Thursday, 7 June 2012

If You Could See The Light

I have been married for just over seven years now to a lovely, long-suffering woman who originally comes from Poland - which makes the fact that that I have somehow neglected to read even one Polish book over the three-and-a-half years of my blog even more of a travesty than it already is.  Luckily, that barren streak has come to an end thanks to receiving an e-copy of Andrzej Stasiuk's Dukla (translated by Bill Johnston) from Dalkey Archive Press - and a very fine book it is too :)

To call Dukla a novel though would be something of a stretch.  It consists of a sort of prologue, the three-part novella which gives the collection its name (one which makes up the bulk of the work) and a smattering of brief vignettes to complete the book.  With such a diverse offering of styles and genres, it's unsurprising that the reader can be a little unsettled by Dukla, but this is far from being its only unorthodox feature.

If you're looking for a plot, or a unifying storyline, I can save you the time - there isn't one.  But don't just take my word for it; Stasiuk himself admits as much right at the start:
 "There won't be any plot, there won't be any story..." p.4
A couple of pages later, he reinforces his promise, saying:
"There'll be no plot, with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end.  A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of the day.  Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light." p.6-7
It really doesn't get any less ambiguous than that...

Of course, there is some sort of cohesion to the text, and it is Dukla, a small town in the south of Poland, which supplies it.  In the first section, the narrator, a very thinly-disguised version of the writer, is on one of his regular pilgrimages to the small country town, a place which continually draws him back in a quest for something elusive and unidentifiable.  As we move into the main section of Dukla, we are given hints of what brings him back year after year, echoes of the past, images of searing summers and frosty winters...

...and, as hinted at in the quotation above, these images are what Stasiuk is interested in.  Rather than concerning himself with the lives of people living in the countryside, the writer is fascinated only by what he sees, what he really sees, the visions created by the interplay of light with objects.  He says:
"For a long time now it's seemed to me that the only thing worth describing is light, its variations and its eternal nature.  Actions interest me to a much lesser degree." p.22
Dukla certainly lives up to that intention.  Stasiuk describes the effects of light and shadow superbly, making you feel the warmth under the shade of the trees and the chill of the snow in the fields.  By recounting merely what is observed, ignoring what the mind thinks lies beneath the surface, objects are rendered unreal, created only by our perception.  And if what we see can be altered simply by different levels of light, Stasiuk seems to be implying that believing what we see may not be quite as straight-forward as many of us think:
"White, silver and black entered into subtle combinations with one another, thus placing reality under a question mark.  And if not reality, then at least the purpose and meaning of perception." p.171

The people of Dukla, as you can deduce from what the writer says about his interest in writing the novel, are merely background noises, or rather images.  They contribute nothing more to the story than the buildings radiating heat in the afternoon, or the cows aimlessly wandering across the dazzling green fields.  People slip in and out of scenes, or merely sit quietly in dusty, airless cafés - they are objects, not beings:
"People leaked from their houses drop by drop, rolled from entranceways like ponderous balls..." p.43
"People were lying on the shore as if the waves had thrown them there." p.44
This gives the book a rather unusual, otherworldly feel, creating a sense of distance between the reader and the setting - all the better for us to analyse the effect of the light, I suppose...

As much as it is a work about light though, Dukla is also one which deals with the concept of memory.  I'm probably not the first reviewer to use the word 'Proustian' in connection with Stasiuk's writing, but it is a description which comes easily to mind when meandering through the narrator's languid, unhurried descriptions of his earlier visits.  Smells and shadows evoke memories of the past, and he seems caught in those moments, always hoping to squeeze something more from the mental images he pores over.  Perhaps this obsession with the town is an attempt to process events from his youth, a way of reconnecting with his younger self...  In any case, it makes for beautiful writing :)

It is extremely difficult to sum up Dukla; the book (rather like this review) appears to be without coherence at times, a meandering stream of reminiscence which relies on a good-natured reader with time on their hands.  Despite the lack of any real story though, it is a wonderful book, one I'm very glad to have read.  There's something very Japanese about the foregrounding of language over plot, and one book it reminds me of a lot is Natsume Soseki's Kusamakura, another poetic story of a lazy summer in search of lost times.  Those who know me will realise that this is a very good thing...

I'll leave the last word to the writer though.  If you were wondering about the choice of the title, Dukla, as well as being the name of a town in the Polish countryside, is actually a real word:
"In the dictionary it says "dukla" means "a small mineshaft dug for exploratory purposes, in search of deposits, for ventilation, or as a primitive means of extracting ore."  That's right.  My method is primitive.  It's like drilling at random." p.60
I would strongly advise you all to read Dukla and judge Stasiuk's method for yourselves...