Wieslaw Mysliwski was born in Poland in 1932, and over the course of a nearly fifty-year career he’s told the stories of that turbulent place and time. Or, so I’ve heard. In English, we have only a fraction of the work of this Polish master. In 1991, Ursula Phillips translated his 1970 novel The Palace. Then for two decades nothing else was translated into English until Bill Johnston translated Stone Upon Stone, which Archipelago published in 2011, and which won both the Best Translated Book Award and the PEN Translation Prize. Stone Upon Stone was not only my book of the year in 2012, it also is a worthy contender for my favorite book of all time. Quiet, compassionate, bitter, mournful — it’s a masterpiece.
We are very fortunate that Bill Johnston and Archipelago have taken on another Wieslaw Mysliwski title: A Treatise on Shelling Beans (Trakat o luskaniu fasoli, 2006; tr. from the Polish by Bill Johnston, 2013). I don’t want to spoil the surprise for when I do this year’s top ten reads list, but A Treatise on Shelling Beans is the best book I read in 2013. It’s another large book, and I’ve already read it twice.
I took to this book immediately, in part, I imagine, because it has the texture that I came to love in Stone Upon Stone. Here we again have a male narrator who has lived through the horrors of the twentieth century and who is telling us his story in a meandering, roundabout manner, sometimes dropping lines only to pick them up pages later. But this novel diverges from Stone Upon Stone. Here, from the beginning, we are engaged in several tantalizing mysteries, not the least of which is who is telling the story and who is listening.
The book is told in the second person. The “you” is some unknown person who is visiting a Polish vacation village of cabins in the off-season (and the off-seasons are perhaps getting longer). The narrator, an old man, is the caretaker. He’s shelling beans when the listener comes up to him:
Out of curiosity, how did you find the place? I’m not that easy to find. Especially now, in the off-season. There isn’t even anyone around to ask. You saw for yourself, there’s not a living soul in the cabins. They’re all long gone. Not many people even know I live here. And here you come asking about beans.
Aside from a few dogs, the speaker lives alone. Some of the cabin owners pay him to watch their homes, but even they rarely come along. Slowly we learn that the listener somehow knows one of the cabin owners, a Mr. Roberts, and is staying in his building. The speaker has some kind of past with Mr. Roberts, but it will be a while before we see just what that past is.
Little by little, when we might expect the mysteries to start resolving, more mysteries subtly come to the surface. This resort town is set up around a man-made lake, but during the war there was a village there, and a river used to divide the village. It’s soon clear that the old man grew up in that village. He tells of the old days when the whole community would come together to shell beans, swapping stories late into the night. It’s a lovely tradition, and that’s how the book is set up.
Though some of the mystery of the speaker starts to come clear — he is the one talking, after all — we remain in the dark about the listener. He seems to have some relationship with the village too, but just when we think the answer is coming, we get misdirected again. Perhaps it’s due to the place:
People often think, what could possibly have changed in a place where they’ve grown beans since forever. But how did you manage to hold on to the conviction that there are timeless places like that? That I can’t understand. Didn’t you know that places like to mislead us? Everything misleads us, it’s true? But places more than anything. If it weren’t for these nameplates I myself wouldn’t know that this was the place.
The theme of change, of the present covering the past, is consistently brought up. Everything is transitory. The nameplates the speaker mentioned in that last pulled quote are the painted nameplates on a series of graves hidden away from the cabins. He repaints them constantly. By the time he’s finished with all of them, the first one he painted needs to be repainted. He says, “If I didn’t do it, by now you wouldn’t know whose nameplate was whose.” And then, in response to something the listener says, something we are never privy to but figure out through context, he says, “You’re right. It’s not in anyone’s interest that something should be permanent. Especially paint. Things are always being painted over with something else.”
And yet, there is something permanent — at least it seems. There was a deep place in the river where people went to drown themselves, mostly the young who had some romantic notions. The names of these people are essentially lost, yet they haunt this book. We, the readers, feel them, nameless as they are.
The past has a tendency to resurface in dreams, and dreams are vital to this narrative. For one thing, the narrator had a grandfather who was in four wars who, for some reason, could not dream:
He never could forgive himself for not having dreams. When he fell asleep it was like he’d died. Then when he woke up it was like he was rising from the dead. But between the falling asleep and the rising from the dead there was a big gap. If he’d ever felt like counting up all those gaps, it would come out that a third of his life wasn’t in the world.
But the narrator does dream. He always has, but he’s not sure what they mean, or if they’re his.
And to tell you the whole truth, sometimes I’m not even certain it’s my own dream. No, you didn’t mishear. I’m not sure if it’s my dream or, or if someone else is dreaming me. Who? I don’t know. If I did . . .
I remember my grandmother used to say that you don’t always dream your own dreams. For instance you can dream the dreams of the dead, that they didn’t manage to dream in their lifetime. Or the dreams of people who haven’t yet come into the world. Not to mention that according to my grandmother dreams can sometimes pass from person to person, house to house, village to village, town to town and so on. Sometimes they can even get lost.
This is a fantastic book about the past, and about the way it can, in some cases, fully occupy the present. So we tell stories to anyone who will listen, not always to resolve some mystery or even to get a point across but often because it seems like it’s the only thing we can do.