11 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago

Why This Book Should Win: I taught this in my class last year, and all of the students loved it. Do you even understand how rare that is? That’s some serious power.

This piece is written by Amy Henry, who runs the website The Black Sheep Dances.

Words bring everything out onto the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away . . . Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words?

Szymek Pietruszka talks endlessly, conducting an inner monologue that never takes a break. An all-around badass who is beloved by all, he’s played many roles: resistance fighter, fireman, policeman, civil servant, and farmer, all while remaining an insatiable ladies man with a penchant for vodka, dancing, and fighting (usually in that order). He has stories to tell—some deadly serious and some not—but all told in a restrained voice that doesn’t ask for pity.

As Stone Upon Stone begins, he’s working on a tomb, obsessing about the details of construction but not explaining who it is for. The tomb and its obvious ties to earth and death form a theme that is lighter than one would imagine. As he studies the other memorials in the cemetery, he makes note of their flaws, as some are too showy, too cheap, or in once case, too tall:

When you stand underneath it it’s like standing at a gallows, and you have to tip your head way back like you were looking at a hung man. What does it have to be so high for? You can’t look at death high up like that for long. Your neck goes stiff. Looking up is something you can only do to check the weather . . . Death draws you downward. With your head craned up it’s hard to cry even.

Myśliwski writes in a style reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, wherein earth and family and history are intermingled; yet as a protagonist, Szymek is witty and naughty and far chattier than Hamsun’s Isak. One scene shows Szymek as a policeman, searching the countryside after the war for contraband weapons:

“We’ve had enough gunfire to last us a lifetime . . . Our Lady up there in that picture, they can be our witness—we don’t have any guns.”

But you only needed to reach behind the Our Lady or the Lord Jesus and pull out a pistol. You’d look in the stove, and inside there’d be a rifle. Have them open the chest, and there under a pile of headscarves, rounds and grenades.

[. . .] Not many people got fined, because what were you going to fine them for. It was the war that brought folks all those guns, the war was the one that should have been punished.

As he relates the story, he tells what the guns (pulled from dead soldiers) end up doing in the villages, as from that point, it appears no dispute is too small not to be handled with gunfire. Szymek’s wickedly wry, and the humor takes an edge off what is deeply painful. Similarly, he describes the pride of his hard-won officer’s boots that the villagers admire. Yet without self-pity, he describes loaning those to his younger brother to wear to school, because his search among the dead bodies around the countryside failed to turn up another pair. He notes that no matter how isolated the corpse, the paths to it were wide from the human scavengers. Horrific, but told matter-of-fact.

Foreshadowing is never used; instead, a sort of reverse takes place. When he suffers a deeply personal loss, he looks backward, making a connection with his family’s traditional sacrifice of bread to the land to ensure future crops. As a child, he mocked it, thinking that the bread should be eaten instead. Of course, he did sneak some of it to eat. Now, given his adult experience, that bread becomes all the more symbolic.

Aside from what he’s thinking, he relays conversations from everyone from his father (who compulsively overreacts to everything) to the village’s Sure Thing, a batty woman who undresses and seduces while complaining about inventory shortfalls (she’s kind of adorable). One memorable conversation is with his hated childhood priest, one who named him in sermons “when he needed a bad example that wasn’t from the Bible.” Now nearing death, the priest wants to talk about forgiveness:

“Of course, it’s said that whoever you absolve, their sins will be absolved, whoever you deny, they’ll be denied. But can I really be certain who deserves forgiveness and who doesn’t? What I’d most like to do is to absolve everyone, because I feel sorry for everyone. But do I have the right to use God’s mercy as my own mercy, even when I feel great pity towards someone? Does God feel that pity? It’s true his mercy is without limit. But I have no idea how what I’m allowed to do relates to that boundlessness?”

Without affectation, Mysliwski ties in the religious faith of the people, the irrationality of war, the endless needs of the land, and the stubborn, often foolish, nature of the villagers that keep charging ahead when the past might suggest they delay a bit. Many of the most important details are not laid out in a narrative form, but hinted at in a sidelong view, with some points being mentioned only in a passing conversation, leaving the reader to put together exactly what has happened with his parents and three brothers and their farm.

