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Winner of the 2012 PEN Translation Prize
Like a more agrarian Beckett, a less gothic Faulkner, a slightly warmer Laxness, Mysliwski masterfully renders in Johnston's gorgeous translation (Mysliwski's first into English) life in a Polish farming village before and after WWII. . . . Richly textured and wonderfully evocative. — Publishers Weekly, starred review
Joyously anchored in the physical world, steeped in storytelling, a delight from start to finish. — Kirkus, starred review
Wieslaw Mysliwski's vast novel is an artistic accomplishment of the highest order… A masterpiece beyond the shadow of a doubt. — Henryk Bereza
A hymn in praise of life. — Krysytna Dabrowska
A marvel of narrative seduction, a rare double masterpiece of storytelling and translation.. . . Mysliwski's prose, replete with wit and an almost casual intensity, skips nimbly from one emotional register to the next, carrying dramatic force. . . . He manages tone so finely, orchestrating a perfect continuity between the tragic and the comic and, ultimately, between life and death . . . In his translation Bill Johnston navigates Mysliwski's modulations with skill and the lightness of touch that is generally the face of profound labor. —Times Literary Supplement
A marvelous, garrulous book ... The grandest example of a genre ... Szymek's rustic voice narrates with a naivete and an eloquence that are equally endearing, reaching into every corner of the Polish countryside like a great shining sun. — The National
Sweeping . . . irreverent . . With winning candor . . . chronicles the modernization of rural Poland and celebrates the persistence of desire. — The New Yorker
"[Myśliwski] belongs in the first rank of modern Eastern European novelists. . . . The prose ... is vividly concrete, blazing with precise physical details, and brusque (though never the less acute) even when it comes to thorny philosophical questions." — Los Angeles Review of Books
Epic novel of rural Poland from two-time Nike Prize winner Mysliwski (The Palace, 1991, etc.).
A nonstop river of narration limns the long, eventful life of Szymek Pietruszka. In his wild youth before World War II, all Szymek wanted to do was drink, dance, fight and sleep with all the girls. After the Nazis invaded Poland, he joined the Resistance; following the war he nonchalantly held down various jobs in town: police officer, haircutter, civil servant. Yet in the end he returned to the small family farm, immersing himself in the rhythms of planting and harvest that ordered his father's life. Two of his brothers had moved to the city; a third, Michal, was swept up in the communist revolution, but came home a shattered man who never speaks and must be cared for by Szymek. Not so easy, since Szymek's legs were badly damaged when he was struck by a car while taking his horse-drawn wagon loaded with sheaves across the new paved road that divides his village. The world is moving on, warns the party functionary who refuses to approve his request for cement to build a tomb (that's not on the list of approved uses): "You can't live with a peasant soul any more." But the flow of salty, earthy talk from Szymek, his family and fellow villagers suggests that peasant ways will survive even the invasion of tourists looking to sample "traditional" culture without actually experiencing the boredom of tilling a field or milking a cow. Cognizant of the brutal realities that govern people tied to the land in a close-knit, quarrelsome community, Mysliwski reminds us of the pleasures inherent in such illusion-free existences. "You have to live," says the storekeeper who cheerfully beds down with Szymek (or any other man who strikes her fancy). "What else is there that's better?"
Joyously anchored in the physical world, steeped in storytelling, a delight from start to finish.
Having a tomb built. It's easy enough to say. But if you've never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs. It's almost as much as a house. Though they say a tomb is a house as well, just for the next life. Whether it's for eternity or not, a person needs a corner to call their own.
I got compensation for my legs — a good few thousand. It all went. I had a silver watch on a chain, a keepsake from the resistance. That went. I sold a piece of land. The money went. I barely got the walls up and I didn't have enough for the finish work. It's another thing that if Chmiel hadn't gone and died, I probably would have gotten it done. Maybe not right away, but bit by bit. I would've put something aside, found something I could sell. In any case there would have been someone to keep at me and not let me give up. Chmiel never liked starting a job then leaving it half done, like workmen these days. What he began he always had to finish. Except that after he did the vault he never even came to ask for his money. He took to his bed the same day, and a week later he was gone.
