Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski, translated by Danusia Stok


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

Introducing one of the most stylish and moody historic detective series ever: The Inspector Eberhard Mock Quartet.
Occupied Breslau, 1933: Two young women are found murdered on a train, scorpions writhing on their bodies, an indecipherable note in an apparently oriental language nearby...Police Inspector Eberhard Mock's weekly assignation with two ladies of the night is interrupted as he is called to investigate. But uncovering the truth is no straightforward matter in Breslau. The city is in the grip of the Gestapo, and has become a place where spies are everywhere, corrupt ministers torture confessions from Jewish merchants, and Freemasons guard their secrets with blackmail and violence. And as Mock and his young assistant Herbert Anwaldt plunge into the city's squalid underbelly the case takes on a dark twist of the occult when the mysterious note seems to indicate a ritual killing with roots in the Crusades...

This was one crazy ride. I've been reading thrillers/mysteries/crime fiction for many years now. Therefore I'm not exactly a novice in this department. With my conscience clean and easy, I would place Mr. Krajewski's historical crime  novel among the best in this genre and beyond. Beyond, since Death in Breslau is one of those gems that blur the boundaries between several genres and display in front of a reader serious literary talents of the books' creators. And such indeed is the case with Death in Breslau. It is rightly called noir, with all the characters exhibiting various stages of moral and ethical decomposition. No superhero cop rising above corruption and other earthly traps will be found here. This one truly is a gritty, hardcore murder investigation set in a world of brutality, violence, death and ambiguous morals, a world where you either eat or get eaten. And sometimes not until your last breath do you know whether you're dying as prey or predator. 

Hidden within the folds of the crime novel is an unexpected treasure of historical fiction. Marek Krajewski paints a fascinating portrait of interwar Breslau, a German name for the city of Wroclaw, Poland, then under German occupation. It's a little embarrassing to admit but despite having been born and years later lived my wildest college years in my beautiful Wroclaw, I'd shown precious little knowledge or appreciation for the history within the brick walls of buildings, cathedrals, little side alleys and bridges (Breslau really is perceived by many as a city of islands because the rivers cut through it from all sides) that were part of my life a few years back just as they became the setting for Death in Breslau and a part of the lives of Inspector Mock, Herbert Anwaldt, other policemen, Gestapo officers, debauched aristocrats and prostitutes. Despite the gruesome murders and an uneasy atmosphere inundated with foreboding of what evil was yet to come (WWII), despite that ethical and moral decay slowly taking root in all who become entangled in the search for and the hiding of the truth, Mr. Krajewski gave us beauty too - the architectural beauty and the natural charm of Breslau, this majestic city that to this day retains all the appeal and is as a matter of fact rapidly becoming the cultural center of Europe. I'm waxing nostalgic here but hey, Wroclaw is and always has been worthy of every ounce of nostalgia poured over it :D.

Most importantly, in a true spirit of crime fiction, the plot is captivating and you'll find yourself utterly engaged in looking for the killer/s along with Eberhardt Mock and his sidekick from Berlin, Herbert Anwaldt. It's especially worthy of praise how the book's author developed these two characters who while playing the roles of 'the good guys' are probably the two most morally ambiguous people in the whole story. Mock and Anwaldt belong to the grey world of the 'not wholly good but not entirely evil either' human beings. Because of that, these two elements (totally my term of endearment) are also the most realistic characters in this story. Why, you ask? Because humans are nothing, if we're not morally ambiguous. Those Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Segal cop characters belong in the fantasy world that is a close and good neighbor of Disneyworld. They do not exist. Mocks and Anwaldts, on the other hand, very much so.

I'm very happy and very excited to see that the Polish literary crime world counts among its ranks such a talented writer as Marek Krajewski. His prose is smart, intelligent but never ostentatious or, goodness forbid, condescending. When I was reading Death in Breslau, I was experiencing a creation of  a confident writer, who knows where he belongs on the crime fiction and literary scene and  who is fervently carving out a permanent place among the talents of the European Noir. He deserves it too.

A Note On Translation

Death in Breslau has been translated from Polish by Danusia Stok. Ms. Stok is a very accomplished and skilled translator bringing Polish books to the UK market for quite some time. I believe she is less known in the American publishing market, an unfortunate situation which I greatly hope is in the process of being remedied. Her translation of Krajewski's novel was really good, the potential obstacle or challenge of dealing with German names and phrases and Latin sayings sprinkled throughout, all to never break the flow of the narrative in the translation of the main text seemed to not have been a challenge at all. Danusia Stok is the necessary half to Krajewski's in forming a literary tandem to give the English world a hearty bite of the Polish mystery genre.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski from the publisher, Melville House via Edelweiss.

Just to give you a glimpse of Wroclaw, here are a few photos for your enjoyment
This is University of Wroclaw, my alma mater.

Inside the main building of the University, there is this astonishing room in which I got officially immatriculated into the folds of University of Wroclaw.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston


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The book's description from the publisher's site:

Myśliwski's grand epic in the rural tradition—a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive. Wise and impetuous, plain-spoken and compassionate Szymek, recalls his youth in their village, his time as a guerrilla soldier, as a wedding official, barber, policeman, lover, drinker, and caretaker for his invalid brother. Filled with interwoven stories and voices, by turns hilarious and moving, Szymek’s narrative exudes the profound wisdom of one who has suffered, yet who loves life to the very core.
Nostalgia is the first word that comes to my mind after finishing this outstanding novel. Because if Szymek's life and my life are separated by decades, I spent half of my life (the first 15 years) pretty much living with my peasant grandparents on their farm. And I loved them, that life and I'm more a peasant myself than a city girl nowadays, even though I've had my share of big cities' living. What I'm driving at here is that every day of Szymek's life spent with his parents, farming the land and observing or not observing the traditions, was my life too and my maternal grandparents' and my mom's, her siblings' and our entire huge family's. I cannot believe how accurately Mr. Myśliwski depicted the realities of post-war Polish peasantry and beginnings of Stalinist government taking roots in our country. It was actually uncanny to read the minutest details, such as the way Szymek's mother cut the loaf of bread (this is how I learned and used to do it) to the father yelling at Szymek, "Dear God, hold me back or I'll kill him, I'll kill him like a dog!" (I remember my grandpa yelling the same way at my uncles, and yes they were adults but for us kids it was funny as hell) and realize those are all the things that happened in my life. Anyway, so far it's all personal, I know but to me that is the most important  part of Stone Upon Stone. Also, when you do get to read it, it's not all exaggerated, sentimentalized, romanticized view of the things long past. It's all true, exactly the way we, peasants lived in Poland for decades, including the parties, drinking and bloody fights, and the love of land above all. Nothing's made up. Historically, all details are very accurate. Shit, I even remember the scythes and helping my grandpa with their sharpening using the whetstone  and I'm not ancient (measly 35) :D.

Word and language mastery are the next three words staying in my mind all the time I was reading Stone Upon Stone. The author writes beautifully and gives the power of words their due. Life wisdom and insight into human nature abound. And even though it is written in a stream of memory, it's not the same as stream of consciousness and as a real stream, it flows smoothly and easily.

But thinking's no good. I mean, you're not going to think something up unless you actually do it. People thought and thought, and what did they come up with? The world's still the way it was, and all thinking does is make you think more and do less. (p.149)
 That's wisdom. Simple it may be but profound nonetheless. And the form mirrors the philosophy contained within it. Really, this novel is a masterpiece in its form, in its content and in its message. But most importantly, it's a tribute to farmers and rural Poland. I can't imagine anyone better suited for such an important role than Mr. Wiesław Myśliwski. A great, memorable read to which I'll be returning more than once.

Note on Translation

Stone Upon Stone (Kamien na kamieniu) was translated from Polish by Bill Johnston. The fact that this translation got three translation awards in 2012 - PEN Translation Prize, Best Translated Book Award, American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Prize (AATSEEL) - pretty much speaks for itself. I must say that Mr. Johnston did a superb job translating Myśliwski's novel and he did the Polish language proud. I'm looking forward to more translations of his in the future. And apparently, in 2014 there is going to be another novel by Wiesław Myśliwski, Treatise on Shelling Beans, translated by Bill Johnston hitting the American market in 2014.

FTC: I purchased a copy of Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski.