Thursday, October 24, 2013

Polish Light and Polish Darkness

Dukla by Andrzej Stasiuk

Living in New Mexico, in the high desert, one becomes almost jaded by the daily spectacle of refracted light--mauve and magenta, fifty shades of blue ranging from the color of deep ocean to turquoise to an impossibly rich hue that creates the illusion that the brown prairie grasses and cacti have turned to gold.  Living for many years in the East, I'd not paid much heed to light--there was an approximation of daylight, and twilight, and then night--but the richness of light as the sun eases its way across the vastness of an empty sky--for in this place the universe is still geocentric--was something I'd not experienced, a visceral, jubilant vindication of the proposition that light holds mystical power, that it is the embodiment of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

And here's Andrzej Stasiuk, noted Polish writer, preoccupied with the effects of light ("I've always wanted to write a book about light"), born in 1960 in Warsaw, prolific and only now beginning to be translated into English (by Bill Johnston in the the case of the book under review).  I enjoy looking at author photographs and find Stasiuk to have an especially photogenic face.  But what drew me to the picture below is the endless, snowy, dirt track, a road to nowhere, or to the small town of Dukla--the Polish word means "mine shaft," of which there are more than a few in central Poland.  How can we think of Eastern Europe, now or in 1960, and not imagine roads like this one, perhaps clotted with tanks (of the Wehrmacht or the Red Army, rumbling East or West), and feel a kind of incipient terror, or a weariness at the predictability of history--the kind of experience reflected in Stasiuk's lined face and in his eyes, quite youthful by my standards, which appear to have seen it all.

Dukla is one of those unclassifiable books that eastern European writers seem especially adroit at producing--part travelogue, part memoir, part prose poem.  In it, Stasiuk investigates the effects of light on the landscape, on a small town and its residents, one of a thousand non-nondescript villages on the vast plain that is Poland and the Ukraine, the tragic plateau on which so much of European history has been contested.

In the town of Dukla, in the novella of that name that fills much of the book, in the short, poetic sketches of the town's rain and swallows and seasons, Stasiuk creates an impressionistic sense of quotidian life--the routine existence of an ordinary town of 2,000 souls which has, we know, stood at the crossroads of some of the twentieth century's great tragedies. Though politics are absent from the book, history is not, and one feels the weight of the past in the beautiful descriptions of ordinary things.

"This was how it was as I rode the train to Duka in April, the light continually summoning things into being and then annihilating them again with a cold, supernatural indifference.  The outskirts of Krosno were flat and industrial. Warehouses, sheds, lockups, general devastation.  There was something lying by the tracks. Maybe someone had been supposed to load it up and take it away, but now it wouldn't be worth the effort. Branch lines ran off amid low buildings. They were coated in rust...Sun-drenched walls, benches made of a handful of bricks and a plank, the glitter of green and brown broken glass, white bottle caps, colorful tongues of trash slithering down the embankments, and a girl of twelve in her mother's high heels pushed an enameled stroller that was fifteen years old."

Throughout the couple of days I spent reading Dukla, I thought of W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn, that unforgettable evocation of a dead landscape, of dying English towns whose ruins remind the author of the vaster ruins of the twentieth century. With Stasiuk the sense of surveying a landscape replete with meaning and linked to terrible events is similar, though he isn't quite like anyone I've read before. Stasiuk is a writer of poetic prose, a witness who possesses a sensibility that penetrates the landscape and illuminates it using the light that flows--from first sentence to last--throughout the book ("...the night slowly raises its dark backside...").  Sebald was the foremost of the saturnine romantics--akin to Blake rather than to Wordsworth--a dispossessed German whose rambles through the blasted landscapes of southeastern England were intent upon decay and loss, an observer pulled, inexorably, back to the greater ruins of war and genocide.  Stasiuk, a generation on, is more at ease in the small microcosm of Dukla, a Wordsworthian observer, but one who notes that the light of Poland illuminates scenes of devastation rather than of personal edification and recollection: 

"January was sunny and almost snowless. We were plodding along up to our ankles and Wasyl said, 'Look at them all in a huddle.' Before we reached them they flew off.  Crows, white-beaked rooks, ravens, chattering jays, and jays with their wings touched with pale blue. And some smaller kinds. In the place they took off from we found a deer. In place of its eyes it had red cavities in a smooth white frame of bone. Wasyl looked for the wound that had killed it, but the skin was torn in many places. Tufts of drab fur were scattered here and there. 'Maybe it dropped dead, maybe it was shot,' he said, and we walked back."

The last sentence of Dukla captured the mood of the book as a whole and made me think again of the great--what?--irony? cruelty? of having the sun shine on the wreckage of the world--a feeling I used to have as I walked on (rare) sunny days among the broken-down houses and factories of Philadelphia, a place I loved and lived in for many years, a kind of laboratory where one could observe how "free markets" and deliberate neglect would destroy, as surely as war, what was once vibrant and alive:  

"And if a weather front happens to be passing through, in the chasmic depths of the blueness long white clouds will show up. They look like bones, like a scattered and hazy vertebral column.  Because that's how things will be at the very end. Even the clouds will vanish and all that will remain will be an endless blue eye hovering over the ruins."

Yes, exactly.  The blue sky that hovers over our ruins. 

Andrzej Stasiuk operates, with his wife, a small publishing firm, writes, and breeds sheep in the small hamlet of Czarne, in the Beskids, in southern Poland.  His books are now becoming available in English and include Dukla, White Raven, Nine, and FadoDukla is available from the good people at Dalkey Archive.

George Ovitt (10/25/13)


  1. Thank you for this recommendation. I'm now reading Dukla for pleasure. Then I'll have to reread it so I can fully (or at least better) appreciate each extraordinary sentence.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, this is a remarkable book, one that I came upon quite by accident. This has been the most pleasurable part of writing about books--searching out writers whose work I might not otherwise have read.