The best book I read this year was Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone (Kamien na kamieniu, 1999; tr. from the Polish by Bill Johnston, 2010). I actually finished this book back in March, before it won The Best Translated Book Award, but that was a very busy time for me and then we moved across the country, and so on, so I never posted a review. In a few days I’ll be posting my list of the best books I reviewed this year. I simply didn’t feel the list would mean as much if it didn’t include my favorite book (did I just say “favorite book” rather than “favorite book of the year”? I may have, and it certainly is a worthy contender for the title).
I should start this review by saying it is completely inadequate. This fine book is a wealth of quiet wisdom that in its simple delivery reminded me of three other favorite books: Gilead (my review here), So Long, See You Tomorrow (my review here), and Stoner (my review here). Here, as in those three, we have wide-reaching reflection about a life. Here our narrator is Szymek Pietruszka, who, through a back-and-forth style, attempts to add up the pieces of his life as a farmer in rural Poland during the middle half of the twentieth century.
When Stone Upon Stone begins, much of Pietruszka’s life has past, and he is building a family tomb:
Having a tomb built. It’s easy enough to say. But if you’ve never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs. It’s almost as much as a house. Though they say a tomb is a house as well, just for the next life. Whether it’s for eternity or not, a person needs a corner to call their own.
I got compensation for my legs –a good few thousand. It all went. I had a silver watch on a chain, a keepsake from the resistance. That went. I sold a piece of land. The money went. I barely got the walls up and I didn’t have enough for the finish work.
This passage introduces a few of its plot strands nicely: something happened to his legs, somehow he was involved in the resistance, and he sold some land. Also, death, and its matter-of-fact approach. This passage also introduces Pietruszka’s colloquial, grumpy, and practical tone. It’s not that Pietruszka and his family aren’t ready for the metaphysical aspects of death; he just isn’t sure he can afford it — isn’t that the way?
Stone Upon Stone contains nine chapters, and often Pietruszka returns to talking about his tomb; this voice continues:
People keep asking me, when are you finally going to get that tomb finished? You might at least roof it with tar paper, keep the water out. Well I would have finished it, I’d have finished it long ago, if that was all I had to worry about. But as if I didn’t have enough on my plate already, here one of my pigs went and died.
Building this tomb, stone by stone, is mirrored in how Pietruszka builds his life for us. Each chapter flits back and forth in time, people who have died are alive again as he remembers a certain Christmas or, worse, a time when an argument broke out and the family distanced itself for a while.
Throughout it all is a seemingly simple lifestyle. A poor young man harvests the field alongside the old man who has been doing it all of his life. One of the biggest worries (on the surface) is crossing the busy road that divides the town (this is also one of the funniest, tragic moments in the book). Several communal rituals are shown, such as this dance Pietruszka remembers:
They’d forget their fathers, their mothers, their conscience. Even the Lord God’s ten commandments. Because at those dances heaven and hell mixed together. Chest squeezed against chest, belly against belly. They’d giggle and faint their way into such a paradise , you could feel it flowing out of them even through their dresses. And the band would be filled with the devil, he’d have them waving their bows like scythes cutting off nobles’ heads. He’d put a storm wind in the clarinets. He’d set the accordion spinning. And hurl rocks at the drums. And if on top of everything else it was a hot close night outside, there was nothing for it but to let some blood.
It’s very earthy and, I think the passage shows, excellently rendered into English by the great Bill Johnston, who, in a presentation for the Center for the Art of Translation describes the various methods he used to portray a colloquial, rural style without using dialect (cut out the words with roots in Romance languages, no semicolons, overcome urge to fix run-on sentences, etc).
As we learn about his life, we get to know those around him who, living or dead, provoke his emotions, be they peevish or filled with sentiment, or, often, both. For example, early in the book, his two older brothers come to visit. After an argument (“They came. But they’d barely crossed the threshold and said their hellos when they started in on me.”), they leave relatively soon, and Pietruszka stands stunned:
Because when brothers only get together once in such a long time they ought to have something to talk about. Talk all day and all night. Even if they don’t feel like talking, because what are words for? Words lead he way of their own accord. Words bring everything out onto the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they draft it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away. And not just with outsiders, with your brothers also words can help you find each other, feel like brothers again. However far away they’ve gone, words will bring them back to the one life they came from, like from a spring. Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words? Either way there’s a great silence waiting for us in the end, and we’ll have our fill of silence. Maybe we’ll find ourselves scratching at the walls for the sake of the least little word. And every word we didn’t say to each other in this world we’ll regret like a sin. Except it’ll be too late. And how many of those unsaid words stay in each person and die with him, and rot with him, and they aren’t any use to him either in his suffering, or in his memory? So why do we make each other be silent, on top of everything else?
I love that passage: what it says about brothers, words, the passage of time, waste, hope. And I like the final coda: “on top of everything else.”
There’s a beauty and humor in all of the pain and love this novel explores. It’s remarkable, and I can only hope that it eventually finds its rightful place in the hearts of many readers.