30 May 2007

Mialem Tylko Jedno Zycie, Stefan Kisielewski

Unfortunately, this book is very, very difficult to get ahold of, and it hasn't been translated into English. This is a real tragedy, one that almost inspires me to get into the translation business (because I apparently assume I could do it well...), because it's one of my new favorite books. Flawlessly constructed, hilarious, poignant - a real gem.

The ostensible premise of the text is that the author is chronicling his own alcoholism, and trying to figure out when it started. Not in some kind of depressing, melodramatic, When a Man Loves a Woman kind of way, and not in a philosophizing Bukowski kind of way, but rather, in a detached, analytical, musing vein. This is one of my favorite kinds of narrative voice - that somehow touching self-conscious innocence of a detached intellectual curiosity. And of course, there's plenty of irony in his "findings", but not of a spiteful sort. For instance, his claim that he despises vodka, that his body revolts against it, but he must drink it for his soul. It's amusing, and somehow charming and sweet, despite the fact that it's obviously tinged with irony.

This irony is particularly impressive because somehow, despite the fact that the story is in the first person, there are moments when we seem to have more information than the protagonist. This is a tricky feat, as anyone who has spent some time thinking about unreliable narrators knows. How, for instance, do we see through the drunken haze of the protagonist and glean what is actually happening? And yet, somehow, we do, or at least, I had a sense that I did. It's a really impressive trick.

There is, of course, another layer to this story, namely, its setting. The novel takes place in Occupied Warsaw, and thus provides an inside look at some very important history. And it's done so casually, merely pointing out certain details, and saying "Well, that's what it was like in those times". The narrator has almost no interest in this history. Just after the Uprising, for instance, he says,"I was all alone, and really I could live like this quite well. All I had to do was get out of crazed Warsaw, and, in peace and quiet, with a calm spirit, to drink something good and strong". But despite his lack of interest in what's going on around him, he describes it in fascinating ways.

And then, another layer - the love story. Well, the love and murder story. I don't want to say too much about this, because I don't want to give it away, despite the fact that very few people will ever have a chance to read it, but it's just so brilliantly done that I can't spoil it for anyone. All I'll say is, the beautiful formalism of it, the rigid adherence to structure, blew me away. In a world gone mad, one seeks order, and sometimes one is forced to make it, just for the sake of narrative elegance. God, I loved it.

Truly an incredible book.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

How did you come across a copy of the book? Do you speak Polish? It's a shame it's so hard to find, because i became really intrigued by the book by your review. I wish i could read it..