THE ISSA VALLEY by Czeslaw Milosz
Kirkus Star

THE ISSA VALLEY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A novel (written in 1955) worthy of a Nobel Prize-winning poet. Thomas, the young protagonist, lives the tender years from age ten to fourteen at his grandparents' farm in the Issa Valley--the Polish/Lithuanian territory rich with old religious heresy, with ""devils,"" and with a loden, mossy, natural beauty. The accidents of evil and degeneration and pain, then, are what seem to occupy Thomas most fully. He hears of the suicide of a priest's housekeeper/lover--who returns to haunt her lover. He sees Domenic, a slow but unsurpassedly cruel boy who dares God's wrath with a black Mass--only to be let perfectly alone, unpunished, made an ultimate orphan. He knows of Balthazar, a forester and moonshiner who suffers terminal existential agonies. And Thomas himself, out in the forest to hunt (with wretched lack of success), taps his own death-potential, the irreversibility of life-taking, a deep evil that demands and deserves the pain we cover it with. Morally, the book is about manful suffering: ""We are given to live on the border of the human and the bestial, and it is good so."" Physically, it is a mulched landscape, with place more than person as its core. Comfortable at young Thomas' height with tree trunk and leaf-carpet, the descriptions of the land and light and forest have a fenny, almost encrustedly mushroomy specificity about them; and Milosz's poetry is densest here: ""At dusk, when the sky was suffused from below with a stark red, when the thin tree branches seemed to inflict an icy cold, black-cocks flocked to the birch by the brook."" Admittedly, as a narrative per se, this is a very imperfect novel: the bucket of each chapter leaks badly, necessitating constant re-starts, never building momentum. But--in the comfortable English-from-Polish of Louis Iribarne--the thick meditation of the natural cycle and the unshirking nakedness of the philosophy here are enormously impressive: a novel available for the first time in English, that will only enhance Milosz' growing reputation in the West.

Pub Date: June 16th, 1981
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux