Thursday, 13 February 2014

'A Treatise on Shelling Beans' by Wiesław Myśliwski (Review)

Wiesław Myśliwski took out the Best Translated Book Award back in 2012 with Stone upon Stone, and the Polish writer looks certain to be in the running this year too.  Once again, Archipelago Books have brought us a wonderful piece of translated fiction, one which will no doubt find its way onto many shelves (and e-readers) in the months to come.  The big question though is whether Myśliwski's new book has what it takes to pull off a repeat victory - let's have a look, shall we?

A Treatise on Shelling Beans (translated by Bill Johnston, e-copy courtesy of the publishers) is a conversation between an old man, the caretaker of a collection of holiday cabins by a lake, and a mysterious visitor, one who has come to ask for some beans.  What starts as a simple request turns into a long rambling monologue in which the old man expounds on life, music, memory - and beans, of course.  As he rattles on, painting names back on to faded nameplates, we begin to feel a sense of unease.  Why is he bringing up the past?  What is he really doing in this isolated part of the country?  Just who is this stranger anyway - and what has actually brought him to the old man's door?  The reader senses that it isn't really for a handful of beans...

A Treatise on Shelling Beans is one long, fluent, engaging monologue, albeit rambling and tangential at times.  The unnamed storyteller is the archetypal unreliable narrator, and as he continues spinning his yarns, the reader is focused not just on the content of his tales but also on how much we can trust him:
"I liked children, I still do, as I said.  But I didn't want any of my own.  Why not?  I'll leave it to you to figure out.  Me, I might not tell the truth."
p.248 (Archipelago Books, 2013)
Which is a bit of a problem - as his is the only voice we hear, we're pretty much at his mercy.

Of course, where there's a speaker, there's usually a listener, and the character known only as the visitor fills that role in this novel.  With the story told in the first person (by a man who barely pauses for breath), it would be fairly difficult to learn much about the interlocutor, but it's as if Myśliwski goes out of his way to keep the identity of the visitor a secret.  The reader is reduced to hunting for clues in the old man's stories, wondering if the request for beans, or his skill at a game involving a matchbox is a clue as to his identity...

However, for the most part, our attention is dragged back to the old man, as it's easier to piece together a picture of his life from the stories he weaves.  Going right back to his childhood, he uses the request for beans as a springboard into his youth, painting a picture of a family in the country sitting around each evening shelling happily away.  He then moves on to his later life, telling of his experiences at a boarding school, his training as an electrician and his time playing the saxophone in bands (both at home and abroad).  The stories always seem to be fragmentary, and it takes a while for the reader to cotton on to what is missing from the picture - the war.

It takes a while to get there but, as we suspect, there is a dark side to the novel, a tragic background which casts new light on the rest of the old man's stories:
"People often think, what could possibly have changed in a place where they've grown beans since forever.  But how did you manage to hold on to the conviction that there are timeless places like that?  That I can't understand.  Didn't you know that places like to mislead us?  Everything misleads us, it's true.  But places more than anything.  If it weren't for these nameplates I myself wouldn't know that this was the place."
p.9 (Archipelago Books, 2013)
Behind this seemingly innocuous statement lies the key to the novel - what happened in the village during the war...

Myśliwski also dwells on the idea of memory, and like his narrator, it's a concept that he doesn't regard as entirely reliable:
"I don't know if you agree, but in my view memory is like light that's streaming toward us from a long-dead star.  Or even just from a kerosene lamp.  Except it's not always able to reach us during our lifetime.  It depends how far it has to travel and how far away from it we are.  Because those two things aren't the same.  Actually, it may be that everything in general is memory.  The whole of this world of ours ever since it's existed.   Including the two of us here, these dogs.  Whose memory?  That I don't know." (p.32)
In the old man's eyes, the past is a creation, a tale made up of subjective memories - simply a collection of stories.  Of course, the thing with stories is that the way they unfold depends on who's telling them, and it's very possible that a different voice will have a very different view of events.

As with the previous English-language release, Bill Johnston has done a great job of capturing the unique tone of the old man, in a style which, while similar to that of Stone upon Stone, is also recognisably different.  Again, the language used is simple and uncomplicated on the whole, but with several stories within the main one, it's important that each of these also stands out - and they do.  These stories are expertly drawn out, and the tension is often palpable, even when the actual content is something as innocuous as watching a film about a man who wants to buy a hat.  Trust me - it's much more subtle than it sounds ;)

On finishing the book, my first thought was that it didn't quite grab me as much as Stone upon Stone.  The story meanders a lot, and I was constantly searching for the central thread, the elusive glue that holds it all together.  However, a week later, I'm still thinking about it (which is, of course, a good thing).  I suspect that this is a book which will benefit from rereading, one which only gives up its secrets slowly and unwillingly; the lack of an obvious plot may actually benefit the novel when it comes to be reread.  After all, what's important is not what we read, but how we remember it, a very different thing indeed:
"Besides, what is memory if not the pretense that you remember.  Though it's our only witness to having existed.  We depend on memory the way a forest depends on trees, a river on its banks.  More - if you ask me, we're created by memory.  Not just us, the whole world." (p.355)
Perhaps Myśliwski's chances of a BTBA repeat aren't that bad after all...