Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski (trans Bill Johnston). Archipelago Books. 534pp. $20.00.
Bill Johnston’s deft translation of Myśliwski’s magnificent 1984 novel finally gives English-speaking readers access to one of Poland’s most talented and highly respected chroniclers of the twentieth century. Myśliwski, who has twice received his country’s most prestigious literary prize, the NIKE, is nowhere better than he is here: this is a glorious book, a life-affirming, world-affirming book, in which history is story, and the stories of its hero and narrator, Szymek Pietruszka, follow one upon another like stone upon stone, as in the folk song from which the title is taken. Stone upon stone, or the slow, patient work of the peasant upon the land. This slowness, and this patience, is the novel’s core.
Szymek describes the road that runs through his village, which in his youth was like a peaceful river. He and the other kids in town would meander up and down it, during the day, at night, taking their time especially after the village dances, sometimes taking all night to walk it. But when cars begin to travel the road, the whole village is transformed: villagers on one side cease to speak to the villagers on the other, because crossing the road now means taking your life into your hands—which is precisely how Szymek ends up in the hospital for the two years that immediately precede the novel’s narration, having been hit by a car after waiting to cross the road for hours without the traffic ever letting up. By all rights Szymek should have died in this accident, but Szymek is just not the kind of guy that dies. As he says, early on in the novel:
It goes without saying that death came after me a good few times, probably more than the next man. There were moments it followed right behind me and even lay down to rest beside me, because it thought it might take me in my sleep. Other times it already had its bony hands on me. But it never got the better of me. Sometimes, at those moments it would weep with rage. Weep away, you dark bastard. I’m going to keep on living awhile, because that’s what I feel like doing.
From here he meanders from story to story, each recollection flowing perfectly smoothly into the next. The reader travels along through the book as gently and as peaceably as the villagers traveled along the village road before the cars came, and one has the impression as one is reading that this kind of narration, too, is so scarce nowadays that one has happened upon the last remaining idyll of Western literature. Myśliwski never takes a false narrative step, because on this flowing narrative river of a road, there can be no such thing as a false step. All steps meet the earth, and the page, in the same way. “The whole world is one big language,” says Szymek in the very last speech he will give in this novel, “If you really listened carefully to it, you might even be able to hear what they were saying a century back, maybe even thousands of years ago. Because words don’t know death.” This personal history of rural Poland listens carefully, bears the imprint of thousands of years of joys and hardships, echoes with thousands of years of peasant footfall, and since, with Poland’s restructuring after the War, when peasants become mere anachronism: “You have to change your soul, friend, your soul,” says Szymek’s old boss at district administration, “These days you can’t live with a peasant soul anymore.”
Szymek has decided to build a tomb for himself and his family, his two brothers who have been swept up by the city and are scarcely ever seen at home again, and his brother Michał, who remained at home after the War, when, like Szymek, he fought against the Germans in the Polish underground resistance. Unlike Szymek, Michał lost his ties to the word in the War, and is unable to speak ever again; Szymek takes care of his Michał throughout their adult lives. The project of building the family tomb is the quest of the novel, and all of Szymek’s stories pass through its searching lens. In his conversation with his old boss, above, Szymek has come to request the cement he will need for his project. In recalling his lost brothers, Szymek is trying to find ways to attract them back to the land of their birth when they die. He writes a letter to his brothers in the city and considers its style: “And it shouldn’t be too long, because who’s going to read a long letter. I worked in the district administration and I know. You’d read the beginning and the end, but the whole middle was like it was written to God alone. Though the middle often contained the most pain.”
Stone Upon Stone is like a letter written to God. It is essentially all middle. It contains vast, incredible stores of pain, and it contains its own kind of happiness, too. It is full of real wisdom. And great stories.
Szymek’s accounts of how he escaped death time and time again in the resistance are particularly compelling, but then, so, too, are his stories about his mother, his stories about his father, his stories about the local girls, his stories about the land, about food, about holidays, about cutting hair, about the oberek, his dance of preference. In fact, every single story in this book is great, is life-affirming, is death-affirming insofar as death is also a part of life. And the sum total of these stories is a rare and truly magnificent novel.
Jennifer Croft is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University. She translates from the Polish, Russian, and Spanish.
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