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Review of Stone Upon Stone by David Williams in Slavic and East European Journal

Wiesław Myśliwski. Stone upon Stone. Translated by Bill Johnston. New York: Archipelago Books, 2010. 534 pp., $20 (paperback).

 

In terms of the Central and East European literature published in English translation in the post-1989 period, Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone upon Stone (Kamień na kamieniu) is a relative rarity. Originally published in 1984, Myśliwski’s sprawling pastoral epic contains no dissident heroics, eschews modernist, postmodernist, or avant-garde aesthetics, and with Myśliwski (1932–) barely known outside his native Poland, the novel boasts neither “extraliterary” appeal, nor benefits from any cult of authorial personality. This makes the novel’s appearance in English remarkable enough, and the warmth of its reception cause for unequivocal celebration; symbolic reward for the courage shown by publisher Archipelago Books, a rare return on investment for the Polish Translation Fund, and further testimony to the deft talents of translator Bill Johnston.

Loquaciously narrated in the first person by peasant (anti-)hero Szymek Pietruszka, the book contains nine starkly titled chapters (“The Cemetery,” “The Road,” “Brothers,” “The Land,” “Mother,” “Weeping,” “Hallelujah,” “Bread,” “Gateway”), which provide clues to its earthy topoi and loci. Although an achronological history of life in a Polish village from before the Second World War through the modernization inherent in the communist project, “stone upon stone,” (also the title of a Polish folk song) the novel’s endless stream of vignettes, ruminations, and digressions are hewn around Szymek’s quest to build a respectable family tomb. Along the way, Szymek, a Hrabalian little man, tells of his careers as policeman, barber, marriage celebrant, functionary, and farmer; his vices of drinking, womanizing, and knife-fighting; and his not infrequent virtue, including his exploits in the resistance, and his caring for his dissipated brother, Michal.

While the building of a tomb may be the novel’s cornerstone, the accident in which Szymek cripples his legs provides both its dramatic peak and functions as a kind of metaphor for the sacrifices modernization demands. Once a leisurely corso shared by villagers, horses, and carts alike, when sealed, the road running through the village becomes a treacherous racetrack, its effect divisive. As Szymek illustratively explains: “There’s no more peace to be had in our village. Nothing but cars and cars and cars. It’s like they built the road for cars alone and forgot about the people. But are there only cars living in the world? Maybe a time’ll come when there won’t be any more people, only cars. Then I hope the damn things’ll kill each other. I hope they have wars, worse than human wars. I hope they hate each other and fight and curse each other. Till one day maybe a Car God will appear, and it’ll make him angry and he’ll drown the lot of them” (67–8). One afternoon, tired of waiting with his loaded horse-drawn cart, Szymek makes a quixotic, and near fatal, charge for the other side.

Following his release from hospital, Szymek returns to the fallow fields of the ruined family farm. Taking in the losses of the Second World War and Szymek’s subsequent struggles to work to the land, Myśliwski masterfully shades the ambivalence of Szymek’s undeniable lust for life amid so much loss of life. The rhythms of the seasons, of planting and of harvest, offer endless opportunity for rumination: “What do we have to fight about? We plow and plant and mow, are we in anyone’s way? War won’t change the world. People’ll just go off and kill each other, then afterwards it’ll be the same as it was before. And as usual it’ll be us country folk that do most of the dying. And nobody will even remember that we fought, or why. Because when country folks die they don’t leave monuments and books behind, only tears. They rot in the land, and even the land doesn’t remember them. If the land was going to remember everyone it would have to stop giving birth to new life. But the land’s job is to give birth” (156).

With the novel told in a supraregional vernacular (not even the village in which it is set is named), Johnston’s chief translation challenge was to create a convincing English voice for the garrulous Szymek. Avoiding any recognizable dialect in English (one could easily imagine a lesser translator voicing Szymek as something out of Faulkner), with the apparent ease that tends to mask painstaking labor, Johnston deploys an array of linguistic features to create a distinctive, yet hard-to-trace language. Inter alia, Johnston uses elision and run-on sentences; omits initial pronouns and modals; front loads syntactic constructions; uses “their” where many an editor would grammatically balk, and eschews obvious Americanisms. Also worth noting is his preference for Germanic rather than Latinate verbs, thus “enter” is inevitably rendered as “go in.” However the real beauty of the translation is in its restraint, with Johnston resisting the urge to dramatize the often plain language or syntactically speed the languid narrative.

Given the significance of Johnston’s achievement (whose translation garnered the Best Translated Book Award, the PEN translation prize, and the AATSEEL translation prize), in closing it is perhaps instructive for us to remember that in spite of positive developments in recent years (such as the MLA making translation its presidential theme in 2009), hiring committees in literary studies still overwhelmingly view a single peer-reviewed journal article (irrespective of breadth, depth, potential readership or impact) as having more “value” than the translation of a major literary work. Yet with Stone upon Stone (not to mention an imposing body of other translations), in cultivating a readership beyond scholarly circles for Polish literature, Johnston’s contribution to Slavic and East European Studies is a singular one. It is a contribution that again underscores what translation, ipso facto, can do, and what scholarship, sadly – and as much as we might wish it otherwise – generally cannot: in giving “second lives” to unknown yet deserving work, translation offers perhaps the best chance of renewing the fast fading fortunes of our field.

David Williams, University of Konstanz

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