First-time novelist Dehnel uses his grandmother’s life and reminiscences as a springboard for a sweep through Poland’s turbulent 20th century, mingled with musings on the nature of storytelling.
Though she was born in 1919, Lala’s stories begin with the childhoods of her grandparents, Polish aristocrats who inhabited a “mythical land…beyond an impenetrable wall, in the bizarre world that we agree to call the past.” The author himself is a character here, appearing first as a 14-year-old who, toward the end of the 20th century, delights in writing down and relating to friends his Granny’s tales of the way of life ended by World War I. Both Lala and her mother have complicated love lives involving multiple marriages and children not necessarily the offspring of their husbands at the time, but Granny also branches off into chronicles of the peasant brigands and thieving servants who made the family’s home turf in Lisów “the greatest bandit village on earth.” Jacek is fascinated by it all, but readers may be more restless. It’s difficult to keep track of everyone wandering in and out of Granny’s fragmented recollections, particularly during the grim World War II years, when surprisingly decent Germans, roving partisans, and then triumphant Soviets come and go in droves. What gives the novel gathering force, as Granny’s memory fails and her body deteriorates, is Jacek’s keening meditation on the transience of earthly things. Observing the garden of his family home, so lush in his childhood, he grieves: “Because I knew that with…the hacking down of every tree, with the inevitable death of each peony or rosebush that the rampant weeds had choked, came the irrevocable erasure of a primeval codex, the obliteration of ancient formulae and epic poems.” His book—this book—is his tribute to that vanished world and the grandmother who brought it to life for him.
Best for extremely patient readers, who will be rewarded with some exceptionally beautiful passages in the final 100 pages, poignantly alive with loss and love.