And before then I couldn't find any extra cash so he could wrap the job up before he died. Because even when something came along, there were more urgent needs and the tomb had to wait. Luckily no one's dying, I'd say to myself. Plus there were taxes and taxes. I ended up having to borrow some. Then the time came to repay and I had nowhere to get the money from.
Kubik, my neighbor, he'd come by almost every day and straight from the doorway, without so much as a good morning he'd start in with, "When are you paying me back, when are you paying me back? I was supposed to get it last Christmas, and now it's almost December again. My lad has to get married. There's a baby on the way. He needs a suit, a shirt, shoes. Music, vodka. The groom has to foot the bill for the whole thing. Don't think it's like weddings in the old days. Back then you wore your dad's suit and your mother made you a linen shirt. And it was only local people from the village, all you really needed was the priest's blessing. These days you have to invite everyone from the town. And you can't give them homemade hooch — it has to be the fizzy stuff from the store. And the wedding has to last three days, cause if they've taken the trouble to come all this way they have to eat and drink their fill. Otherwise they'll bad-mouth you and say the hosts were bums. And on top of everything they manage to sober up every few minutes, the bastards. The food isn't so much of a problem as the booze. Then at the end you have to give every one of them a bottle for the road, so they'll remember you well."
So I borrowed from Maciolek and repaid Kubik. I reckoned that since Maciolek lived all the way past the mill, he wouldn't be there every day like Kubik was. But Maciolek turned out to be a pain in the ass as well. He didn't come visit. But every time I met him in the village, he'd start hollering from way off:
"Give me my money back, you son of a bitch! You borrowed it fast enough!"
I was afraid to go down the co-op to buy bread, because I might run into him there. I was even afraid to go to church on Sunday — sometimes he wouldn't even wait till we got out of the churchyard, he'd start right in on me in front of everyone while we were still on hallowed ground.
In the end I said to myself, why should I let some old fart push me around. I put a rope on the heifer and walked her down to the purchasing center to sell her. Ever since she was a calf I'd planned to keep her, but what could I do. I just made sure not to meet anyone in the village on the way. I didn't want people feeling sorry for me and saying what a pity it was I had to sell it. Luckily the weather was good and people were working in the fields. There was only old Blach sitting on the bench outside his place warming himself in the sun. His eyes were closed, either from the glare or because he was dozing, so I was counting on being able to pass by without him noticing. The heifer wasn't making much noise, and I was walking softly as well. But all of a sudden something flashed in those eyes of his, like they'd flipped over.
"You taking her to be serviced?"
"No, to sell her."
"It'd be better to have her serviced."
"That it would."
"Then you'd have a fine cow. You could milk her on all six teats. You wouldn't have to drink water during the harvest. You could drink sour milk. You'd just have to buy some jugs. Back in the day, at the fairs there was every kind of jug you could want — clay ones, earthenware ones, tin ones. You could make cheeses. You could hang 'em up in your attic in straw baskets and let 'em cure there. They can cure for years. War comes, you've got cured cheeses. You can eat 'em with noodles or with bread. You can even take a hunk to the fields with you. You can plow and mow and seed all day long and you won't go hungry. Or you could tear bits off it and toss 'em to the rooks. They'd follow you all day long. This way, they'll just slaughter her and eat her and shit her back out again."
"Cows don't last forever either."
"But while they're there they give you milk. Besides, what lasts forever?"
I had to bite my lip to stop myself saying something harsh to the old man, he was driving me crazy. I knew full well I'd have had a cow. I didn't need to be reminded. Her coat was dense as thatch. She had a nice small-sized head and broad shoulders. Her hind legs were set wide apart, she almost looked like she'd have grown a double udder. Also, when I went to lead her out of the shed she wouldn't let me put the rope over her horns. She wouldn't have it, she shook her head left and right to stop me. In the end I had to take her by the muzzle, stroke her, and say:
"Come on, I have to build that tomb."
And now the tomb's standing there unfinished and going to waste. It needs timbering on the outside. There needs to be a separate slab for the entrance, so you don't have to wall it up after every casket. And an inscription saying this is the tomb of the Pietruszka family. Maybe it could even be gilded. These days everyone has a gilded inscription. At the Klonicas' they don't just have an inscription that says Klonica Family, but each Klonica is written separately in gold — Baltazar Klonica, Jedrzej Klonica, Adelajda Klonica, Zofia Klonica, née Cholewka, when they were born, when they died, and in addition, "Lord, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him!" There must be a hundred letters in all. But then the Klonicas sow eight or ten acres of flax alone every year, so they can afford gilding.
