Epic novel of rural Poland from two-time Nike Prize winner Mysliwski (The Palace, 1991, etc.).
A nonstop river of narration limns the long, eventful life of Szymek Pietruszka. In his wild youth before World War II, all Szymek wanted to do was drink, dance, fight and sleep with all the girls. After the Nazis invaded Poland, he joined the Resistance; following the war he nonchalantly held down various jobs in town: police officer, haircutter, civil servant. Yet in the end he returned to the small family farm, immersing himself in the rhythms of planting and harvest that ordered his father’s life. Two of his brothers had moved to the city; a third, Michal, was swept up in the communist revolution, but came home a shattered man who never speaks and must be cared for by Szymek. Not so easy, since Szymek’s legs were badly damaged when he was struck by a car while taking his horse-drawn wagon loaded with sheaves across the new paved road that divides his village. The world is moving on, warns the party functionary who refuses to approve his request for cement to build a tomb (that’s not on the list of approved uses): “You can’t live with a peasant soul any more.” But the flow of salty, earthy talk from Szymek, his family and fellow villagers suggests that peasant ways will survive even the invasion of tourists looking to sample “traditional” culture without actually experiencing the boredom of tilling a field or milking a cow. Cognizant of the brutal realities that govern people tied to the land in a close-knit, quarrelsome community, Mysliwski reminds us of the pleasures inherent in such illusion-free existences. “You have to live,” says the storekeeper who cheerfully beds down with Szymek (or any other man who strikes her fancy). “What else is there that’s better?”
Joyously anchored in the physical world, steeped in storytelling, a delight from start to finish.