central European masters of digression, such as Jaroslav Hasek or Bohumil Hrabal, thoughMyśliwski’s affective repertoire is far broader than Hasek’s, and his anecdotes weave together on a much larger scale than Hrabal ever produced. Like Hasek and Hrabal, Myśliwski regales us with a motley parade of his hero’s vocations and avocations over the course of a lifetime, from farmer to soldier to resistance fighter to policeman to bureaucrat and back to farmer. His sustained passions are dancing with women, getting into brawls – “A real church fair is either when the bishop comes, or there’s a fight” – and cutting hair, which in fact makes Szymek the closest thing this novel has to a novelist. “You don’t go to the barber just to get your hair cut or get a shave.”, he informs us, “you go to sit and have a chat and listen to stories.”
In his translation Bill Johnston navigates Myśliwski’s modulations with skill and the lightness of touch that is generally the face of profound labor. Over nine long, meandering, hypnotic chapters, the text comes to resemble the sprawling farmland where Szymek spends his days, the only place he believes where his labours in this life can have any lasting value. Unlike his three brothers, all of whom drift off “away” or “there” – that is, to the city, where modernity has long since forgotten village life – Szymek believes that sticking to the land affords more contact with the eternal than one might find in God, country, or Communism, none of which gives back as much as it takes. Not above poking a little fun at his reader, Mysliwski also has Szymek wonder why anyone would bother with so many words:
You read and you read and you read, and in
the end it all went into the ground with you anyway.
With the land it was another matter. You worked and
worked the land, but the land remained after-wards.
With reading, not even a line, not a single word, was
Szymek’s penchant for elaborate metaphors – “The moon was like a cow’s udder, if
You’d pull its teats we’d have been covered in streams of moonlight” – brightens his tales of battle, feuding neighbors, family disintegration and lost love. Even his portrayal of the many deaths here, which are frequent and often brutal, tends towards a grotesque levity. This may be Myśliwski’s most consistently gratifying accomplishment: he manages tone so finely, orchestrating a perfect continuity between the tragic and the comic and, ultimately, between life and death. As Szymek tells us, on one of the occasions he has been shot: “I didn’t know which world to believe in, this one or the next. Truth be told, I didn’t really feel much like coming back to this world. But the next one just seemed a continuation of this one . . . . I felt like I’d died in the next world and come to this one to live”. If life has taught Szymek anything, it is that building a tomb is no different from building a home. Late in the novel, he even contemplates furnishing his tomb with a gateway, similar to the one that used to belong to an old manor house, though the fence itself has gone: “The gate is actually still standing today, except it’s in the middle of fields and it doesn’t lead anywhere”. He might be talking about death, and in a sense he is. But he is also just mentioning a rusty old gate.