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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