They say that when a person’s born, the earth is their cradle. And all death does is lay you back down in it. And it rocks you and rocks you till you’re unborn, unconceived, once again.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, and available from Archipelago Books.

Kaija Straumanis is a grad student in the MA translation program (MALTS for short) here at the University of Rochester. She’s currently in Latvia, “partying like an Eastern European” (?!) and trying to find the perfect work of Latvian Literature for Open Letter.

I assigned Stone Upon Stone for the “World Literature & Translation” class I taught last spring. It’s 534 pages long. I initially thought there was going to be a silent coup, with everyone griping about all the stuff they have to do for other classes . . . But no! Everyone loved the novel. (Or almost everyone—I’m remembering this with an optimist’s viewpoint.) And with good reason. This is my early favorite for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award due to Szymek’s incredible voice, and Bill Johnson’s amazing translation. This is a stunning book—one that is very easy to get sucked into . . . Those 534 pages fly by as if it were a novella! (Well, OK maybe not fly, but still.)

Here’s the opening of Kaija’s review:

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

Click here to read the entire review.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

This is something that can be credited to translator Bill Johnston, who through interviews and discussions on the translation of Stone Upon Stone communicates the utmost care and consideration that went into his translation of the novel. This is not a text you could chuck into something like Google Translate and get back even a modicum of the introspection and linguistic qualities necessary to make Szymek Pietruszka “happen.” Stone Upon Stone is a work that would demand the complete understanding of its narrator—possibly even demanding becoming one with the narrator—and judging by the final product, Johnston has done this mammoth read due justice.

And although the book appears massive, it reads surprisingly quickly. The borderline stream-of-consciousness narrative style runs a full circle course through Szymek’s life, and the narrative voice is simple, conversational, and easy to follow. It’s like pulling up a stool at the bar in your hometown next to that oddly endearing (and rather inebriated) story-teller who everyone knows and who oozes faux modesty and a lingering scent of cabbage pierogis.

It was the same when I was older and I’d go caroling with the other boys, no one would agree to be King Herod, because death cut Herod’s head off and no one liked to be killed. So I was always Herod, because I preferred being king to being afraid of death. We had a real scythe, one that was used for mowing, not a fake one with a wooden blade. When death cut your head off with a real scythe you felt death was real, too, and not Antek Mączka dressed up as death in a white sheet. Especially because each time I was killed the blade of the scythe had to touch my neck, not just knock my crown off . . . There was just that one time Antek Mączka brought the scythe down and nicked my till I bled, so I took his scythe away from him and kicked his ass and he didn’t play death anymore.

Even though the entire novel may at first seem like nothing more than one tangent after another, there is a method to the rambling madness. Each chapter heading is closely connected to everything that falls under it. For example, the chapter “Brothers” looks not only at Szymek’s relationship with his own brothers, but also looks at his dealings with a pack of vengeful brothers from next door, and even at the greater “brotherhood of man.”

It is precisely the things that determine Szymek’s douchery—and the similar or complete opposite actions and reactions of those around him—that make Szymek more realistic, easier to relate to, and ultimately more human and even likeable. Instead of seeing him for the demigod he makes himself out to be, we get to know Szymek as a man who has lived through the struggles of pre- and post-ward Poland, dealt with the hardships of rural Polish life, family struggles, personal gains and losses. The more Szymek talks himself up, the more he undoes his facade. And the more the mask is undone the more it becomes clear that this is less the story of one man and more the reflection of human kind. Of course it helps that any hint of overbearing life lessons or preaching is ushered out by Szymek’s outlook on the world, which is an odd combination of life-loving cynicism and matter-of-fact morbidity. Pair this with flawless delivery and you get a novel that, although at times contains less palpable content and themes of death and suffering, warrants many outbursts of laughter at Szymek’s anecdotes. Sure, he may be a self-absorbed, quasi-alcoholic jag who represents human suffering, triumph and mankind as a whole, but he’s your self-absorbed alchy jag, dammit, and you just can’t help but love him for it.

....
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