Sunday 16 June 2013

'Stone upon Stone' by Wiesław Myśliwski (Review)

After all the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize business was completed, I was planning to read the winner of the Best Translated Book Award, to see how the two laureates compared.  Of course, that idea was shelved when the BTBA winner turned out to be Satantango, a book I'd already reviewed...  Instead, I turned back to 2012, to see how last year's American choice matched up to the IFFP winner, Blooms of Darkness.  Seconds out, it's round two in the IFFP-BTBA duel of champions ;)

Wiesław Myśliwski's Stone upon Stone (translated by Bill Johnston, published by Archipelago Books) is a hefty novel, but a surprisingly smooth read.  It consists of eight thematic chapters, all narrated by Szymek Pietruszka, an elderly farmer in the Polish provinces.  In effect, the book is a lengthy monologue, one in which Szymek tells stories about life, land and family - and he certainly knows how to tell a story...

From the initial tale of his struggles to find the time, money and materials to build a family tomb, Szymek takes us on a trip through time, recounting stories of his days in the Polish resistance during the Second World War.  While it's difficult to keep the narrator on a path free of digressions, the patient reader is eventually rewarded with more glimpses of what came between the end of the war and his current situation.  If Szymek appears to be a lonely old man stuck on a farm in the middle of nowhere, there are reasons for the way he has ended up.

Szymek is a man heading towards the end of his life, and his stories help us to see how society has progressed in his home country.  While modern comforts have made life a little easier, on the whole, Szymek thinks life has gone downhill since his youth.  The best example of this comes from the chapter 'The Road', where the newly-surfaced route through the village allows people to drive to neighbouring towns in comfort.  Unfortunately, the farmers now find it hard to get their horses and carriages across the road with the harvest (traffic lights were obviously a later invention...):
"There's no more peace to be had in our village.  Nothing but cars and cars and cars.  It's like they built the road for cars alone and forgot about the people.  But are there only cars living in the world?  Maybe a time'll come when there won't be any more people, only cars.  Then I hope the damn things'll kill each other.  I hope they have wars, worse than human wars.  I hope they hate each other and fight and curse each other.  Till one day maybe a Car God will appear, and it'll make him angry and he'll drown the lot of them."
pp.67/8 (Archipelago Books, 2010)

The narrator (and perhaps the writer) also feels uneasy about the loss of connection with the land.  In his father's day, the land was everything, coming before school, illness or hunger, and it was the farmer's duty to tend to it - man is short-lived, but the land goes on forever.  When the war starts, Szymek's father uses this as an excuse to try to stop his son leaving the farm:
"What do we have to fight about?  We plow and plant and mow, are we in anyone's way?  War won't change the world.  People'll just go off and kill each other, then afterwards it'll be the same as it was before.  And as usual it'll be us country folk that do most of the dying.  And nobody will even remember that we fought, or why.  Because when country folks die they don't leave monuments and books behind, only tears.  They rot in the land, and even the land doesn't remember them.  If the land was going to remember everyone it would have to stop giving birth to new life.  But the land's job is to give birth." (p.156)

However, now it is the land's duty to make man a profit, and the farmers follow whatever trend will make the most money in the shortest time, even if this has negative long-term consequences.  Fields are sown with unsuitable (but lucrative) crops, and liberal sprinklings of nitrates are used to increase yields.  Worst of all, the younger folk are abandoning their homes for the city, leaving the land to the mercy of the old and frail.

While the land plays an important role, the heart of the book is the enigmatic Szymek though, and it is his personal story which fascinates us.  Despite his measured, friendly tone, we gradually learn that he's not quite as nice as he may appear at first glance.  He's a drinker, a fighter, a user of women, a man we shouldn't really warm to.  He's a charismatic old bloke though, and he does have redeeming features (quite apart from his war hero status) and the more we learn, the more we understand about why he grew up that way, and why he is still alone...

Stone Upon Stone is an excellent read, and a fairly easy one at that.  I wolfed it down in four days (not bad for around 560 pages), and that is due in part to the fairly simple language used in the book.  In the excellent interview with Scott Esposito (available as a Two Voices podcast), Bill Johnston talks about how the key to translating the book into English was finding the right way to bring Szymek's voice across into the new language.  His solution was to avoid complex Latin-based words, sticking with simpler Germanic-based vocabulary.  Whether that's the reason for the success or not, the voice definitely works.

Whether you're interested in twentieth-century Poland or just a sucker for a good story, this is a book for you.  Szymek's rambling tales, with digression following digression until the chapter (and, eventually, the whole book) comes full circle, are entertaining and thought-provoking, whether they are stories of joyous drunken rampages or suspense-filled moments in the cold, Polish forests, waiting for the enemy to appear.  In the end, it's a book about life - but one, that begins, and ends, with the inescapable image of a tomb...

...that is, if he can get the cement.

In terms of BTBA v IFFP then, I'd have to say that the score is 2-0 to the American prize.  While the 2013 contest was a close one, with Satantango just edging out The Detour in a battle of very, very different styles (Krasznahorkai's never-ending sentences against Bakker's stripped-back prose), the 2012 bout was a no-contest.  I have made no secret of the fact that Aharon Appelfeld's Blooms of Darkness was one of my least favourite books on the 2012 IFFP shortlist, and Stone Upon Stone is simply a far better novel.

I quite like the idea of a transatlantic translation showdown - watch out for more BTBA-IFFP battles in the future ;)