People have been trying to convince me to grow flax as well. Flax is gold, they say. An acre of flax is worth five acres of wheat, seven acres of rye, and potatoes, God knows how many. And it's no more work than with rye or wheat or potatoes. You sow it, pick it, dry it, thresh it, and take it to be sold. As for seed, if you contract for a supply they'll provide it. They'll even give you a loan so you can pay them. And if there's a wet year for flax? Then it'll be a wet year for rye and wheat too, to say nothing about potatoes. When it's wet, everything's wet. The rain doesn't choose to fall only on wheat or potatoes or flax. On your field or on mine. Is any of us more pleasing to God? The flood covered the whole world. Only Noah was left, and he took two of every animal and two grains of every grain. And if there's a disease? Don't rye and wheat and potatoes have their own diseases? With potatoes it's even worse, because they have the potato beetle. And even pheasants won't get rid of the potato beetle. One time they released pheasants into the fields, to eat the potato beetles, they said. It got quite colorful out there. You'd be mowing and a pheasant would fly up from under your feet. But did it last long? There was one group of hunters after another, and now you can't find a pheasant to save your life. So they're sending people out again to look for beetles. And turnip, carrots, cabbage — don't they all have their own diseases? What doesn't?
If you look closely enough you'll see that even diseases have their own diseases, and those diseases have diseases of their own. Everything in this world is up against everything else, and it'll be more and more that way. So grow flax, because flax at least pays. Quickly even. What about sparrows? Don't be stupid, in the country you can't get by without sparrows. Put up a scarecrow, put up a couple of them, one in each corner of the field. It's no big deal to nail a couple of poles together and dress them in some old pants, jacket, shirt, hat. Everyone has old clothes lying around that are good for nothing. You save them up over the years because it's always a pity to throw them out.
With flax the straw and the grain both pay. With rye and wheat only the grain pays. Look around the village. You can tell right away who grows flax. Or go to high mass on Sunday. Paper money comes fluttering down into the collection tray like feathers from angels' wings. When there's a rattle of coins once in a while, people look round as if you'd done something wrong. When I was in the hospital, from spring to fall there were two guys here painting the church. One of them got drunk and fell off the scaffolding. But the other one kept on painting. Now the ceiling is blue as the sky. On the walls there's a new stations of the cross. Before, Jesus's head was in a crown of thorns, but now you can just see one of his eyes. When people are better off, the Lord God does better too. And that new bell in the church tower, where did that come from? From flax, my friend. When it rings you can hear it up hill and down dale. Folks come from all around to buy salt and oil and matches, and they say they can hear it ringing everywhere: Ding-dong, ding-dong.
But then if everyone grew flax, who would grow rye and wheat, what would they make bread out of? Though I often think to myself, I've got ten acres, maybe I could plant at least one acre of flax? It'd bring in a few pennies if there was a good year for flax. And maybe I'd finish that tomb, because it's gotten embarrassing. It looks like a bunker, with no statue, no cross. There was a guy made a cross for Malinowski's tomb. He offered to do one for me. But I didn't care for it. It looked like a fence post, without a Lord Jesus. What kind of cross is that? Though I can't say I think much of the more expensive ones either in our cemetery. Sometimes I drop by there to take a look and see if one of them might be good for my tomb, but they're just getting fancier and fancier.
The Kowaliks' cross you can see way before you even get to the cemetery. It's almost on a level with the trees. It looks like a tree that's been snapped in a gale, like two unstripped tree trunks nailed together. It even has knots from sawn-off branches like on a real tree, and bark that's cracked with age. And it's all carved in stone. The Lord Jesus is no great size, but his crown of thorns is like a crow's nest. When you stand underneath it it's like standing at a gallows, and you have to tip your head way back like you were looking at a hung man. What does it have to be so high for? You can't look at death high up like that for long. Your neck goes stiff. Looking up is something you can only do to check the weather or when the storks are flying away. Death draws you downward. With your head craned up it's hard to cry even. The tears get stuck in your throat when it's stretching up, and they trickle down into your stomach instead of into your eyes.
