Lala by Jacek Dehnel (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones). Oneworld Publications. 336pp. $24.99
If a novel is especially immersive, if the voice of its narrator is sufficiently consistent and evocative, the world it describes may come to life in picturesque color. I say picturesque, rather than vivid, because a novel’s dominant colors may not be entirely lifelike; they may be closer to the rich oils of Rembrandt or the downy pastels of Degas. Such colors suggest life but also remind us of art’s mediating presence. Jacek Dehnel’s lush debut novel, Lala, for instance, is awash in the sepia tones of old photographs, a few of which punctuate the text. Like an old family album, assembled by an eccentric relative with an artistic bent, Dehnel’s work is drawn from life and enriched with intent, with a kind of aesthetic cohesion that bare facts lack.
Cohesion, of course, does not mean dull chronological neatness. The material of the novel is the story – or rather the stories – of the author’s grandmother, Helena Bieniecki, the titular “Lala” (“doll” in Polish), who is succumbing to dementia. Tender and droll, rueful and rousing, these stories trace one Polish family’s journey from the 1860s to the present day against the backdrop of national uprisings, falling empires, world wars, invasions, and dictatorships. But owing to the beautifully flawed operations, to the inherent failings and embellishments of memory – which are in fact the true subject of this book – “Granny’s narrative twists and coils like a pea plant, putting out endless unexpected shoots that grab hold.” Grab hold they do, both of our sensitive guide and, thanks to his skillful retelling, of us.
Indeed, the prehensile magic of Lala lies in the art of retelling. On the second page, when our narrator visits the ruins of his family’s estate in Lisów in south-central Poland, he tells us he knows “where the desk had been, off which my ninety-year-old great-great-grandmother Wanda had shooed the German officer.” That cryptic shoot remerges on page 178, when Wanda, whom we have already come to know and admire, steps forth in full splendor to confront the rude occupier from the Third Reich, swishing her cane in the air and presenting “papers from the Archduke Ferdinand stating that [her] property is exempt from all requisition.” The officer laughed it off, we’re told, but “he stood to attention before Grandmama, and to the day he and his soldiers left, he always bowed to her with great respect.”
Is the story true? Regardless, it offers a wise and beautiful lesson in resistance, in sticking to one’s principles under duress, in demanding respect. And as Dehnel reminds us, “The repetition of wise and beautiful things is wise and beautiful in itself, and is the same sort of virtuous act as feeding the hungry, caring for animals, watering plants or donating to charity.” It may be surprising to learn that this insight, which one might expect to hear from a ninety-year-old great-great-grandmother, belongs to a man in his early twenties. Dehnel was only twenty-six when Lala was published in Poland, and only twenty-two when he had finished writing it, but he has never really been a man of his age, in any sense. In his life, his prose, and his exquisite poems, some of which were “pre-dated” by a century on first publication, Dehnel has carefully cultivated an anachronistic style, or set of styles, bringing the traditions of the past to bear on the present.
He is also a masterful translator of Anglophone poetry and, I suspect, a bit of an Anglophile. There is certainly something English about the genteel characters of Lala, a certain plucky, ironic resilience. Here is Granny herself, explaining the pure luck that enabled her to keep the house going under German occupation:
Aha. Well, we still had a bit of land, so we planted potatoes. The peasants wondered how on earth I did it, because one summer I planted them too late, and on top, so they shouldn’t have done well at any price (the peasants said they’d be the size of peas and dry as a bone); but all summer it bucketed down, so while everyone else’s potatoes rotted, mine grew beautifully. The next year I planted the other way around, on soggy ground and too early, so once again the peasants tapped at their foreheads, saying it would all rot. And guess what? It was a blazing hot summer, everyone else’s potatoes dried out, but mine grew into whoppers. “Those as ‘ave been to school ‘ave been to school,” one of them said.
Our narrator, more given to magniloquence, would surely ascribe this to “the goddess Fortuna,” who “flapped her gilded wings, whirled her spoked wheel, flew down from clouds of whipped cream and set a star of propitious fortune on my grandmother’s brow.”
Dehnel too has been graced by propitious fortune: in Antonia Lloyd-Jones he has found a translator uniquely attuned to the styles and moods of his prose. For all its Polish specificity, the novel reads as if it were born in English. As we reach the end, with Granny “going back to [her] infancy,” Dehnel’s narrative takes on greater poignancy. He chronicles her decline with delicate but unabashed realism, as well as great humor, and Lloyd-Jones captures these qualities perfectly:
“This spray of flowers has collapsed,” I say, “the silver and pink ones. The sticks supporting them have snapped. We’ll have to tie them up or they’ll fall over.”
“I need tying up too. I’ve collapsed too.”
“Oh, that’s a bit harder to fix.”
And yet the young author isn’t entirely helpless in the face of Lala’s collapse. What he has managed to collect and bind in the novel that bears her name will live on, like an eternal spray of forget-me-nots.
Boris Dralyuk is the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His recent translations include Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press) and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press). He is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press), and co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. His website is: https://bdralyuk.wordpress.com
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