A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski (trans Bill Johnston). Archipelago Books. 450 pp. $22.00.
A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from his childhood in Poland during World War II to his current life as an aging caretaker of cabins by a lake. During it all, the narrator responds to questions from the listener, but we never hear this strange man’s voice, only the responses. Each question becomes a starting point for another story.
Though the narrator suffers no interruptions, except when giving voice to someone from his past, his telling jumps throughout time: part of a story from his childhood may remind him of working as an electrician, which reminds him of learning to play the saxophone, which sends him back to finishing that story from his childhood. This chopped and fractured narrative is not the winking, postmodern self-consciousness but a capturing of the true way people tell their stories. Feeling at times like a confession, this is another masterstroke by the acclaimed Polish author Wiesław Myśliwski, that he captures what is normally haphazard improvisation with a grace that feels familiar, realistic, and controlled. His remarkable translator, Bill Johnston, matches him step for step.
There is more to the movement of the storytelling than verisimilitude. Part of the way this novel breathes is by letting casual, insightful philosophy create space between stories. In the midst of one of these breaths, we’re told that “inside us there’s a child, and an old man, and someone who’s going to die, and someone who doubts, and someone who has hope, and someone who no longer has any. And so on, and so forth.” By letting the stories of his life intertwine, the narrator reveals these selves without making one more “true” than another, and without them being discrete. Each one of these selves shows itself in bits and pieces that constantly interrupt one another: we learn early on that he is a saxophone player, but it is only deep into the telling that we understand the complete story, which runs a line through his various guises as schoolboy, electrician, and rheumatoid old man, unable to any longer play. All of the separate stories are given the same weight, so that the details of the acquisition of a hat, the suicide of an uncle, the making of a friendship, and the slaughter of his whole village are revealed in the same ways.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans is full of fascinating silences. When we learn of a graveyard in the woods that is all that remains of his village, we sense the way it haunts the narrator, yet he refuses to explain. Indeed, though he admits what happened there when he was a child, the events are never a story he can bring himself to tell. He can tell of his hiding afterward and the silence he lapsed into after his discovery, but the slaughter itself is almost entirely passed over.
The narrator himself knows that he cannot tell a complete story of his life: “Obviously I don’t mean my whole life, but this or that part, it goes without saying that no one is capable of grasping their entire life, even the most meager one. Not to mention that it’s always debatable whether any life is a whole.” Yet this is not something he is daunted by, for “what is told is the only possible eternity. We live in what is told. The world is what is told.” Storytelling is a fight for life; it is a confession that preserves what is being confessed. And while this philosophy fuels his narrative, so does too his personality. He is a man who does not surrender easily, yet accepts what must be accepted, and with light humor: “did you ever see a fence without holes? That’s just how it is with fences.”
Holes, unsaid words, and details give us reasons to listen to this man talk for nearly 400 pages. Treatise’s narrator is often a humble man. He is a flawed, good man, not a great one, and what makes him so good is that he does not see his own goodness. Early on, telling the story of saving one of his dogs from being killed by a man, he explains that the man later informs him that he saved his soul. His response is bewilderment: “I was taken aback—all he’d been intending to do was drown a dog, and here he was, talking about his soul.” Even after this dog becomes one of his closest friends, he doesn’t see any salvation or kindness in the act of rescuing it—it was simply the act he chose.
This kindness without self-awareness is also seen in how closely he pays attention to others. Though isolated and unsure of how to be close with others, he is also keen to find connections. This brings out his ability to observe and understand people. This expansive recreation of people he has known is a tribute to his memory and his compassion.
In this desire to connect is also a desire to return, even though he is not naive enough to believe such a thing is possible: “The truth is, that place doesn’t exist anymore, going back there isn’t even possible. Why not? Because if you ask me, places die once they’ve been left.” Yet he has returned to where his village by the river once was, caring for the graveyard and the cabins around the lake that have replaced it. Touchingly, he also tries to return via the visitor, in his belief that this man recognized his wife before he had ever met her.
To recover, return, connect, remember, dream, live, he tells stories, but by the end his stories begin to peter out. At times, he gives over his story and recounts someone telling him their story instead. By the end, it’s clear that his life story cannot be limited to just his own life—others need to be brought to life too: and it is an encouragement for us to do the same: “If you ask me, everything depends on words. Words determine things, events, thoughts, imaginings, dreams, everything that’s hidden deepest inside a person. If the words are second-rate the person is second-rate, and the world, even God is second-rate.”
P.T. Smith is a reader and critic living in Vermont.
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