11 March 12 | Chad W. Post

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.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >

Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

Read More >

Little Grey Lies
Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

Read More >

Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

Read More >

A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

Read More >

Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >

The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >

Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >