Andrej Stasiuk, one of Poland’s foremost contemporary authors and founder of Wydawnictwo Czarne press, has led a life as complex and colorful as his writing. He was born in Warsaw in 1960 but left his hometown at age 26 to reside in the secluded city of Czarne, where he discovered the provincial beauty of rural Poland—a beauty that would serve as a characteristic landscape for his poetry and prose. Stasiuk was a dedicated participant in the Polish pacifist movement. His ardent opposition to compulsory military service led to his arrest as an army deserter; the year and a half he spent in prison inspired a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron (1992). It was this collection that brought Stasiuk to the fore of the Polish literary scene. Since the publication of The Walls of Hebron, Stasiuk has touched every genre, gaining popularity as a travel writer, poet, and novelist. His writing has a distinctive lyrical style, describing modern Poland through impressionistic portrayals of its small towns and the people who inhabit them. Stasiuk’s White Raven (1995; translated by Wiesiek Powaga, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) won the Kultura and Koscielski prizes and has since been made into a film. In his 1997 novel Dukla, presented in English by award-winning translator Bill Johnston, Stasiuk guides the reader through Poland’s landscape with the deft observational savvy of a seasoned traveler and a richness of imagery that exemplifies his poetic voice.
In Dukla, Stasiuk speaks to his reader through the voice of an unnamed narrator whose eccentric descriptions of the world around him echo the author’s avowed mission to illuminate Eastern Europe in print. But while his miniature epic certainly paints a picture of the land and offers insight into the changes that have taken place through the twentieth century to the modern day, the quirky narrator of Dukla insists that he is only interested in talking about light.
Stasiuk’s stylized anti-narrative offers a series of episodes in which the narrator travels to Dukla—a small town in the Carpathian Mountains in southeast Poland—and then returns to his hometown, the name and location of which the reader never learns. The narrator usually travels alone, and when he breaks his habitual solitude he offers the reader no formal introduction to his companions. These secondary characters—we never learn if they are the speaker’s friends, family members, or lovers—exist on the road to Dukla only as first names or lonely initials. The narrator pays more attention to revealing Dukla’s inhabitants, a population inseparable from the landscape. Like a trick of the light, the narrator’s voice transforms commonplace events into a series of visceral, charged experiences:
In the dark shelter that resembled a ruined arcade there was a family sitting and waiting for their bus. No one was talking. The children copied the stoical gravity of their parents. The only thing moving were the little girl’s legs, which swung rhythmically above the ground in their white stockings and shiny red shoes with golden buckles. In the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, in the stillness of the bus station, this motion brought to mind the helpless pendulum of a toy clock unable to cope with the burden of time. The girl had slipped her hands under her thighs and was sitting on them. The glistening red weights of her feet were rocking in an absolute vacuum. Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging. It was pure movement and ideal, purified space. Her mother was staring emptily ahead. A yellow frill bubbled under her dark blue top. The father was leaning forward, his arms resting on his spread knees, and he too was peering into the depths of the day, toward the meeting point of all human gazes that have encountered no resistance on their path. The woman straightened her hands where they lay in her lap and said, “Sit still.” The girl froze immediately. Now all of them were gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness, and it was all I could do to tear myself from that motionless slumber.
The narrator never speaks explicitly about how he feels about what he sees. He does not overtly acknowledge the melancholy he evokes or note the powerful influence of nostalgia on his interpretation of the world around him. These moments—distilled to their essence—seem to move him physically, prompting his journeys to and from Dukla. And yet the narrator insists that he returns to Dukla simply “to observe it in different kinds of light and different seasons.” In spite of these assertions, his affected reminisces provide clues that the speaker is looking not for something that is happening but rather for something that happened a long time ago.
The road to Dukla is paved with details. The reader is challenged to move quickly from episode to episode, coming to her own conclusions about these highly descriptive but emotionally unqualified images. The straightforward reporting is punctuated by subtle manipulations of language: Repetition, unusual images, and shifts in tone hint at the feelings of a narrator who stubbornly resists self-expression. Bill Johnston’s skills shine as he helps the reader stay afloat on the narrative’s stream-of-consciousness. Johnston develops the narrative voice by tweaking common language, retaining the lovely oddities of Stasiuk’s metaphors without straining the clarity of the prose. For example, the scene at the bus station makes a refrain of the word “empty,” but pushes the word’s descriptive ability by applying it to an action: “Her mother was staring emptily ahead.” The book’s language insists on passivity; the girl isn’t swinging her legs; her legs are just swinging. The sense of emptiness is furthered as the description continues with, “Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging,” here Johnston utilizes uses the passive voice and makes “nothing” the very subject of the sentence. And yet in the midst of all this nothingness The novel provokes the mind’s eye with striking images that Johnston beautifully captures: A “helpless pendulum” and a family “gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness.”
Dukla is a verbal representation not only of landscape and light but also of seasons and time. As the narrator travels, his mind wanders back and forth along the years in parallel journeys to the Dukla of the past and a Dukla that exists only in the realm of possibility. For example, as he sits on a crowded bus to Dukla the narrator envisions the train that “should” exist instead. He invokes specific objects and brand names that act as relics of Dukla’s past lives, adding his own idealism to conjure an image of a train so real that it begins to seem less a daydream than a possibility:
The cars would absolutely have to be dark green, faded, and old . . . Everything as it once used to be, like in a transparent dream where ribbons of time and memory are superimposed on one another like a consolation for a too-short life. Cigarettes with a mouthpiece instead of a filter, in hard cardboard boxes with a sphinx on the lid, or with no mouthpiece, but pressed flat, like the Hugarian Munkás brand. Pants had to be pressed and appropriately wide, while in the pocket of your jacket there should be a flat bottle with an inscription on its bottom reading: Baczewski Distillery of Vodkas and Spirits, Lwów. And a Panama hat. What else? Probably the line should end in Dukla. Right next to the place where there’s a bakery kiosk now; the rails come to a stop at a huge wooden buffer on iron girders. Beyond that there’s nothing.
The reader is transported from the “fact” of the narrator is sitting on a bus traversing an imaginary rendering of Dukla to the “real” Dukla in the present day. The passage closes with a single ambiguous statement all the more striking for its contrast to the delicate specificity that precedes it: “Beyond that there’s nothing.” Is Stasiuk telling us that there is nothing beyond the imaginary train station, or that there is nothing more to the narrator’s fantasy? Or that the bakery is at the city limits? The open-ended comment challenges the reader to engage with the text—given all that this town seems to represent for the narrator, what does it mean if there is nothing beyond Dukla?
Is Dukla, as the speaker insists again and again, a novel about light? Perhaps. A reader might be tempted to embrace light as a symbol, but if she approaches the novel with this intention she is in for a difficult task. Stasiuk forces the reader to see through the speaker’s eyes, moving from scene to scene—and year to year—as quickly as the light shifts over the market square in the heart of Dukla. The novel speaks to Stasiuk’s influences in Polish and international literature—an almost cynical realism that echoes Maciej Hłasko and a stream-of-consciousness denial of linear storytelling reminiscent of American beat poets. Dukla uses light and, just as importantly, the requisite darkness that is light’s inexorable consort, to create a character whose thoughts offer inclusive social commentary and a meditation on isolation, a fascination with change and a nostalgic mourning as the familiar is eradicated, and a outlook on his country that becomes a relentless seed of realism in the mind of a dreamer. According to the narrator—and perhaps Stasiuk himself—light is the only reality because it allows us to see.