One time the Germans hung someone from the village on a high cross like that. When you looked up at him from below he seemed to be laughing at it all. But when they took him down and he was lying at our feet you could see his face was twisted and his tongue was poking out. You could imagine he'd choked on some word that had gotten stuck in his throat when he was trying to shout it out. Though in those times, at moments like that people usually shouted out something short, mostly the same kind of thing. In the time between the trigger being pulled and the bullet entering your body.
If he hadn't run away into the fields but in the opposite direction, toward the river, he might have gotten away. The river's no great depth or width, it's just a river, like you find in any village. When you water your horse its muzzle almost touches the bottom. Old buckets stick out from the surface with mint growing in them. When the women go down to rinse their laundry they wade out into the middle and the water barely comes up to their knees. There are willow trees and bushes along the banks. And he was closer to the river than to that cross. Though maybe they happened to chase him in the direction of the cross, and you run away in whatever direction you're being chased in. Or perhaps he thought the cross was the edge of the wood.
They shot him, but he somehow managed to crawl to the cross. He put his arms around it with all his strength. Afterward his fingernails were full of splinters and the skin on his arms was scraped all the way up to the elbows because they couldn't get him to let go however much they tried. They had to break his fingers. And he was already almost dead when they hung him on an arm of the cross. Later there was no way to get him down and they had to cut down the cross.
Or Baranski's daughter. She hadn't even turned three, but Baranski had a tomb built for her that made it look as if the Baranskis had been burying their people there since time immemorial. On that tomb, as well as the Lord Jesus being gigantic, the stone was kind of gray, or covered in something, so he looked a hundred years old. And how old was he actually? Thirty-three. And he could have walked into any cottage without having to bow his head at the lintel. I'm not exactly on the short side myself — as a young man I was the tallest in the village. When there was a dance at one of the villages farther away there'd sometimes be somebody taller. In the resistance, in our whole unit there were only two or three men taller than me, though every one of us was straight as an oak. If we'd been lined up in double rank, Lord Jesus would have been somewhere in the middle. I even said to Baranski, for a little child like that an angel would be better. But he wouldn't listen. Angels can intercede but they can't save you.
He's standing as if he was on a hilltop, his hands folded on his chest, his head lowered, thinking. There's a lot for him to be thinking about. God or man, it comes to everyone. Even a three-year-old child. You could think and think what might have become of her. Baranski used to brag that she would've been a doctor. But can you boast about the dead? Better just say a prayer for them. Baranski always was a blowhard. One time he bought a horse and he claimed it was only four years old. You could tell from looking at its teeth it was at least twice that. She might have become a seamstress. Or like the other women, she would have gotten married, and she and her man would have worked the land till they died.
Or take Partyka. On his tomb he put up a Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha. His shoulders are as wide as three Partykas, and each foot is the size of three human feet. On top of that the end of the cross reaches over above the Ciepielas' tomb next door, and Partyka and Ciepiela always get into a fight on All Souls'. When Lord Jesus is so big, you don't get the feeling that he's suffering even when he's carrying his cross to Golgotha. Even if you wanted to help him, what can you do with your little strength next to his. God ought to be like a person, so you can see that whatever's painful for people is painful for him as well. So you can be troubled when he's troubled. And feel sorry for him the way you'd feel sorry for yourself. And understand when there's nothing he can do, just like a person. And even switch jobs with him awhile. Give me your cross, I'll carry it for you, and you do some of my thinking for me.
Excerpted from Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski Copyright © 1999 by Wieslaw Mysliwski . Excerpted by permission of Archipelago Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 11, 2011
Mysliwski has created a masterpiece. And Johnston's translation makes this great work accessible to all English readers. Szymek Pietruszka muses on his life and we are allowed to enter this fascinating, complex man's views, tall-tales, tragedies and wild nights at dances. It's cleverly written, and by the end of the long (534 pages) novel the reader longs to spend more time with the facsinating farmer narrator. I'm from Polish agrarian ancestry, and I wish to thank Mr. Mysliwski for giving me a glimpse into my forebearer's lives.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.