x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Wieslaw Mysliwski's new country for old men

In its vivid, intertwined narratives, Wies aw Mysliwskil's Stone upon Stone gives voice to the changing lives and landscape of rural Poland.

To hear the voice of Szymek Pietruszka, the Polish man who narrates Stone upon Stone, is to encounter a peasant's wit, wisdom, and values. Here is Szymek on the simple joy of talking: "Words let blood, and you feel better right away." On why a barrel of grain makes the best spot to hide things: "Because grain arouses the least suspicion. What could be more innocent than grain?" And on crying: "It might be that God gives a person one lot of tears like he has one heart, one liver, one spleen, one bladder. And you need to get those tears out so you can tell when you're still a child and when you've grown up."

Szymek's rustic voice narrates with a naïveté and an eloquence that are equally endearing, reaching into every corner of the Polish countryside like a great shining sun. This novel is the grandest example of a genre that has been Polish author Wiesaw Mysliwski's domain throughout an illustrious 40-year career. The only writer to have twice received the Nike, Poland's most prestigious literary award, he has hewn out a brand of fiction centred around the unique values and lifestyle that are found in the nation's peasant culture. Originally published in 1984, Stone upon Stone - Mysliwski's only book to appear in English - is not only generally considered his magnum opus, but also one of the landmarks of 20th-century Polish literature. It is a marvellous, garrulous book, in which Szymek practises his indubitable wisdom on all the variety of experience found in life.

As the story begins, Szymek is selling his cow - a prized possession - so that he can finally build a proper tomb for his family. It is a solemn, singular task, for as Szymek puts it, "a tomb is a tomb, you only build one in your whole lifetime". The cow is only the latest asset that the tomb has cost him: already he has sold his silver watch from when he fought in the Polish resistance during the Second World War, spent the thousands of zlotys he received in a settlement after a bizarre traffic accident incapacitates him and subjected himself to the indignity of borrowing money from his neighbours. On top of all this, the tomb's architect has just died.

If the travails of a man going bankrupt just trying to build a proper place to die sounds like a remarkably dour beginning, Mysliwski doesn't ask us to weep over Szymek for long. A beautiful cross at the cemetery that "looks like a tree that's been snapped in a gale, like two unstrapped tree trunks nailed together", reminds Szymek of the Nazis, whom he promptly begins to tell us about. This first digression marks the book's pattern - it is, in fact, 500 pages of nothing but digression, with Szymek rarely able to finish one story before another interrupts. Mysliwski's method is to throw absolutely everything into Stone upon Stone. This zigzagging path Mysliwski slowly covers the immense territory of Szymek's life, his family and his village in the 20th century.

Though Szymek seems not to realise it, the stories he tells offer an intimate chronicle of rural Poland succumbing to the grip of modernity. The family itself feels representative, with two of Szymek's brothers abandoning their roots for the lure of city life and the third becoming absorbed into the Communist Party before returning a broken, silent man. None of Mysliwski's gestures towards the greater historical currents flowing around Szymek feel heavy-handed, though he can be pointed. In one incident, Szymek recalls a picture of a peasant ploughing with oxen that used to hang in the office of a communist bureaucrat. "I had to change it," the official confides to Szymek, "because anyone who came to visit would just gawk at the picture … see, now it's a tractor doing the ploughing. Though between you and me, for some reason I can't get used to it."

Mysliwski's estimable imagination has a flair for the twists and turns of history, as with Szymek's grandfather, who flees to America to evade conscription by the Cossack militia only to end up getting stuck in the Dust Bowl. It also has a keen sense of the absurd: when Szymek becomes a marriage official in the communist bureaucracy, he sits and reads his newspaper all day, since none of the peasants quite understand the idea of a marriage outside of the church.

True to a book based on a boisterous man's memory, everything feels real, yet also somewhat exaggerated, as when Szymek's father, a simple, archetypally tempestuous man, almost hangs Szymek with a chain after he ruins the slice of bread the family consecrates to the land every New Year. With the chain jingling around Szymek's neck "like bells on a horse" and his father looking for a good tree, his mother comes out and declares to her husband, "even if you kill him, he'll still be yours … Except you won't be his father anymore, you won't even be a human being." Shamed, the man breaks down in tears.

Inasmuch as any of the digressions in this network-like book can said to be the central one, Stone upon Stone hangs on the accident in which Szymek's legs become mangled, an outstanding scene of almost Beckettian absurdity. A highway has been built through Szymek's village, and the men in their carriages cross it at the risk of being hit by a speeding car. One day Szymek is bringing in wheat from his fields, but the traffic is too heavy to permit him to cross the road. He finds Kus, his elderly neighbour, waiting for a break in the traffic, but none comes and soon a line of several carriages waits behind him.

As in Vladimir Sorokin's absurdist novel The Queue, the line becomes a society unto itself: the men argue and crack jokes, one recounts how God gave peasants patience while he gave others riches, a fight breaks out, and all the while cars speed by. Finally Szymek can no longer wait: he orders Kus out of his way and makes to cross the highway. The alarmed men beg him to stop, but Szymek's mind is made up:

 

All of a sudden something flashed in front of my eyes. There was a terrifying honking sound right close by. I heard the squeal of tyres. There was a crash and I came down like a felled tree. To begin with I couldn't see a thing, like a fog had fallen all around me, I couldn't feel anything either, I only heard voices and shouts somewhere far away. Then the fog began to slowly clear, and nearby to my left I saw a big hole, and in the hole a light-coloured head covered in blood and looking like it was sleeping. I tried to get up. But it was as if I didn't have a body, all I had was my will. Right in front of me on the blacktop my legs were lying all twisted like tree roots.

After Szymek returns from the hospital he can only walk with the aid of crutches, effectively ending his farming days. Were that not enough, during the time he is in the hospital his farm falls into ruin. These twin catastrophes turn Szymek's attention from life to death, and he resolves to build the tomb for his family, as well as a metaphorical tomb for the culture in which he lived his whole life.

Mysliwski's accomplishment is to share and celebrate that culture in this requiem for it. He has built a complex, overlapping narrative structure that on its face looks like nothing more than the digressive ramblings of a peasant, and with Szymek's honest voice he lets that culture speak for itself. It is just the right voice for the job: strong, proud, and a joy from start to finish.

Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.