Monday, July 29, 2013

Stone Upon Stone

I just finished reading "Stone Upon Stone" by Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated from Polish by Bill Johnston. This book was chosen by the University of Rochester as "the finest example of world literature in translation" for the year of 2012.

 I found out about this book a few months ago online by a great resource for those of us interested in Polish culture: The Cosmopolitan Review, "A Transatlantic Review of Things Polish, in English".

"Stone Upon Stone" is a raw, honest and human piece of fiction narrated by the protagonist, Szymek Pietruszka. The memories from his life are sometimes brutal, other times funny, lovingly tender and often painful. His recollections are sometimes poetic and poignant and other times long winded and rambling.

The book is set in communist era Poland in the mid to late 20th century. The story weaves back and forth as Szymek sets forth a stream of consciousness recalling memories from his childhood, young adulthood, time fighting in World War II, and adulthood as he looks back from the perspective of the winter of his life. His memories come to the surface as he prepares to build a tomb in which to be buried. So many rich stories and perspectives roll from page to page. I felt like I was a part of Szymek's mental wanderings and intimately witnessed his 20th century life, lived as a peasant in a small village, where he lived so much and saw so much change.

Szymek is the real deal. He's doesn't lead a pretty life. His stories certainly are not sugar coated. He suffered much and his neighbors suffered along side him. Yet you see a resilience and a strength of character through his humanity and humor.  At times I cringed while I read about his behavior and actions as he deals with strong emotions related to love: the love of a woman and the love for his invalid brother. Szymek lets the reader in to witness both his dark side and light side. My heart ripped open as I read his first hand account about fighting in World War II and what kind of atrocities he witnessed during that time. He's a man who grows up with all aspects of raw reality coming to him. It's one event after another: abuse, war, hunger, hard work and hard drinking, love gained and lost.  I wonder if his story mirrors the story of Poland? Poland greatly suffered during the time of Symek's life.

What I most enjoyed about "Stone Upon Stone" is how Szymek remembers the traditions of his family and of the rural peasants in the village in which he lives. He is down to earth, often blunt, as he recalls his memories of working the land, and the traditions and rituals around the holidays. Nothing about this story is veiled with nostalgic memories that shine as if looked through rose colored lenses. Szymek tells things as they were. He remembers hard work mowing the field at harvest...

"Plus harvesttime was getting close. And harvesttime was a curse. From dawn till night you worked like and animal. Your head's pounding from the mowing, your eyes are blinded by sweat. Instead of crossing the sky, the sun just keeps moving to a fro across your back, all the time from when it rises in the east till when it sets in the west. It's like its claws were sunk into your skin. Because it's not even the sun, the sun is what shines over the river and the meadow and the reeds, this thing is a huge bright bird that's got it in for you. The moment you feel like straightening up a bit, it jabs you in the back of the head with its beak. Like it was reminding you your life belongs down below, not up above, that your life is this eternal unmown field you keep moving across, swinging your scythe. And you don't even know if you'll ever finish mowing it. You'll only be done when death takes you."

Field near Korczyna, Poland

Farmer's fields near Zakopane, Poland
 I recommend reading this book if you are interested in Polish literature, history, life and culture. The story is told in the most personal of ways through a character who is not afraid to tell a story about the realities of his life and the experinces of his heart.

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