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.

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